Since the 1950s, businesses have learned the benefits of defining processes and procedures. Business administrators could transfer skills into a process, incorporating ideas from several sources. By combining these ideas, they could refine their business process and create the most effective way to complete the job.
It took law firms about 40 years to catch up to this idea and they are now starting to realize that a great deal of work is process-driven and can take advantage of lessons learned in other industries. As paralegals become more highly involved in training staff or overseeing firm production, the use of processes becomes critical to the overall ability to keep the workflow going. As a general rule, lawyers love processes and recognize that it makes for a better way to work.
While a law firm may be filled with highly skilled individuals (including lawyers, legal secretaries, paralegals, law clerks and others), the work product does not necessarily need that type of skill to get it done. There are repetitive tasks that could be standardized and improved over time. In my experience, tasks like sending out the welcome letter, requesting records, mass mailings, collecting fees and others can be defined as a process. Once all the experts have transferred their knowledge and ideas to the process, and the process is perfected, that task can be repeated by following the process. The person executing that process does not need the same skill level as those that created the process. The process can also be used as a training aid for new staff.
We all use processes and procedures every day, from a simple process to sort our laundry to complex business processes. A process defines what happens and includes all the activities performed, the technology needed, and the desired end result. For example, we could have a laundry process to define how to use a two-bin laundry bag to separate dark and white clothes for washing. Generally, a process is used to help guarantee an end result, lower the skill level needed or improve the efficiency of a task. An example of a process in a law firm may be one that details how to write a court document with the margins, spacing and paper that the court requires.
For training, you would detail within a process how to create something you need that would allow a new person to accomplish the result you want. You don’t have to teach all the technical details of the task, but only the process required to get the task done. You can also transfer knowledge from a skilled person into a process with enough detail for an unskilled person to accomplish the result needed. For example, most legal professionals want to practice law and don’t want to become experts in technology. To accomplish a task that involves technology, a person who is an expert would write a process to accomplish the desired result, so the legal professional doing the task would not have to understand all the technical details of what they are doing.
There are many reasons to have a process, and many studies prove that the bottom line of a business can be improved with documented processes. From what I have seen, as the size of the law firm grows in numbers of staff or cases handled, the benefits of a process increase. As the number of sticky notes reminding you how to do something grows, you eventually reach a point where it is better to write a formal process and standardize how that task is completed.
One area that frequently creates the need for a process is the installation of a case management system. Suddenly, you need information entered into a system in a certain way for that system to operate. Instead of expecting everyone to learn all the technical aspects of the system, often a staff member will write a process that explains how and when to enter the data.
The evidence on the benefits of a process is nice, but it does not explain why processes are often not followed. In my work, I may arrive at a law firm and quickly discover that data are missing from the case management system, skilled staffers are writing letters instead of using templates provided by the system or important dates have been missed because a process was not followed.
I can go back to my simple examples of sorting laundry or using a process that tells you whether the dishes in the dishwasher are clean or dirty. It would not be unusual for me to find dark and light clothes mixed, or a dishwasher filled with both clean and dirty dishes. Both are simple processes, so why are they not being followed? I have found three reasons:
People do not know about the process or they are not thinking about it. Don’t assume that by sticking a magnet on the dishwasher door, everyone knows what it is for. The same applies in business. Just because you think it is obvious, don’t assume everyone does.
People know about the process, but don’t think it is important or that it applies to them. This is a popular excuse. People often think their way is better or faster and they simply ignore the process. A lot of this is pure ego and you will have to overcome it.
People do not believe the process is beneficial. This could be because they never studied the process.
I find the same reasons at businesses that I do at home. There are a few steps you need to take to ensure the success of your neat idea of a process:
Determine if the cost of the process is less than the savings you are trying to achieve. In my dishwasher example, I would be trying to prevent extra washing cycles and thus save water and electricity. My process requires turning a magnet on the door of the dishwasher every time the dishes are washed or unloaded. If this effort is more costly in time or aggravation than the potential savings, your process is not effective.
Make sure that the skill or training needed is less than the skill or training needed to do the job without the process. This would mean that the cost to implement the process would be more than the savings.
Make sure that everyone on the job knows about the process and how to do it. If not, the process will be ignored.
These are the simple actions, but what if you have someone who simply does not like the confinement of a process? The best way to get someone to follow a process is to have them do it while you offer improvements or suggestions for changes. Help them understand that such changes can help to streamline the process or make it more efficient or cost-effective. Most individuals want to have input into the process, so they can feel a sense of ownership. Other individuals may resist being told what to do without any explanation.
The last step, after you are sure your process is well-documented, effective and good for the business, is to enforce it. The second most popular reason for the lack of process adherence is lack of enforcement. If something was important enough to require a process, it is important enough to be reinforced.
When we are called into a law firm, I generally become the auditor or compliance checker. After finding out what is important, I will go into a case management system, write a report to display all the important data fields for all active cases and then identify all the cases with missing information. The cases are then grouped by owner within the firm and we can quickly see who is not following the process. If you are a firm administrator or a law firm manager, that is a good exercise to do now and then. A report like this will give you some idea if training is needed, if your processes are effective or if you have someone who is just not on the team.
I started this column with the suggestion that the process gets a bad rap. Actually, that may not be far from the truth. One of the business principles I learned early is that errors are caused by the process most of the time. There was a lack of training, a mistake in the process or a problem with the technology. One of the most valuable lessons your team can learn is that if someone starts to fail, it is often the process, not the person, who may be to blame.
Email Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us how you are living a balanced life and, if not, what you think needs to have a course correction.