In Part 1 we saw how an accounting manager began to realize that staff member mistakes and poor performance weren’t so much because employees were lazy or incompetent, but more the result of poor processes and systems causing disorganization and delays. Staff ideas of what was supposed to be done and who was supposed to be doing it constantly conflicted. It was obvious every time another “oops” was discovered and a deadline missed that staff members weren’t communicating and something was broken.
To get a better view of the problem, the manager and his staff mapped current workflows. They started with the most important process first and mapped it simply by identifying each step or point at which work was changed or moved to another staff member. They then listed primary outputs that were supposed to occur at each step, the length of time taken at each one, and how long it took to move from one step to the next.
The maps made it easier to pinpoint bottlenecks and where communications and other systems broke down. They also made it easier to see how to fix some of them. One substantial delay occurred nearly every time the team had a new project. Project information would be placed in a file and sit in a basket waiting for the manager to assign the project to a staff member. If the manager was out of the office, it could take weeks. The bottleneck showed up on the map and prompted the team to discuss why things were hung up. When the team put their heads together, they came up with a criteria for assigning projects that everyone understood allowing any staff member to review a project and route it to the appropriate accountant instead of waiting for the manager to do it. That not only got projects started more quickly, but it also gave staff more responsibility and freedom to organize their work.
A process map also showed that a number of problems resulted from staff members forgetting to do something or assuming someone else had taken care of it. So they created a checklist to make sure they always obtained all the essential information they needed to understand expectations and move projects forward with fewer mistakes.
While they were analyzing processes, the accountants recognized they needed to communicate better with constituents. They decided to reach out to them to get a “client” perspective and were surprised at what they heard.
Constituents told them they thought some accountants were “slacking” because they had stopped asking constituents to send certain monthly reports. They figured that if staff hadn’t been acquiring the reports they needed, they couldn’t
be doing all the work they used to do. Constituents were surprised to hear accountants could access the data in other ways because of new technology, so they no longer needed to ask for the reports. If the accountants had simply told constituents why they were doing things differently, constituents wouldn’t have drawn the wrong conclusions.
Accounting staff often found themselves stuck waiting for information from a constituent for the constituent’s project. When their last communication left the responsibility with the constituent, accountants were only too happy to forget about it and work on something else. Unfortunately, constituents sometimes forgot or misunderstood what was happening thinking the accountant had dropped the ball, so they blamed the accountant. It usually worked out that each blamed the other while the project sat and got further behind schedule.
Staff decided to fix the problem by personally owning the outcome of any project and agreeing that accountants should coax things along regardless of who was responsible for a given task. It eliminated confusion about accountabilities and gave accountants permission to nudge a constituent anytime they weren’t getting what they needed. That way somebody was always responsible to keep projects progressing to completion.
The accountants now have several new processes they’ve put in place. Checklists and reminders are preventing mistakes. They’re even doing weekly 15-minute check-ins as a team where they review the status of every project to make sure nothing gets dropped. It seems to be time well spent.
They say they still have to map more processes, but right now they have their hands full implementing all the changes they’ve made. And it’s paying off. They’re making fewer mistakes and they are getting more efficient, but they know they still have a ways to go. Next, we’ll report on their progress after a few months doing things differently and share with you something that caught the manager and some team members by surprise.
Ascent Management Consulting is found at www.ascentmgt.com and specializes in productivity improvement through performance turnarounds, leadership coaching, and appraisal-less performance management.