Why Don't You Do Something About the Bottlenecks in Your Firm?

Put on your "Listening Ears."

This is a phrase I use with my two and a half year old son when he's finding it hard to remember what I just told him not to do. I'm sure every parent of a toddler knows what I'm talking about. The funny thing is, I found myself using this exact phrase recently at a lean training I was facilitating. We were in the middle of a lean simulation, a part of the training where we demonstrate differences between typical processes and effective processes, and a person at one of the steps in the process (let's call him "Matt") found himself in a major bottleneck situation. And the results he was producing were typical of a bottleneck operation:

  • Mistakes in his part of the process
  • Repeating the same mistakes
  • Stress
  • Shutting down

And the fun role I get to play when I do these simulations is that of a typical boss - I blame the person. I asked Matt why he's screwing up. I watched over his shoulder. I told Matt repeatedly "this is what you're doing wrong" and that we needed him to be more efficient. But it goes in one ear and out the other. So I said to Matt "Do you need to put your listening ears on?" just as I would tell my son when he does the exact thing I asked him not to do. This received a not so nice look from Matt and a big laugh from everyone else. But WHY does this type of performance occur in our firms in the first place? And what can we do to help our very own "Matt" in our firm?

It's not the person, it's the process.

The "why" answer normally surprises most CPA's I talk to. "It's not the person, it's the process" is what I tell them. "Let's fix the process. "The typical results I described above happen almost every time in a situation where the process hasn't been tweaked to reduce the impact of a bottleneck. Now I understand, due to the nature of the business and deadlines, there are always going to be bottlenecks at certain times of the year and at certain steps in CPA firms. But what I don't understand is why firms aren't actively addressing their bottlenecks to reduce their impact.

What if Matt, who I described above, was a newly promoted manager in your firm? He's just been given some more responsibilities but hasn't been put into a process that is consistent, understood, and most of all effective. He's getting backed up and starting to make more and more mistakes -- which by the way snowballs and causes people higher up in the firm who may be reviewing his work to take more of their valuable time in review. And those reviewers are sending review comments back to him with the same things over and over, wondering "is he listening or doesn't he care?" Well, the answer is he is listening and does care but due to ineffective processes and the resulting stress, he's forgetting what he already knows. Why don't we get to the root cause and improve the process instead of letting it escalate?

And don't let me forget to mention a common response from CPA's when I say "it's not the person, it's the process." I hear, "It absolutely is the person because they don't know what they're doing. Maybe they aren't cut out for public accounting. "And then my response to that statement is a question back "If they aren't educated and/or don't know what they're doing, what was the process in your firm that failed to provide them adequate training or the process that failed to identify from an HR standpoint that this person wouldn't be a good fit in that position?" See how it all comes back to a process?

Getting to the root cause.

The problem in most firms is that they don't take the time or understand how to address the root cause of issues in their processes. They fire this newly promoted manager because he didn't know what he was doing and shortly after that hire someone new into the position that has many of the same qualities and will make the same mistakes. In this situation, firm management doesn't address the failures in the process and will see the same cycle repeated again and the same mistakes will be made again. Is it time we begin managing firms with our "listening ears" on to understand our processes?

It's amazing the results if we focus on the process and not the person. In my simulation that I described in the beginning, we made a few minor tweaks to the process and the next time around Matt was one of my star performers. We fixed the process and put Matt in a process and position to succeed. It wasn't the person, it was the process. And in the role I played as the "typical boss/manager" in the simulation, I had to throw away my natural instinct to blame the person to truly achieve superior results and productivity for my firm.

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