Clarity Practice Management | 7 Steps to Effective Project Management
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7 Steps to Effective Project Management

7 Steps to Effective Project Management

If you’re older than 50, you’ll remember this old skit from the TV variety series called “Hee Haw.”

Patient: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.”

Doc: “Then stop doing that.”

If you’re planning on taking your current system that isn’t working and just automating it, or if you’re just planning on moving the problems that you have with your old software to new software, just don’t. Please for the love of mankind, don’t.

I encounter people all of the time who think they’re looking for a solution to their workflow woes. Then they start telling me all of the things their new solution must do exactly like their old system. They just end up with the same problems on a new platform.

For example, I ran into one company that absolutely had to have all of their staff’s tasks appear on an Outlook-like calendar. They wanted to plan staff schedules based on due dates for upcoming tasks. They wanted all of the tasks to appear as Outlook tasks on a daily and weekly schedule. That’s a laudable objective.

However, that’s just not how tax season works. They were going to build in the same problems that they already had into a new software package. What was wrong with their vision of scheduling?

On March 20th, do you know just which of your clients will answer your questions over the next week? Which ones will approve drafts? Even which ones will bring in their initial information? This company was scheduling tasks that had next to no chance of completion according to schedule. They were allocating new returns to staff based on schedules that didn’t really exist. Someone might appear to have no time available for new work over the next week based on scheduled tasks that won’t get done on schedule.

On Tuesday, you can schedule an employee to complete five personal tax returns on Thursday, but there’s virtually no chance she’ll get all of the client answers she needs by then. What good is a schedule that you know is wrong from the outset? Not much. If a schedule changes by the hour, is it even a schedule? Even worse is making decisions based on a fantasyland schedule.

What they really needed was a system to set and monitor employee priorities. That’s very different from putting tasks on a make-believe schedule. They needed a way to tell employees what to work on now, not a week from today. Now. In real time. The Outlook calendar concept just got in the way of what they really needed.

What they needed was a way to tell employees which task to work on next, given a list of tasks that can actually be completed. A task that can’t be completed shouldn’t be part of the schedule, where it appears to commit hours.

If you have two employees, one with 80 hours committed and one with 60 hours committed, you can’t blindly assign the next tax return to the person with 60 committed hours. What if 50 hours of the first employee are tied up in tasks that won’t be available for completion for a week? You’ll have the first employee twiddling her thumbs, while the second employee is assigned a new return that will be aging like a fine wine, if you consider wine from a box as good wine.

So, don’t automate what doesn’t work today. Start with a blank slate, informed by the inadequacies of your current system and the best practices of others.

Let’s move to the nuts and bolts of implementing effective projection management.

Step 1: Decide on an implementation date.

March 15th is the wrong answer. You want a date when you don’t have an overwhelming number of projects in progress, but you have enough to immediately get some practice with your new system. January 1st isn’t a bad answer. September 16th, right after the extended corporate deadline, is a pretty good answer as well. May and June are bad months, as nobody in your firm will be seriously into much of anything other than vacation.

Step 2: Define your project types.

Step 3: Define the information you will track for each project type.

Step 4: Define the workflow steps for each project type.

Step 5: Train your staff in using the system.

Vendor training is a must if available. Spending more for a package that offers training and setup consulting makes sense. Be the evangelist for the system. If you don’t believe, no one else will. Effective project management must become your company’s culture.

Train your staff on the benefits of effective project management. Show them what’s in it for them: fewer unhappy clients, career development and a more profitable firm. Profitable firms can afford raises and bonuses. Disorganized firms cannot.

Step 6: Accumulate data for all of your projects in progress at your implementation date.

Use a worksheet to accumulate the data on projects in process. There are no exceptions. All client work defined as projects gets into the system.

Step 7: Enter the information from step 6.

That’s really all there is to it. You are ready to start. Now the real work begins.

You will immediately experience two things:

  1. Staff will forget to advance projects to the proper steps.
  2. Some staff will ignore your project management system altogether.

Forgetting to advance projects isn’t exactly first-degree murder. During the first few weeks, look at project statuses at least daily to make certain project statuses are correct. If you have written procedures for completing work, revise them to include project management tasks, such as moving projects to the correct statuses at the end of a task.

Not using the system at all should be punishable by death. Guillotines are expensive, but I’m pretty certain Amazon can deliver one by tomorrow if you’re on Prime.

Here is a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago called, “The Tragic Tale of Tammy Tardy.” My therapist tells me I need to let go of this story. You might recognize it; I’ve told it before.

Tammy Tardy was an average tax preparer who worked for us right after we implemented our project management system. Every tax season Tammy met with a hundred or so tax clients, much like many of us. Tammy refused to enter projects into our system. Instead she managed her workload using the piles of files method. After a client meeting, she put the file aside, knowing she would get to it shortly.

Of course, 20 meetings later, she had no idea what she should work on next. So she just picked up a file from her office floor and began. She felt that it didn’t matter which returns you work on when you are overworked and in a hurry. There’s a fixed amount of work to get done by April 15th, and you just jump in and do it.

Tammy was wrong. Tammy’s clients began to call and call and call. After a couple of weeks, Tammy was spending so much time on the phone that she had no time to prepare returns. This is “what’s the status of” hell.

A client will call his preparer when he hasn’t heard from the preparer after about two weeks. I know this concept well from 26 tax seasons of sometimes painful experience. I can even predict which clients will call next.

I wish I could write that Tammy’s story had a happy ending, but it didn’t. Tammy worked April 13th through the 15th with almost no sleep. Clients called and offered pithy advice like, “Don’t you know this is April 15th?” But by midnight on April 15th, she had barely dented her workload.

Many of Tammy’s clients left, disgusted that their returns hadn’t been completed in over a month’s time.

As Tammy careened toward the April 15th deadline, literally every person in our firm offered to help her. She said she had it all under control. I expected a deluge of returns to review the last couple of days of tax season that never came.

Working 20-hour days doesn’t make for high productivity. Tammy got only a few returns done in the last three days. We had no idea how many returns were in trouble, because Tammy thought our project management system was a waste of time, better spent preparing returns.

She didn’t understand that working on the right projects at the right times matters, or you end up in “what’s the status of” hell. Then you’re toast.

We probably lost 30 clients in this debacle. Tammy’s body is buried under our parking lot. My attorney says I have no idea what happened to her.

Don’t let your Tammy Tardys destroy your practice. Not using the project management system that you select must result in termination just as surely as stealing clients.

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