Making workflows work

By William Cornfield

Firms that leverage workflow processes effectively can enjoy better productivity and improved client satisfaction and retention. Following are five steps that can help to ensure your workflows work for you:

Clearly define, understand, and record all workflows. Take the time to map out what your firm does and how it does it. Do you offer different services among clients? How do the steps differ between services and clients? Which steps are the same across all clients and services? This is where most firms end their effort—with a checklist that defines and records workflows. A thorough checklist is a good start, but it's not a workflow process. You have to take the next steps.

Make the plan reflect reality. Once you have a detailed checklist, the next task is to calculate the duration and work involved for each step. Think in terms of resources (including employee strengths and experience) and clients (their needs, expectations, and behaviors). This is essential to developing logical and realistic workflows. For example, intake on a standard Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, may be completed in 15 minutes by an experienced senior, but it may take 30 minutes or longer when it's done by a less-experienced junior seeing a new client for the first time. Some clients might fill out the intake worksheet while others deliver a shoebox full of receipts. Understanding and accommodating client idiosyncrasies at the beginning of the engagement—and matching those with the right employee(s)—will help ensure that your workflow is a better match for what will actually happen.

Leverage technology. Even for smaller firms, the benefits of leveraging technology for workflow can outweigh the upfront costs. Firms can invest in resource scheduling and project management software to eliminate offline spreadsheets, confusing email threads, and cryptic Post-it notes. There are several software-as-a-service (SaaS) products that require minimal setup time and ongoing maintenance.

Expect the unexpected. Despite your best efforts to rationalize workflows and understand your clients and employees, real-life events always intrude on the best-laid plans. Workflow scheduling with optimization will help your firm handle the curveballs thrown by clients and your own employees—when they are sick or miss work—by re-racking the schedule overnight so everyone is on the same page come the next day.

Integrate workflow scheduling with time tracking. Employees dislike completing time sheets, and asking them to remember details about their work at the end of the day or week leads to bad data and fewer billable hours. Any workflow solution should include an integrated time-tracking capability so that as employees complete their work, the details of the activity—client, engagement, activity, and duration—are captured in the time sheet automatically. Ideally, a timer should start when an employee picks up a Form 1040 and should stop when he or she is finished.

What is a workflow?

What's commonly referred to as "workflow" in professional services businesses is the series of processes necessary to accomplish various tasks. An accounting firm could define one workflow stream as moving a tax return from initialization to completion and cash collection.

—By William Cornfield (, president at WSG Systems in New York City.

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