As a product manager, I’ve spoken with countless firms and firm staff. I’ve found that firms that are willing to take a truly honest internal look at their workflow processes are the most successful firms. These firms start with the goal of improving the processes, and then they follow-up by changing their processes for improvement. The best part is, you can apply this to either your existing document management solution, or if you’re in the market for a new solution, you can apply this process when evaluating and implementing the new solution.
Steps to evaluate your paperless workflow
There are 6 steps firms can take to improve workflow processes.
- Document your current workflow processes, being sure to note any pain points or inefficiencies. On the flip side, also be sure you document any highly efficient processes you want to be sure your firm doesn’t lose.
- Map as many pain points and inefficiencies to software features that can resolve them as possible.
- Document your improved workflow processes, noting where software resolves or improves inefficiencies or pain points.
- “Paper test” the new workflow process with users to identify gaps and/or validate assumptions and solutions.
- Update the workflow process documentation.
- Roll out new paperless workflow process to staff.
Take the first step
The first step in evaluating your paperless workflow processes is to review and document your current workflow processes. Before you can improve your processes, it’s important to clearly understand your existing processes. I recommend you put together a champions team with staff from various roles and across offices, if applicable. Be sure you have representation from both executives and middle management, IT, admins and clerical staff, staff accountants, auditors, and even an intern or new hire wouldn’t hurt. This will ensure that each process is considered from each of these various points of view, ultimately providing for the best possible outcomes in most cases.
A few specific processes I would be sure to capture include:
- Adding files, searching for and retrieving or accessing files in the document management system
- Managing file retention, expiration and destruction policies
- Deleting files from the document management system, including any processes for restoring deleted files or permanently deleting files from a recycle bin, if available in your system
- But I’d really focus my attention on the 1040 Tax Preparation process itself. A properly configured document management system can play a role in each step of the 1040 Workflow.
Standardize, Automate & Integrate
When reviewing your existing processes, be sure to look for ways to standardize your processes. Think about your current process versus your ideal state. How standardized is your approach now? Could it be more standardized? Would my firm be more efficient if it was more standardized? Finally, what are the steps to become more standardized?
Next, think about automation. In your current workflows, what tasks, jobs or steps are currently automated (or could be automated) versus those that are completely manual? Is there an opportunity for automating any of the current manual steps or tasks, and would becoming more automated really be better?
Finally, I’d like you to think about integration. Several studies have shown that firms who use integrated solutions like CCH Axcess are considerably more efficient than those who use point-to-point integrations or disparate applications. Also, integrated solutions tend to be less risky because there are fewer opportunities for human error.
Mapping pain points
Once you’ve documented your current workflow processes, and you’ve noted all of the pain points you’d like to solve, the next step is to map those pain points to features in your software. The software products you use are designed to solve problems and pain points, so it’s important to work with your software vendor(s) if you cannot determine how to solve certain pain points on your own. Perhaps there are newly released features you may not have heard about. Or perhaps it’s been a long time since you were trained and you simply forgot. The goal in this step is to find solutions for as many of the identified pain points as possible, without causing new pain points. If, during your review, you find that your software solution doesn’t solve many of the problems, it may be time to consider a new vendor or solution.
After you’ve mapped pain points to features in the software, you’re ready to document the new processes.
Document your new workflow processes
Starting with the firm’s workflow processes documentation created earlier, you’ll want to update it with new or updated processes that take advantage of your software to solve the pain points you’ve identified.
To ensure the best results, be sure to call out any changes to your existing workflow processes. It’s important to let staff know why you’re making the change and what problem(s) you’re solving by making the change in the process. Be sure to use clear and concise descriptions and instructions to reduce user frustration and confusion caused by ambiguity or missing details.
Also, be sure to note when you’ve solved previous pain points. Your staff will be much more receptive to process changes, if they understand what they get in return. Help them to see how these changes will help simplify their work or save them time.
After the new process has been documented, it’s a good idea to “paper test” the new processes. What I mean by this is to have someone test out the new process exactly as you’ve written it down. The goals here are:
- Validate the process to make sure it works,
- Validate that the pain point is, in fact, resolved or reduced,
- Identify any new pain points resulting from the new process.
You may need to update the workflow process documentation based on the results of these paper tests. And you may need to iterate through a few paper tests as you refine the process. As you make changes, it’s important to keep the documentation up-to-date.
Roll out the changes
The final step in the process is to roll out the changes to firm staff. For best results, I recommend sharing the new process with all firm staff, even those who may not be directly affected. This will ensure that everyone stays abreast of changes within the firm. It may even spark an idea for other groups or individuals. You can usually handle minor changes via email, but be sure to include a copy of the new process documentation. For very large or system-wide changes, an in-person or online meeting may prove to be more effective. If possible, demonstrate the old and new processes. And take care to discuss paint points in the old process that you’ve solved in the new process.
As with any new process, you are certain to hear some grumbling from staff. After all, change is hard and we generally don’t like it initially. But time is the great equalizer, and with time, your staff will wonder how they ever got along before you made the change.