This is the first in a series of 5 articles, created to provide practical advice and tips on how to undertake a Process Improvement project in a law firm.
1. Define the purpose for doing the project
Whilst this first statement may sound obvious to some, I am often surprised by the number of people who initiate Improvement Projects without first explicitly defining the purpose or the objectives of the project. It is often the case that different individuals have different motivations for carrying out the project. By ensuring that you adhere to this discipline and kick-off every project with a scoping meeting with the project team, you can increase your chances of flushing out the priorities of key stakeholders and improve the chances of the project ultimately being successful.
2. Define the objectives
Once you’ve understood all of the various drivers for undertaking the project, you can define the actual objectives of the project. It does help to be specific here i.e. “we want to make the process better” isn’t good enough!
To help, here are some examples of objectives from a selection of recent projects that I have delivered:
- To improve the profitability of a particular service line
- To reduce matter cost to be competitive in the market
- To reduce lock-up and working capital
- To reduce overhead cost
- To improve client satisfaction
- To reduce the number of errors
- To improve productivity (throughput of process)
- To harmonise processes following a merger
- To enable a new strategy
NB: The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that “improving utilisation” or “billable hours” does not feature on the list. This is not an accidental omission!
This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully you can see at least some of those examples as being familiar to the objectives of your firm. Not all of these examples will be as relevant to you as others. I am a big believer in Process Improvement being a strategic enabler. As such, the projects you select to complete will be influenced by your firm’s strategy e.g. being the best quality, the lowest-cost, the most flexible, the most dependable, being a one-stop-shop or a specialist, niche provider, etc.
3. Define the improvement target
This next stage is desirable but not necessarily essential. Following the SMART principles, it is beneficial to identify a measurable target improvement for a particular project e.g.
- To improve profit margin from 20% to 35%
- To reduce lock-up from £1,000,000 to £750,000 (or debtor days from 120 days to 90 days)
- To reduce overhead cost by 15%
Some other objectives are more difficult, for example:
- To improve client satisfaction, which is inherently more difficult to quantify and measure
- To reduce error rates, which is practically possible to measure but, for some reason, doesn’t tend to be measured (at least, in my experience of working with law firms as opposed to other service businesses)
Note also that these specific targets may be driven by a number of factors such as:
- Necessity (i.e. the firm needs to be operating at a certain level to be profitable or survive in this market)
- Past performance
- Competitor performance
- Industry expectations
Hint: Remember to make the target challenging but achievable.
4. Scope the project
One of the most common reasons for a project failing is ‘scope-shift’ i.e. the gradual increase or change in scope of the project such that the original intended benefits of the project are not realised. In order to mitigate this risk, I would recommend that, along with the project team, you define the scope of the project and document it.
- What’s the purpose?
- How are you going to complete the project?
- How many, and which, processes are in scope?
- What are the key timescales?
- Who is going to be involved?
- Who is sponsoring the project?
Hint: In order to build support for these kinds of initiatives, for your first project, I would recommend selecting a relatively straight-forward process where some “quick wins” can be realised.
5. Decide on frequency – One-off or Continuous Improvement effort?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this. I have seen a number of firms set out to complete one-off projects to try to improve particular processes that are subject to challenges i.e. those in service-lines that face fixed fees or intense market pressures. I have also seen firms embark on on-going programmes of Process Improvement whereby they complete a schedule of reviews around the firm picking up a wide range of areas. In practice, once people witness how effective these projects can be, they are rarely completed in isolation.
6. Define the scope of a particular process
It is too easy to leave these projects open-ended and let them drift. Therefore, it is important to define some boundaries on what will be within scope. To get the maximum benefit from Process Improvement, it’s important that we focus on the process and not individual departments, activities or tasks. By this, I mean that when we’re looking at how legal services are delivered, we must look at how they are delivered from end-to-end.
The best way to ensure that we do this is to write down the start and end points of the process and refer back to them when inspecting the process, for example:
Start point: Matter set up
End point: Receipt of cash to settle a bill
Hint: By defining the process start and end points, you can easily start the next stage of mapping the current state.
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