Editor's note: This is a Web-exclusive sidebar for "Get Results: Improve Your Accounting Firm Processes Using Lean Six Sigma," Jan. 10.
Previous attempts by Rea & Associates to develop consistent procedures didn’t always result in the most successful, efficient or effective processes. Instead, 11 offices did things 11 ways because they didn’t buy into the need for consistency in its processes. With Lean Six Sigma, the firm adopted a one-firm concept where returns would be consistently produced, while still allowing some flexibility to address staffing, structural or other nuances among the various offices. For example, some larger offices have multiple administrative staff at the end of the process while smaller offices have only one person. The end process accommodates for these staffing differences. Also, the firm developed tools called “Quick Checks”, designed to double check for common mistakes that were frequently being detected during the review process. These could be modified by office location.
We took a global look at our business tax return process, not just the preparation stage or the review stage. Using a cross functional team comprised of representatives from all levels within the organization (from Administration to Staff Accountants to Senior Managers to a Partner), the project analyzed everything from how client information was requested and received to how returns were prepared and reviewed to how they were processed, assembled and filed. Staff input was considered before the rollout began. The focus was on providing better client satisfaction at each step along the way in order to provide higher overall value.
The following are specific steps, common among many accounting firms, that Rea & Associates implemented to improve processes.
Manage the Front Door. A business client request list was revamped and a systematic process developed for receiving as much client data as possible at the first visit. The goal was to work on this initial phase in advance of busy season. The process is customizable for every client—by using names and terminology familiar to the client, it makes the information-gathering process much quicker and easier.
Maximize Workflow. Efficiency was improved by adopting common organizational standards for every workstation. For example, each desk is organized consistently so that the next person in the process knows exactly where to find or place hardcopy or electronic tax client information. The physical layout of all work areas within a building is organized for maximum efficiency—accomplished through uniform electronic and workspace organization techniques.
Reduce Bottlenecks. Time goals were developed and processes implemented to shorten cycle times. Care is taken to align the right people to the right level of work to alleviate bottlenecks. Process champions continually identify uneven flow and work together across the firm to reallocate resources and better serve clients.
Streamline Assembly. The needs of processing and assembly personnel were identified, resulting in reduced questions and rework.