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Tax & AccountingNovember 05, 2022

Workflow 101: improve your workflow by removing bottlenecks

Every organization is challenged to complete work accurately and on time. After all, “lost time is never found again,” or so said Benjamin Franklin.

Unfortunately, the technology to create more hours in the day doesn’t exist, so how do we create more time without bending the laws of physics?

We focus on improving workflow to increase capacity and prevent time loss from struggling with ineffective and inefficient processes. Improving your workflow magnifies the benefits of documenting your workflow discussed earlier in this series, such as process improvement, final product standardization, knowledge-silo removal, and employee training efficiencies.

So grab that stack of sticky notes and your favorite pen or pencil, and let’s dig into the steps of workflow process improvement.

Identify and measure bottlenecks

When looking to increase your workflow, search for the bottlenecks at all levels of the organization, looking for symptoms such as decreased efficiency, performance, or capacity levels. Start by gathering data to measure the performance and efficiency of your workflow processes. This data will be helpful in the next step – analyzing the root cause of any bottlenecks. Data gathering can be as simple as having an informal conversation with colleagues or as formal as surveys and interviews.

To successfully measure the extent of the bottleneck, make sure to follow up on any potential decreases in efficiency, performance, or capacity levels. Ask WHY something is happening. For example, if a common complaint in one department or group is that their workload is too high, ask the staff to describe an average day.

Keep in mind that increased workloads aren’t inherently bad or unhealthy; they can be a sign that the organization is flourishing. Asking about WHY their workload is too high helps determine if the workload is due to side effects of natural business growth, such as changing regulatory requirements, business growth initiatives, work compression and rework, or M&A activity.

Alternatively, the increased workload could be due to dysfunctional business processes placing additional strain on staff and restricting capacity. Frequent contributors to dysfunctional processes include a lack of clarity in work expectations, ineffective or absent business processes, excess meetings, emails, and spreadsheets, and manual process management. These dysfunctional processes are our main workflow and process improvement targets.

As you identify and write each bottleneck down on a sticky note, make notes about the process’s goals – in an ideal world, what would the process accomplish? And while we’re not quite to making improvements yet, if any opportunities for improvement immediately come to mind, write them down on another sticky note – we’ll come back to them.

Analyze the underlying cause of the bottleneck

Now that we’ve identified the bottlenecks – and measured the extent of the issue – it’s time to dig deep into the existing process and determine the root causes of the process deficiency. Determining the true reason for the bottleneck allows us to tackle them in our last step – improvement. However, while it can be easy to identify a bottleneck’s symptoms, determining the bottleneck’s WHY is often more difficult.

Consider the common staff complaint of a high workload discussed earlier. Let’s assume that, during follow-on conversations, it’s determined that meetings and emails requesting status updates are taking up as much as half of some staff members’ day.

Looking through the productivity quad’s lens, it sounds like there may be an underlying visibility issue. When there is a lack of project status visibility, weekly and daily meetings quickly get added to the calendar, and staff inboxes may start to explode with hundreds of unread emails every day.

These meetings and emails can quickly start to restrict capacity, reduce flexibility to adapt to changing needs, and may cause additional workload in the form of unnecessary rework if someone reads an outdated email or misses a meeting update.

And as meetings and/or emails start to pile up, managers and supervisors may feel they have no control over their projects and ask for additional updates. This feeling of a lack of control creates a cycle of meetings and requests that feeds the lack of visibility.

Lastly, because of the number of emails and meetings flying, accountability is lost. Staff can easily say, “oh well, I thought someone else was doing that.”

Identify and implement process improvements

Now that you’ve measured the extent of the bottleneck and discovered the root cause of the breakdown, it’s time to improve the process. Start with simple – if you wrote opportunities for improvement down on a sticky note during identification and measurement, take a look at those notes now that you’ve determined the underlying issue and determine if that action is the best solution for the problem.

If necessary, go back to the productivity quad, and ask yourself how the suggestion you wrote down improve process visibility, flexibility, control, and accountability.

Let’s take another look at our example from earlier – the staff complained of high workloads, which we determined was because of a lack of visibility into project status. How does your organization need to change its processes to more clearly communicate status updates, increase visibility, and remove unnecessary meetings and emails?

  • Clear visibility means having real-time data into the project status. What changes need to be made so that managers have that insight and can make resource adjustments or changes to the business?
  • Having control means being able to ask, “what’s up?” and receiving relevant and timely data in response. What changes need to be made so that managers and supervisors can make data-driven decisions?
  • Organizations need the flexibility to respond to changes, whether internal or external. What changes need to be made to increase staff capacity and better support the flexibility needed to succeed?
  • When staff are held accountable for completing tasks on-time and on-spec, work quality and accuracy increase. What changes are necessary to better support staff accountability?

Once you’ve determined the improvement (or improvements) to the process, you’re ready to improve the process – after getting buy-in from key stakeholders, of course. Make sure to involve them in every step of this process, and you’ll have cheerleaders at every step.

At the end of this process, you should have one newly improved process. Make sure to test and confirm that the process is in fact improved – and we’ll talk more about this in the next post in our series, the benefits of continuous improvement. But before you focus on the next process to improve, take a moment to celebrate your accomplishment. By improving a process, you’re decreased organizational bottlenecks, increased organization efficiency, and created the capacity that will make it seem as though there’s more time in the day – even if we still only have the same 86,400 seconds.

And, after you’ve had that little celebration, it’s time to do it all again. Remember the rest of the sticky notes you set aside earlier? It’s time to go back to the beginning and start again with one of them.

Keep your eye out for the next post in our Workflow 101 series: Choosing a Workflow Solution, where I’ll discuss why you should regularly review processes.


Ready to learn more about workflow and productivity enablement? Attend an upcoming webinar and learn how workflow technology can transform your business.

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Hillarie Diaz, Author for Tax & Accounting

As a content creator for Wolters Kluwer’s Professional Market, Hillarie focuses on a wide range of accounting and finance technology space topics. As an accountant who enjoys writing, she brings over a decade of accounting experience to her writing.

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