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But how do you know the steps you’re taking best serve your clients? Or whether those steps are efficient or profitable?

With just a little bit of design and documentation, you can turn those steps that are dictated by habit into measurable guarantees of quality and performance for your clients.

In this post, we’ll give you a simple 8 step process for creating your firm’s key processes:

  1. Write it all down.
  2. Cut it by 20%.
  3. Define your purpose.
  4. Identify your inputs.
  5. Map client-facing steps.
  6. Map internal steps.
  7. Share what success looks like.
  8. Hold yourself accountable.

Write it all down.

You’re not coming up with processes out of thin air. Remember, you’re already engaged in processes. Our job now is to design them more purposefully.

The first step is to pick a process your firm engages in and put it all up on a wall. Grab some sticky notes and a marker and brain dump every step. Put down what you currently do and label each note with who owns that particular step.

When you do this, avoid the temptation to start with your intake process. That’s a common starting point because it comes at the beginning of a client engagement, but you’d rather start with a much simpler process. Work out your phone call script or how you end a client engagement. Find part of your daily operations that hasn’t been given much thought before and add purpose to it.

Cut it by 20%.

The fastest way to improve a process is to reduce it.

Every firm takes steps that are driven by inefficiencies and delays. Some of those are created by outside forces (clients, courts, or clerks, for example), but many of them are created by you.

In this step, try to reduce the number of steps in a process. What do you see on the wall that you could kill? Are there handoffs happening that you could eliminate by having one person own more parts of a process?

Find the fat; trim it back.

Define your purpose.

As you start your process document, put a plain language goal at the top of the page. Anyone should be able to read this and know the most important outcome(s).

Often your team may need to deviate from the specific steps due to circumstances. Although you want that to be rare (otherwise, why are we documenting processes?), it will happen. Empower your team to make decisions by clearly defining your “why” at the top of the page.

Identify your inputs.

Processes don’t stand alone. Processes require information, people, and materials to get started, which are all “inputs” that will shape output. What do the people involved in a process need in order to complete it successfully? If a person must get up from her desk or email a manager every time an unknown input is required, you’re setting up an inefficient process that won’t save anyone time.

What will team members need to complete the steps in the process, and where do those inputs come from? List them out. How can the people responsible for this process gather all of the inputs they’ll need in as few steps as possible? That’s improving efficiency.

Map the client-facing steps.

Think of seeing a performance in a theater. The audience sees what’s happening on stage, and that’s how they judge the show, but there are things happening backstage as well. Those invisible processes enable the action on stage. As you map your process’ steps, start by identifying what the client will see. This helps you be more client-centered (and it might give you more ideas for improving efficiency, if you find steps are duplicative or offer no client value).

Map the internal processes.

Now that you know what’s happening on stage (i.e. what the client sees), now you can map the backstage action needed from you and your team. These are the steps most people think of when they think of processes. Use the plainest language possible when outlining your internal processes. You don’t want things to fall apart because no one understood what the documentation meant. These documents won’t be filed with any court, so avoid the temptation to be too lawyerly. The goal is to clearly communicate, because these process documents should be a resource.

Share what success looks like.

Members of your team should be able to quickly identify what a process looks like when it’s done right. Similar to defining your goal up front, this empowers people to make decisions even when confronted by novel situations. Share scripts, sample documents, and even offer role playing opportunities for your team so you can test drive the new process and work out any kinks.

Ensure Accountability.

A process map won’t help if no one uses it, or if they go back to doing things the old way once you’re finished. If you’ve done the work to select processes that matter to your firm’s operations, then you want to get them right.

Someone needs to take responsibility integrating the new-and-improved process. Maybe that’s you, or maybe it’s someone on your staff, but you’ll need to have someone who is committed to making sure the new process sticks (and that whoever is responsible is empowered to ensure compliance).

Be cognizant of personality types within your organization — for example, if you’re changing a long-standing process, it may impact staff who’ve been with you the longest differently than newer additions to the team. Definitely favor the carrot over the stick when you’re getting started. You might even try to make it fun, like turning the new process into a contest (with prizes) to incentivize team members to work together to make sure everyone is doing their part.

Conclusion

This formula for creating processes will get you started. As a business owner, you should be flexible in your approach to systems. Efficiency gains may not be large when you’re not serving clients at scale. However, documented processes allow you to evaluate your staff’s work and to empower them to make decisions without constantly consulting you. The results should help everyone do a better job.

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