Learn to Love Frustration – or Fix Your Workflow - Clarity Practice Management
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Learn to Love Frustration – or Fix Your Workflow

Learn to Love Frustration – or Fix Your Workflow

You already know the definition of insanity and Dr. Phil’s tag line, “How’s that working out for you?”  So if last tax season made you feel like the last guy bailing water when the Titanic sank, maybe it’s time for a change.  Maybe you know it’s time for a change, but don’t know how to get started.  Here’s a hint.  To fix your workflow, you have to know your workflow.


The first step in fixing your workflow is defining what you have now.  You already have a workflow management system, whether you know it or not.  When a client calls about the status of a return, your associated workflow step could be as simple as running down the hall waving your arms yelling, “What godforsaken idiot has his file?”  Hopefully not.


Defining your current workflow is simple and the only way you can make progress fixing it.  The primary obstacle in fixing your current workflow situation is owning up to it.


The first step in defining your current workflow is to make a list of all the services you provide.  You will compile a list of services like compiled financial statements, corporate tax returns, individual tax returns, etc.  Each type of service is a project type.  Each project type will have an associated workflow distinctly separate from the others.


Next, select one of the project types, and create an Excel spreadsheet with the following columns:

  1. Task performed
  2. Person


You will then list each of the tasks involved in performing this service.  You could go crazy creating tasks like “walking the return down the hall to preparer.”  However, that’s probably a bit too granular.  You are trying to strike a balance between enough information and slavery to your workflow system.  I suggest asking the question, “Would I ever want to know which returns are in this stage?”  If the answer is yes, you have a task.  If no, skip it.


The best way to define the tasks / steps is to actually log the processing of a real live tax return.  Let’s use personal income tax prep as an example.  This could be your log.


  1. Client brings in documents for meeting.
  2. Documents sent to admin for scanning. (Assuming up front scanning)
  3. Admin sends e-mail to partner that documents have been scanned and are ready for preparation.
  4. Partner reviews scanned file for completeness and obvious return issues and makes notes for preparer in Word.
  5. Partner sends e-mail to preparer that return can be started.
  6. Preparer enters information in tax software.
  7. Preparer compiles questions list and notifies partner that questions are ready to be sent to client.
  8. Partner reviews and sends questions to client by e-mail or phone.
  9. Client answers questions. (such a simple description of such an emotionally charged process.)
  10. Partner reviews client answers for completeness.
  11. Are the answers complete?
    1. If yes,  partner forwards them to the preparer.
    2.  If no, partner follows up with client for answers.
  12. Client forwards final answers after a week of brow beating and begging.
  13. Preparer completes return and notifies partner return is ready for review.
  14. Partner reviews return.
    1. If no changes necessary, partner forwards to admin for final production..
    2. If changes necessary, return to step #13.
  15. Admin prints final version of return and notifies partner return is ready for pickup.
  16. Partner calls client to  determine if client wants meeting to review return.
    1. If meeting desired, partner schedules it.
    2. If no, partner sends return to admin where client will pickup.
  17. Client either picks up return or meets with partner.
    1. If picked up, client signs 8879 for admin and pays bill. (Sure that will happen.  You can bet he forgot his checkbook and you don’t accept credit cards.)
    2. If meeting with partner, client signs 8879 and pays bill. (Payment is even less likely as partners hate to grovel for money.)
  18. Admin e-files returns.
  19. Admin checks for e-file acceptances.
    1. If accepted, client gets e-mail notification.
    2. If not accepted, admin contacts partner for resolution.


Wow – 19 steps and I wasn’t even really trying.  No wonder it’s so damn hard to make money in this business.  Do I think this is a good workflow process?  Definitely not!  But it certainly resembles the actual process in many if not most firms.


Now that we have the current workflow defined, it’s time to improve it.  That will be the topic of my next blog post or maybe two.  These posts tend to last about the same amount of time it takes me to eat a salad at lunch.  Coincidence?  I think not.


Thanks for reading!

Frank Stitely, CPA, CVA



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