Why did I go to work every day? Early on in my career, I knew that I was working to become more proficient and technically skilled as a CPA specializing in business tax, but like many, I started to feel stuck. I didn’t know where my career was going, and worse, I was struggling while trying to figure it out. I left public accounting to give industry a try but wasn’t sure that was a fit for me either. In the fall of 2015, I was fortunate enough to work with career coach, Heather Ludwig. Little did I know that the process Heather led me through would become a crucial part of what I now do every day.
My initial session with Heather began with a simple question; “What have you done in your past that if you knew you would work on tomorrow would get you excited?” Well, that wasn’t really the first question. We spent about 10 minutes talking to each other so that Heather could understand what I was struggling with and customize her approach to helping me. In doing this, she answered two critical questions: 1) Why following her program was better than what I had been doing, and 2) Why I needed to change my thought process.
I realized early into our conversation that I did know where I wanted to focus my career. I have spent time working in four different CPA firms, from a sole proprietor up to a top 10 firm. During my tenure at each firm, I helped make changes for the better. I have implemented new software and the processes associated with them. I have changed the staffing of business tax engagements and even participated in a formal Lean Six Sigma (LSS) process improvement project. I realized that this is where I wanted to devote my time. I wanted to dive head-first into helping CPAs improve their processes. To put it bluntly, I wanted to help them change the way they work for the better.
The process Heather coached me through involved determining what it looked like to focus on process improvement and confirming that people can make a career out of this. Making a career out of something is far more important than finding a job. I had been reviewing various job postings and trying to figure out if that was something I could do. Heather’s approach was simple but different. I spent time talking with various people about process improvement. My take-a-ways were to identify things I liked and didn’t like. At the end of the day, I needed to answer the question; could I make a career in process improvement and who should I talk to about that?
Since joining Boomer, I have learned so much. That, in turn, has fueled my passion for process improvement. I have even realized that people use LSS process improvement without knowing it. LSS uses the D-M-A-I-C process improvement model. The model consists of five basic phases:
D – Define. What problem do you want to fix? Create the vision, define the objectives, identify the scope and create timelines for completion.
M – Measure. Measurement is critical for thoroughly understanding the baseline and current state of your process. Not what “should be” happening, but what is actually happening today – and all of the variation between offices and individuals.
A – Analyze. Tear the process down. What does the data tell you? Identify the inefficiencies and waste. Identify the work loops and churn. Identify the quality issues. Ultimately, identify areas of opportunity.
I – Improve. How will you fix the problem? Develop ideas and solutions in the areas of opportunity identified during the Analyze phase. Don’t just apply best practices to a part of the process that isn’t a root cause area of weakness. That leads to ineffective change and convoluted processes.
C – Control. How will you sustain the improvements? Take time to train, roll out and implement the new process. This is where you must address the ‘why’ questions. If you did your homework in Define, Measure and Analyze, this step will go much smoother.
Let’s revisit my coaching experience using the five-step DMAIC process improvement model.
Define – Focus on past experiences that sparked my passion. Focus on daily tasks that I enjoy and look for ways to turn them into a career.
Measure – Compare my personality type with my career successes to focus on career options that will set me up for success. Determine a list of questions to address during the analyze phase.
Analyze – I interviewed people who currently work in process improvement on a daily basis. The goal was to find out what the day-to-day was really like. I also needed to envision myself in that role and confirm that I still felt excitement and passion for this type of work.
Improve – Why do I want to work in the process improvement space? For me, it was fairly simple. I knew from past projects that I enjoyed making things better for my teams. Working 100% in process improvement excited me because I would be spending my time working on things I knew I enjoyed.
Control – Heather and I worked together on this from the start. We focused on finding the right career by creating a list of ‘likes’ vs. ‘don’t likes.’ Based on my research, I needed to make sure I had enough things in the ‘like’ column and that the ‘don’t like’ list was manageable. As with any change, I needed to answer the ‘why’ questions. Why do you need to change? Why will this be better? From Heather’s perspective, the ‘why’ question is the reason her approach of focusing on career over job is important. I learned that focusing on career helped focus on what I wanted to do instead of deciding what I might like. I knew ahead of time that if I could focus on process improvement, I would have the right job. The ‘why’ was really quite simple. I didn’t like my current job, and I didn’t know how to find a job that I would like. This process worked because it confirmed what I wanted to focus on and confirmed that there is a big market for people who want to focus on process improvement.
Without recognizing it as such, Heather and I had used DMAIC to change the course of my career. Before I started working with Heather, I jumped from idea to idea without a clear approach for getting out of my career rut. A common problem in firms today is that they jump from improvement idea to improvement idea without a clear approach to making things better. Heather’s approach and the DMAIC are powerful tools that focus on answering the ‘why’ questions, whether the issue you’re working on is personal, professional or institutional.
Have you been struggling trying to improve something? LSS and DMAIC are a powerful methodology and tool that you can use to not only improve your processes but your entire firm! I challenge you to find ways to use DMAIC for more than just compliance processes.
By Michael Wherry, CPA, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt
Boomer Consulting, Inc.