5 Steps to Solving Complex Workflow Problems: How We Designed and Built a Smart Workflow for a Tuition-Based Client
[A Must Read for Nonprofits with Tuition Revenues]
Over the years, I’ve worked with several nonprofit schools. One thing they all have in common when we come on scene? The accounting is a nightmare.
If you’ve ever worked at a school (or been a parent who’s paid school fees) you understand that capturing the ins and outs of daily, weekly, monthly, or annual tuition can be confusing. Throw in scholarships, holidays, and seasonal breaks and you get accounting mayhem.
Last year, one of our clients with an adult day program rolled out a redesign of their tuition and fee structure. They moved from a pay-as-you go model to standardized fee rates, regular invoicing for families, and they also added a subsidy (i.e. scholarship) program to assist families who could not afford the full fare of the program.
Unfortunately, we were brought into the loop a little too late – and after the new process and payment structure was rolled out to the community. The result was one huge, hot mess for everyone involved – the staff, the Blue Fox team, and the participant families as well.
We’ll spare you the details, but as this past academic year wrapped up, the staff and Blue Fox were determined to work together to unpack the issues with the inaugural process and streamline the workflow. In the words of ME Parker, the Keeper of Books from the Blue Fox team assigned to this client, “The overall goal was to make this process not only much more simplified, but to make it a shared process… so everyone is working on the same page.”
It was paramount to Blue Fox that we have a collaborative and inclusive redesign of the workflow. Here’s how the process unfolded… it’s a roadmap anyone can use to work through a challenging workflow scenario.
Step 1. Gather data and analyze the challenges with the current process.
As soon as we realized that year 1 was a giant beast of a learning curve, we began to gather data on what was working and not working (for everyone involved). We made notes throughout the year on the issues we were having on the accounting side, and issues the staff were dealing with as they communicated with parents and managed their own recordkeeping related to the program.
Every time there was “an exception” made on the billing side, we kept a record of that in particular. Participants of the program have a level of intimacy with staff that, while a wonderful endorsement of the organization, created its own set of challenges as the staff tried to (understandably) bend to accommodate different needs and requests throughout the year. A beautiful intention that was followed by a brutal accounting process.
We also developed a spreadsheet to track gross fees and true subsidy amounts per participant, since this information was often incorrectly computed on site and incorrectly accounted for in the accounting software. At year end, we analyzed this information to ascertain the root causes of miscalculations and headaches, and we identified accounting and program policies and procedures that could be implemented to eliminate or avoid those accounting land mines.
Step 2. Determine recommendations and sketch out revamped process.
As this client’s virtual CFO, we were asked to take the lead and design the new workflow and identify the best technology to use in that workflow. We identified the core issues in play and made suggestions on how to prevent those issues going forward. We suggested things like:
Step 3. Collect feedback from staff and TEST the new process.
After we settled on our recommendations, we presented them to the staff and asked for feedback. We had some very deep, meaningful conversations with the client to ensure that our ideas were aligned with their needs. The critiques we received allowed us to further tweak and refine the workflow.
Once our framework was set and agreed upon by all parties, we ran some tests of the new process. These tests revealed a few shortcomings in the revamped approach and gave us time to adjust and adapt the process prior to rollout.
I *cannot* overstate how important the testing component was – the Blue Fox team ran tests on our proposed systems based on the most complicated variables and scenarios that we had encountered in year 1. When we stumbled, we analyzed and clarified why and then refined the workflow (and/or our tools in use) further.
This is the kind of behind-the-scenes value add that we live to provide, and that really makes a difference to our clients.
Step 4. Implement technology solutions to streamline the workflow.
Most of our process improvements revolved around technology that would:
This laser focus on really leveraging the technology at our disposal was key. We all have tech in use at work – but does it really WORK for us? We were determined that should be the case.
So, we did things like:
Step 5. Communicate the changes with staff and stakeholders to ensure unity in approach.
The final and, arguably, most important step was to communicate with and educate staff on the new workflow. The executive director took the lead here as you might expect, and we were on hand to answer questions after the staff had a chance to digest the new workflow.
Did a few additional changes/needs arise after those conversations? You betcha. Were they as onerous or numerous as the prior year? Not by a longshot – at most, we have 5-10% of the curve balls we had last year.
And while the staff was busy taking these changes to their participants and other stakeholders, we were busy developing staff training materials to ensure accounting data entry accuracy throughout the year. These how-to docs sit on staff desks and guide them through every step of the payment receipt process.
You can’t argue with the results.
This consultation was a huge investment of Blue Fox time – candidly, we billed less than half the time we spent on this project. But for us, it was 100% worth it – this was a short-term project with long-term impact across the organization. And critically, efficiency has soared. It’s hard to estimate the amount of time saved this year versus last year, but we think our processing time is down by half or more.
The staff is no longer using paper forms to collect registrations, nor are they using disparate spreadsheets to track data and payments. Winning!!
We spotted the challenges, used our 20/20 hindsight to analyze them in granular detail, and then applied our macro-view foresight to innovate our way to success. Through sheer willpower and a won’t-quit-until-it’s-right mentality, we have iterated our pants off until, as ME says, “we assured consistency across the organization in complex scenarios… we brought fusion to a very disjointed process.”
Does your accountant do that? If not – you might want to email or call us at (321) 233-3311 to find out how we can help solve your back-office workflow problems. Go ahead. We have lots of free time now. ;)
Welcome to the Blue Fox Blog! A fairly entertaining source of info and news related to our company, nonprofits, social sector trends, and, of course, accounting. Enjoy!
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