TFYW#071: 8 Non-Negotiables For Profitable Workflows.

Jan 19, 2024

This week, we’ll get into designing workflows to reduce your time in an engagement while increasing profitability.

Dumpster Fire

During the first tax season in my firm, I contracted for a small town brick-and-mortar firm owned by Bill B. I needed the extra income while I grew my own client list.

Bill’s firm was preparing to complete 3,500 personal tax returns. Bill needed six additional preparers to handle the volume.

The office had three giant Xerox machines and a 600-square-foot file room.

There was no historical electronic information for any client. If I wanted to see last year’s info, I would have to request it from the file room.

Bill said I would be primarily reviewing returns, but I ended up reviewing only two. I spent the rest of my time preparing simple returns. For every return I touched, I completed 90% of the work.

And I hit my 10,000 steps a day picking up and dropping off files.

In fact, that’s how each return was prepared. The returns would be distributed to the team, and only one person would complete the work
until the final review.

And Bill reviewed every single return.

All 3,500 of them.

The process was chaos.

After two weeks, Bill told me that I was too expensive and that he couldn’t afford me. I was the only CPA on his team, and my rate was 3x,
the next closest team member.

The issue wasn’t that I was doing bad work.

It’s that I was doing all of the work.

There were no intentional workflows, assignments or automation.

It was a dumpster fire.

This might be an extreme example, but it highlights common issues in how we sometimes manage work in our firms.

Workflow Design

Workflow design is overlooked in most firms.

We got caught up thinking that a piece of tech will cure our slow workflows or our team’s inefficiencies.

However, new tech can quickly become a constraint if we don’t invest time in designing the workflow surrounding the tech.

In the last 24 months, clients have paid me close to $200k to review and implement new tech and workflow solutions in firms in Australia, the US and Canada.

Here are the critical workflow design components we must consider to improve their workflows.

These steps apply to all compliance and advisory work.

1. Trigger

We often underestimate this step. The trigger is the event that starts the workflow. Ideally, this is automated so that we can trigger multiple things simultaneously.

Leaving a trigger up to the memory of a junior accountant or a Google calendar reminder can be havoc.

Examples of automated triggers:

  • A signed engagement letter will trigger a templated engagement to appear on a to-do list in a practice management tool.
  • A web form is completed by a new individual tax client, triggering a new client user in your portal with a new shared folder with the attached uploaded forms.
  • A recurring month-end close list of tasks appears on your team’s to-do lists.

2. Assignments

Assignments ensure that the proper level of work goes to the right role. Engagement economics get wrecked when the assignment component is sloppy.

Each engagement should be reviewed and separated into steps. The more granular, the better, so we can make the right assignment.

We need to make assignments based on roles rather than individuals. It’s harder to design workflows for roles for smaller firms, but it helps you affix the right role (and cost) to the correct task.

3. Tools + Apps

When the work and associated steps are assigned, in addition to the detailed instructions for the assignment, include hyperlinks to each tool, spreadsheet, website or folder the assignee may need.

Minimize as much browser navigation as possible.

This step identifies which tool the team needs at each step and who the user will be. This detailed planning is not a waste of time.

Planning how the tech connects to each other and how it will be used is the best way to optimize it.

4. Prework

Prework is the administrative setup of each task. What we don’t do through automation should be done by an administrator. I see too many firms assign administrative work to core service delivery personnel.

My general rule of thumb is that at least three people should touch each workflow:

  1. Administrator
  2. Preparer
  3. Reviewer

5. Preparation

This is where the educated and trained team members complete their work.

At times, we use the term ‘preparation’ for the bulk of work for any engagement.

However, most of the work for many engagements is the organizing and collecting of information (Prework). Preparation is not arranging details but connecting them by an experienced team member.

Your tax associate, with seven years of experience, shouldn’t be organizing the PDF document of tax forms or rolling forward the taxpayer’s profile for the current year.

6. Review

You have to optimize the review step just like preparation.

Standardize the review process so an administrator can create a detailed summary of points that you know make up 90% of the review


If you don’t remember anything else from this week’s
newsletter, remember this:


The value you deliver doesn’t change based on the time you
work on a file. It’s only delivered when you apply your expertise
to the client’s specific problem at the right time.


Delivering almost all of an engagement’s real value can be condensed into a few short actions.

I know client communication is key, and data collection must be efficient. But all those steps are just a build-up to applying your knowledge to the specific problem.

A well-designed workflow uses the person with the greatest expertise and highest billable hour (You) as minimally as possible. They should
only complete those few short actions.

Everything else should be done by someone or something else.

Workflows are more profitable by minimizing your top talent’s involvement.

We would never expect a surgeon to do all the prep for surgery. They only show up for the high-value, high-risk steps.

Be the surgeon, not the nurse.  

7. Wrap up

Similar to the prework, this is the administrative work at the end of the engagement.

This includes sending the 8879 for e-file authorization or the monthly management review package, as well as filing and storing the

Again, almost every wrap-up step can be standardized and trained for.

8. Finalization

The finalization step is the other bookend to the workflow.

It is the event that wraps up the engagement and removes the work from the to-do list.

Again, this should be automated as much as possible to ensure that tasks get removed from to-do lists and team members are not left
wondering if they missed an important task.

There are other key components of a workflow, like document management and storage, and metric tracker, but we’ll save those for
another week.

Build The Firm You Want.


P.S. Email with something that you want me to talk about. I’ll add it to the list. 

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