William Cleary FCCA is a Lean consultant with LeanTeams in Dublin



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For all firms, clients are the most important stakeholders. Without satisfied clients there is simply no business, so understanding and mapping out their experiences when dealing with your organisation is crucial for two reasons: to ensure the client is being provided with an excellent service or product, and to help identify and manage areas of the business or activities for further improvements.

A well-proven methodology that can help you achieve these vital objectives is Lean. Lean is a process improvement approach that originated with Toyota in the manufacturing sector and has since been adopted by many other industries and the professions.

It is based on the philosophy of defining value from the customer’s viewpoint, and continually improving the way in which value is delivered.

What is Lean?

At its core, Lean focuses on identifying and eliminating waste in a process, and by doing so adds value for clients and brings higher residual returns for business owners.

There are four key steps:

  • identifying the client journey
  • identifying value-adding and non-value-adding activities in a process
  • removing non-value-adding activities from the process
  • continuous improvement of a process.
Client journey

The first step in mapping a client’s experience with your practice is to identify their journey from start to finish, as well as regular periodical interactions including the supply of goods or services.

Begin by mapping out the entire process on a whiteboard or similar. Ensure that relevant team members are included so that all the steps involved in a particular process are captured, documented and properly understood.

It may start with an initial consultation where clients meet with a team member to discuss their specific needs and requirements. That may be followed by a formal letter of engagement leading to an onboarding process whereby the client provides documentation and information to the team, who ultimately deliver a set of final accounts or perhaps a business plan.

Then there are final outputs, such as reports, financial statements, tax returns or a business plan produced after working with the client and providing regular updates. Finally, the process ends with issuing an invoice, and ideally prompt payment by the client.

Is it worth it?

The next step is to identify which activities add value and which do not in the process you have mapped out. Value-adding activities are those that directly contribute to a client’s experience, whereas non-value-adding activities are those that do not. For this reason it is crucial that all activities that do not add value are clearly identified so that the efficiency of the client’s journey can be improved.

Lean is all about continuous improvement, so it is important to regularly seek client feedback

Examples of value-added activities are meeting with clients to discuss their needs, preparing financial statements or business plans, and providing regular updates or feedback. Activities that do not add value, on the other hand, may include waiting for a response from a client or unnecessary paperwork that could be eliminated from the process.

To distinguish between the two activities, you can use the ‘five whys’ technique, which involves asking why five times to get to the root cause of an issue. For example, if you identify that waiting for a response from a client is an activity that adds no value, you can ask why the response is needed; if the answer to that is the response is needed to complete the work, you can then ask why it is needed to complete the work, and so on until you uncover the root cause of the issue.

Identifying redundancy

Eliminating non-value-adding activities may involve streamlining processes, reducing bureaucracy and simplifying procedures to create a more efficient process that adds more value to your clients primarily by reducing related costs. For example, you may be able to automate some of your client communication to make it more efficient and less time-consuming.

The most effective way of removing activities that do not add value is to use technology optimally. For example, you can use online document management systems to reduce the amount of paperwork as well as to make it easier for clients to access their documents.

Better and better

Lean is all about continuous improvement, so it is important to regularly seek client feedback when reviewing documented processes to identify specific areas for further improvement. The output of this exercise may well involve implementing new process changes based on client feedback or inefficiencies identified by your own in-house staff in their day-to-day work.

Metrics and teams are the two key steps in this process:

  • Metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) can be used to measure the effectiveness of the business processes – eg client satisfaction, query response times, or at its simplest, the time it takes your business to complete a common task. Monitoring these means you can more easily identify areas for further improvement, which can lead to further positive changes for all stakeholders.
  • Involving the core team in the continuous improvement process by encouraging them to suggest improvements, either solicited or unsolicited, empowers them to make changes, which creates a culture of continuous improvement. To support this process, you should consider providing training and development opportunities for the team by improving their skills and knowledge – for example, by appointing a Lean champion.

It is also important to seek wider stakeholder feedback in addition to regularly reviewing business processes. This is key, as all practices and the businesses they support are continuously changing and evolving.

Listen and learn

Read the AB article ‘Top tips for innovation’, including the ‘lean methodology’