Do you have a back-up plan in case one of your team members is out for an unknown length of time? As many of you know, we like to pride ourselves on our use of systems. We have detailed job descriptions and our programs have thorough management descriptions and tasks. Heck, even our special projects have steps laid out in comprehensive detail. Some may call it overkill, we like to call it over-planned, but for good reason.
That being said, even the most prepared organizations need to revisit their systems on a regular basis. This happened to us recently. One of our team members fell ill unexpectedly and it was unknown how long they would be out. We needed someone to step in as quickly as possible to cover their work and meet client deadlines. The process of reviewing the status of their projects and tasks revealed that we needed to update a few steps and add several more details so the cross-trained team member could step in swiftly and easily.
While they can be frustrating and chaotic, sometimes unexpected absences create an opportunity to look at your systems through a fresh set of eyes to identify what, if anything, needs a little fine-tuning. This is true even if your existing procedures are well-documented.
Here are five key areas to review to make sure all tasks are spelled out and EASY to follow with little to no direction from others, in case your go-to person is unexpectedly unavailable.
What. First things first, start a spreadsheet. Have each member of your team create a list of specific tasks and projects they handle. Break down those tasks in as much detail as you can.
When. Next to each task, categorize them as either daily, weekly, monthly or annual tasks. Breaking them down this way helps ensure no steps will be missed. If tasks are driven by client deadlines, a list should be created detailing due dates based on a timeline of completion, or “in-hand” date for the client.
Who. As you create this list with your team, you may notice certain projects or tasks showing up for more than one team member. Don’t panic or think your team is divided – that’s a good sign! Certain projects have many different tasks that are completed by different people on your team. Determine who is involved in completing each task. Does the bookkeeper need to be involved? Does the attorney need to approve certain steps? Does another person need to assist with a few steps? Does someone outside the law firm have a few steps to take care of? This will help you understand how the time of your team is being spent and where you may be able to streamline some pieces of recurring projects (example: If a project leaves Judy’s hands and is passed to Andrew, but then goes back to Judy to complete additional tasks, is that the most efficient process?).
How. Next, identify how each task gets accomplished by listing out the steps to complete the task. One task may have eight steps and involve five people, and another task may have three steps and involve two people. Other details you may need: Usernames and passwords to various programs, costs or pricing, or special circumstances or considerations related to a client or vendor. Be as comprehensive and specific in listing out the steps to avoid questions and confusion later. Have others in the office read through them to make sure they are completely clear. You may even have them use the procedure manual you’ve created to attempt to complete a project on their own. If they get hung up or have to ask a lot of questions, take the time during this process to back-fill with more detail.
Update. This is an ongoing process. Ideally, it is good to review tasks and steps of various recurring projects or departments in your firm each year to make sure the content is still accurate and any one person’s role could be picked up by anyone anytime. This can be a good year-end project. It is also good practice to review your systems when someone on the team happens to be out to see if there are any gaps of information that need to be added or changed. Note what worked well in their absence and what steps need more detail and information.
Creating your detailed tasks and a procedure manual for each position ahead of time will make for a smooth and seamless hand-off for the person picking up the role when an unforeseen absence happens. What systems could use a review in your office?
Director of Member Services
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128