When I started my own consulting business 25 years ago, my need for perfection and order was minimal. As a sole proprietor, I found that very little chaos existed as long as my files, work materials, and calendar were in order. However, as my company grew, chaos abounded and I knew I needed improved systems. Organizing and sharing my work and integrating my team became a priority. Rule number one for the self-employed: Your firm’s success requires a team effort.
In short, we needed better workflow. And as a self-acknowledged perfectionist, I’ll admit that “better” for me is never quite good enough. But how does a firm achieve perfect workflow? Is such a thing even possible? Before you can answer those questions, the first step is to define what perfect workflow means to you.
This may sound like an obvious place to start, but many people simply want to be told what tool to use to fix their workflow issues. It isn’t that easy. I recommend sitting down and listening to your team—ask them where their pain points are and which inefficiencies cause them the most headaches. In my experience, the problems most firms are trying to solve are unique, and so this step of listening to your team is crucial to success. The definition my team and I adopted for perfect workflow is “the tracking of every step, with its related information, task, and document, for any process or service.” The creation of a single system using this definition saved my sanity, allowed for growth, and satisfied my team’s need for order over chaos.
hen defining what perfect workflow means for your firm, start as broadly as possible. Look at the company as a whole. To do this, first gather and list all the different services your firm provides. For each service, determine what firm, team, or client interactions are involved, how communication flows between the firm and the client, interoffice communication flow, and processing of data and documents. Next define each unique step in all the processes you listed. Then determine who does the work and what data and documents are required for each process. Finally, assign a value indicating how important or cost effective a change or fix would be to the firm. Consider things like step elimination, reduction of workload, automation, and any cost savings or revenue increase that are associated with new workflows. This may be a great time to bring in additional help like your team, colleagues, consultants, or vendors to gain the benefit of their expertise. I recommend using a spreadsheet to document these definitions: you will have an opportunity to fine-tune it later. Once all this information has been defined, you are ready for the next step.
It is time to find the tools needed to automate processes, improve client interactions, and eliminate duplication. People often ask me, “How do I find the right tools?” One of the problems is there are so many choices out there and it is increasingly difficult to sift through them all, especially online. I highly recommend drawing on your colleagues’ experience, attending networking and conference events, and using a tech consultant to assist in your research. Find vendors who consult more than they sell. Use vendors who provide path-to-success methods and training, and above all get real referrals. You can either look at a series of “best of breed” products or look at suites of applications. The truth is, your initial needs analysis should lead you to the right tools regardless of the source. Keep in mind that the value you assign, if high enough, will outweigh any negatives, like possible lack of integration. You will need to find the tools that suit your situation. As you discover applications and review the features and benefits, you can adjust the value assigned and begin solving the most important workflow problems first. Once you define your workflows and discover the tools you need, it’s time to perfect them.
Perfecting new workflow tools requires thoughtful implementation and the right team. If you don’t have the right team you may have to employ outsiders like consultants, colleagues, or vendors to assist you in tuning your systems to your needs. Including the internal team produces a better outcome, strengthens firm culture, and shares the responsibility, but it also means you will learn what is important to your team. Rule number two for the selfemployed: It is nearly impossible for one person to carry the entire load of workflow perfection. Sometimes this perfection requires building new teams or hiring the right person. The tools are only as good as the users. I have found that I depend on a younger generation of tech gurus to run with these systems. Many of them really enjoy technology and will work hard at it. This helps move you toward team buy-in and gives team members a sense of ownership. s I speak around the country at many events I share a simple equation for creating great firm success: the right team plus the right tools. If you are to maintain success, you will need to follow this equation and find ways to reproduce it. This brings us to the final step.
REVIEW AND REPEAT
Nothing stays perfect for long without caring management, oversight, and regular review. Trying to keep up with today’s ever-changing technology is no easy task. Without the right approach, firms risk either being on the bleeding edge or lagging far behind. To be sure you are moving forward at the right pace, I recommend periodically redefining your processes and regularly reviewing your tools. Remember, your processes will change any time you change your tools. So be careful to only make changes when you are ready to cultivate, refine, and spend the time necessary to implement change. This will require you to schedule regular reviews. Sometimes this, too, means bringing in outside help if your team cannot assist you. Remember, there isn’t a one-time fix for perfect workflow. You will need to repeat your review of systems and processes regularly. Trying to perfect workflow can be a challenge, but not trying at all can lead to disaster. If you have experienced past failures, like buying software and never using it, or failing to get good implementation, don’t let that stop you. The truth is that all those who strive for perfection will experience times when they fall short. Don’t let that discourage you. Simply learn, grow, and move on.
So, is perfect workflow possible? Absolutely, if you’re willing to commit to the process and see it through.
Rule number one for the self-employed: Your firm’s success requires a team effort.