You are here. Keeping track of and managing a work in progress can be as easy as a simple software application
By Dwayne Bragonier
Illustration: Baiba Black
“Mary, I just remembered we have a scheduling meeting this afternoon. Can you drop what you’re doing and help me update the Excel file? I’ll phone the senior managers and record the current status of their jobs. Can you take a look at the work-in-progress shelves and record the engagements for clients that have dropped off their work and that have not been assigned yet?”
Until 10 months ago, this was an all-too-normal occurrence for Jeff Boese, partner at Boese & Co. LLP, a small practice in Pincher Creek, Alta. Not any more. In November 2012, the Boese team decided to use the workflow application that was bundled in its document management suite.
“It is absolutely amazing the comfort I get with up-to-the-moment reports whenever I want to look at the progress of any engagement. My fellow team members now have a clear vision of the work assigned to them and are relaxed in knowing how to prioritize their time,” says Boese. “The confidence we now have is invaluable.”
Having up-to-date status reports on all engagements is a great benefit. Yet, there is little doubt that one of the greatest challenges to a public accounting firm is in developing and deploying effective management strategies to assign work and monitor its performance in today’s software/application driven, paperless world.
So what gives? Supervisors have always assigned work and monitored performance. In theory, technology should make workflow management a snap. After all, according to the Workflow Management Coalition, workflow is simply the “automation of a business process … during which documents, information or tasks are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules.”
Part of the problem is that we have so many technologies at our disposal and we use many different tools in both the production cycle and for management purposes. We have tools that provide for data and document management, step-by-step guidance on how to perform engagement tasks and for compliance with financial and governmental reporting. We have others that provide activity tracking, communication and collaboration with project team members and the community at large. And finally we have tools that take care of time collection for billing, scheduling and management reporting.
We know that each of these technologies allows us to do our jobs more efficiently. They are critical in meeting our professional responsibilities and maintaining a competitive advantage. But are we using and integrating these tools effectively? There is no way to know.
But there is another key issue at play when it comes to managing workflow: our profession’s reliance on time as the primary measure of productivity. More on this in a moment, but it’s important to note that productivity in the 21st century is a lot different from productivity in the 20th century. Yet this focus on time comes from the industrial age and it blurs our understanding of what workflow is intended to do. We need to align our expectations of the scope of what workflow should address so we can clearly see the advantages of assigning and reporting on work as it is passed from one team member to another.
Industrial age and the origins of automated workflow
Famed 18th-century philosopher and economist Adam Smith used a pin factory to link workflow and efficiency. He noted that the production of a pin has 18 different steps and if one person does all 18 steps the production is very low. But if you get one person to do step one and another person to do step two and so on, production can increase tremendously.
Henry Ford, considered the catalyst of the industrial age and the king of workflow efficiency, was one of the first manufacturers to successfully implement Smith’s notion of efficiency. In fact, talk about workflow today and the image that comes to mind is likely Ford’s assembly line with individual workers standing in one location and performing the same task over and over. In the case of the Model T Ford, that meant carrying out one of 7,882 distinct motions.
The assembly line engineered skill out of the production cycle. This is why Ford Motor Co. broke down each task into its smallest component of raw material and human motion. This extreme attention to detailed movements allowed motion variances to be recorded and refinements made. The best results were achieved if the product was homogeneous. That’s why Ford wrote in his autobiography that you could purchase his automobile in any colour you wanted as long as it was black.
What few people realize is that one of Ford’s greatest obstacles in staying profitable was its disengaged labour force. The assembly line had effectively removed the connection of the person with the product. As a result, Ford had a hard time keeping employees, hiring up to 1,000 people knowing that only about 100 would stay.
Some years after Smith’s death in 1790, Karl Marx (1818-1883) made the case that isolating tasks in this way disconnects people from what they are making and in effect alienates them from company objectives. In other words, if you perform all 18 steps to produce the pin, you care about the pin but if you perform only one step then you do not care as much.
Fast-forward to the knowledge age and it’s easy to see why the assembly line methodology fails when applied to knowledge workers. In today’s environment, we need to strike a balance between well-defined goals and providing people the freedom to be creative and improvise with the exact tools used or the sequence of actions taken in order to get the job done and achieve those goals. This builds engagement, and engaged knowledge workers bring energy, connection and enthusiasm to the workplace — and they are more productive.
Public accountants are knowledge workers. Our primary responsibility is to do something with knowledge: to apply it, to create it, to record it and to distribute it. Yet, when most of us start to implement workflow strategies, we naively strive to implement the efficiency strategy of the assembly line into the production of our standardized products. This approach fails because, even if we wanted to, we cannot engineer skill out of our production cycle. Our labour force requires a high degree of knowledge, training and experience.
Time out, knowledge in
The greatest challenge for all businesses today is how to measure the performance of a knowledge worker. In the industrial age this was a relatively easy task because skill was intentionally minimized on the assembly line. As a result, a worker’s time became a pure measurement of his or her contribution of human motion as a raw material. Improve the time efficiency of human motion and increase production from a fixed resource. In other words, adding more time resulted in more products. Knowledge is now the raw material provided by the worker. It encompasses such intangibles as professional issue identification and resolution, recognition and evaluation of interdependencies and awareness and application of technology tools available on our workbenches.
Time is not a pure measurement of this raw material and its efficient use in the production of our products. Yet we cling to the concept that time is a universal measurement for anything to do with human activity. We do this as we are uncomfortable with the concept that there is no practical means to measure or manage how effectively the brain is devoted to a specific knowledge task.
Our misguided preoccupation with time to fill this measurement and reporting void distorts our expectations of workflow and whether it can be integrated with budgeting, planning, scheduling, procedural management, producing, archiving, delivering and billing our products.
Remember that workflow is all about flow: the process of how work is passed from one participant to another and reporting on at what stage it is. No more.
In recent years, most firms have taken the high ground to workflow. They hire smart people and to a large degree leave them alone to get the work done by a stated deadline. Yes, they are provided with detailed checklists as a compensating control to ensure that all identified components have been considered but their work is managed at a very high level.
The flow or transfer from one work phase to the next has traditionally been accomplished and communicated by someone physically moving the file folder from one location to another. The preparer would place the file on the reviewer’s desk so that when the reviewer came into his or her office he or she would “see” the work that was required to be done.
What happens when there is no physical paper that can flow to the next stage? How do we communicate that the next role is required for the continuing production of the product? How do we manage and improve the performance of knowledge workers?
The advantage of a workflow application is that it provides a tool to pass work from one worker to another. Work can be pushed or pulled at the discretion of the worker. That is, the preparer can push the work to a specific reviewer or the work can be placed into a common queue where a reviewer can pull it to be reviewed next.
Workflow applications can then easily report on the progress of the work through the various stages.
Still, it can be overwhelming when you get started. The key is to get a handle on how your organization works. “The first step in implementing workflow is to sit down with your staff and document your present workflow movement,” says Todd Trowbridge, partner at Trowbridge Professional Corp. He implemented a workflow application more than six years ago. “Do not just record what you personally do or what you think should be done. Involve all your staff and record how they are working today. Record when work transfer is actually taking place. This will then provide you with the ‘flow’ you need to manage.”
Not all professionals will follow the exact sequences of tasks to achieve the same goal. By starting with recording what is being done you accomplish two important objectives. First, you are not biased by the way work used to be performed. This approach allows you to record how your workflow currently embraces the use of the technology tools available at your firm’s workbenches. Second, today’s professionals are more likely to adopt a new process if they have participated in its design.
Once you understand how your firm operates, take a look at successful strategies deployed by others. “Speak to someone who can provide you with guidance on best practices on workflow,” says Leslie Spyropoulos, partner at Martyn Dooley & Partners, a midsized firm in Mississauga, Ont. She is talking from experience. Her firm started to deploy workflow with T1 processing three years ago. “This is critical as today’s technology applies new processes that are different than the past. Make sure you do not re-create the old wheel.”
Integrated versus stand-alone applications
Most of us conceptualize our ideal workflow application as an integrated component of a complete business cycle, that is, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. It would automatically move the work through the organization. Imagine a system that knows when all the T-slips for an individual have been scanned and automatically places them in the work queue of the next available person with the authority to prepare a personal tax return.
This ideal workflow application would not just provide automated process movement but it would also track measurements and report on significant productivity indicators utilized throughout the entire production and delivery system, start to finish.
Unfortunately, reality collides with this ideal. We deploy a variety of applications from a variety of vendors to perform our work. They range from working papers, procedural checklists, document management systems, tax compliance and time and billing, to name a few. Each of these applications sees the side benefit of embedding basic workflow concepts. However, they do not integrate with one another. That’s why an integrated ERP system for today’s knowledge-driven professional practice is simply not a practical expectation.
We need to accept that the stand-alone, best-of-breed applications we currently use are still the best practical method in controlling and managing our overall business processes. With this in mind, we need to refine the default language used in these separate applications so that consistent labels are applied. This will assist managers in correlating the results reported between these reporting tools. As an example: the label “review engagement” should appear exactly the same in your budgeting, scheduling, workflow and time plus billing applications even though each one of the applications may have varying ways of breaking down and recording the subcomponents of this specific business process.
Manage the simple
Jonathan Tucker, managing director at Tucker Professional Corp., a practice with offices in Toronto and London, Ont., recommends introducing new workflow gradually and not getting too granular in the beginning. “The T1 process can be identified with as many as 43 tasks and yet only six or so workflows are all that is needed to be tracked for effective management of the process, depending on how the firm is organized.”
Many newbies to workflow software confuse workflow assignment with progress reporting and detailed engagement completion steps (checklists). From a workflow management perspective, you do not need to know if the petty-cash count has been performed nor how long it took. This is too much detail to manage in relation to overall work assignment and completion.
To start, management needs to know who the engagement has been assigned to, at what stage it is and whether it will be completed by a promised due date. Staff needs to know what has been assigned to it, the completion date and whether there is any priority ranking to the engagement. “Our workflow provides peace of mind,” says David Hertzog, partner at Cunningham LLP in Toronto. Cunningham has been utilizing a workflow application for about two years now. Hertzog likens it to a dashboard. “It’s nice to quickly review the progress of all work and to know that there are no jobs sitting there for three weeks, stalled while waiting for client feedback. It allows the staff to proactively react whenever they need to and for you to know of these potential issues before they become cumbersome.”
Hertzog’s experience is similar to what is heard time and again from firms that have deployed workflow software. When asked what the greatest advantage it provided their firm, partners talk about the confidence gained from knowing at what stage all their engagements are and that nothing has fallen through the cracks or has been sidetracked or forgotten. Another key advantage of using workflow software: the simple task of being able to easily review staff work queues to ensure workloads were appropriately balanced.
Employees cite the benefits of knowing in advance what has been assigned and the deadlines for all work. This allows them to proactively reprioritize their daily work. They can anticipate and collaborate on future workflow bottlenecks they may perceive due to the work in their queue and the realities of the day: sickness, vacation time and family commitments, for example. They also appreciate the ease of work movement, either in pushing work to the next person or pulling the work from their queue.
“You’d have to be nuts to run a paperless practice without workflow,” says Trowbridge. “If you haven’t got it, then get it.”
Dwayne Bragonier, CPA, CA, CA•IT, is president of BAI Bragonier & Associates Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org