A Process for Efficient Process Improvement

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Process, process, process. Repeat after me, “It all starts with process.” That is my mantra for efficient systems. My team is sick of me asking them if the process needs improving before we add new technology on top of it. Here is my methodology for process improvement:

Step 1: Identify an inefficient process. Whether I am looking at an internal process or client process, it is easy to identify inefficiencies. Ask yourself, your team, or your client what their pain points are. When you find a pain point that has redundant approvals, relies on email, or has too many manual steps – you may have found a good candidate for improvement. It is easy to get people to complain, and people frequently complain about inefficient process!

We recently did this with a payroll process for a client with 80 employees. For anonymity, let’s call them Star Labs. My team member (Caitlin) that was running the payroll, was saying she had to comb through an inbox to find every payroll change. This included changes to salary rates, updates to approved (and locked) hours from prior periods, benefits changes, and other vital information. She felt it was taking her over an hour every payroll run to ensure nothing was missed.

Step 2: Document the process. Write a narrative of the process, including the time it takes for each step, and then flowchart it. I use LucidChart and Microsoft Vizio for process maps. It is amazing how much easier it is to identify redundancies in a process when you have it visually.

For our Star Labs payroll process, we were able to document the process and visually see the manual steps of checking and verifying the email inbox for two people to ensure that the changes were received. Caitlin was the primary preparer, but we also had our reviewer, Cisco double check the inbox before approving payroll.

Step 3: Identify areas of improvement. Once you can see the process mapped out, it’s easier to identify areas of improvement.

With our process map for Star Labs, we could see where there were manual steps, as well as how long each step was taking. When we were documenting the process, we timed it in real-time as Caitlin, Cisco, and the department managers were working on it. We included the steps that occur on each payroll. We did not include the one-off emails that the managers were sending with changes to payroll, as these are inconsistent. You can see from the chart that the emails that Caitlin was complaining about were a real bottleneck to the process (and taking even longer than she realized).

We decided to create a shared drive on OneDrive with Star Labs to handle the payroll updates and process. We have a payroll spreadsheet that includes all of the updates. Each department manager has access to add in their one-off changes and ensure they are captured. Caitlin has a centralized place to go when she is preparing payroll. Cisco has a centralized place to go when he is reviewing payroll. Additionally, we eliminated the email approvals, and have an approval spreadsheet tab. The team can now upload the previews for ease of access and time.

Step 4: Document the updated process. Once you decide which piece of the process needs to be fixed, fix it. Find a solution that works for all of the people involved. Try and eliminate all manual steps before you consider any additional technology.

Our updated process reduced the time is takes to process payroll by 100 minutes. That was a gigantic time savings on our team and was not a difficult process to implement with Star Labs.

Step 5: Communicate the changes. After you document the new process, you need to tell everyone involved how the new flow of the process will go. It is important to involve them in the solution portion to ensure you address any pieces you might not know about up front.

With Star Labs, we originally wanted to eliminate the double approvals of the department managers. It seems redundant. However, we learned that the department managers cannot visualize what the end payroll will look like from their time and change approvals. As such, they want to see final version before the cash leaves the bank and their team members get paid.

Step 6: Train the key people on the new process.

We created the new spreadsheet in the most logical way possible – labeling everything for ease of finding it. We also worked with the IT team to ensure that every key person had access to it. And then we recorded a video of how to access it, what to expect, how to put changes in, and how to approve. We included the new process map, so the department managers understand the flow of information. Whatever process you tackle improving this slow season, you can use this process-process to improve it.

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Liz Mason
Liz Mason is a serial entrepreneur, a giant nerd, and an involved accounting vanguard. She is the Founder of High Rock Accounting, Rebel Rock Accounting, TheDepartment.Tax, and a few other related brands. Liz speaks on a national stage, guests stars on podcasts, publishes a YouTube show (The Hot Accounts), and writes frequently. To further her passion for the advancement of the accounting profession, Liz currently serves as a Xero National Ambassador and as the Content Strategist for Tax Practice News. Liz started her career in tax at Grant Thornton (at 20) and automated a portion of her job landing her in the national tax practice. She spent a decade in large public accounting firms working on highly technical tax consulting before branching off on her own. Liz utilizes her creativity and passion at her company to uproot traditional practices and replace them with innovative concepts. She finds joy in efficient technology and her core belief is that everyone and everything can continuously improve (she says "be better" too often). When Liz isn't planning world domination in accounting, she is a die-hard skier, down for any adventure, plays the ukulele, reads everything, and has a good sense of humor. If you're looking for her, you can find her traveling the world and enjoying new food and cultures with her husband and young son. Follow Liz and High Rock Accounting on Twitter at @LizzyNorMa and @HighRockCPAs.