For Process Improvement, Stop Starting at the Beginning

I’ve talked with several attorneys lately who have all told me a version of the same story. It goes like this:

“I don’t have time to do a bunch of process improvement work, but a few times a year something about my workflow drives me crazy and I resolve to fix the whole darn thing. So I go to my white board to sketch out the different parts of my process and get to work making them better. Starting at the beginning, I take a hard look at my client intake system and make a few changes to improve it. But it is always harder than I think it’s going to be, and by then the client work is usually piling up. So I go back to being a lawyer and never really get around to improving the other stages. Until a few months later when it starts to drive me crazy again…”

There are, of course, several problems with this approach. One is that it is near-insanity to try to improve an entire process all at once. Even the most experienced process improvement consultants will falter if they try to eat the whole elephant in one sitting. Second, if you do like the storyteller above has done and keep starting your improvement efforts at the first stage of your process, you may wind up with a whiz-bang client intake system . . . only to have that client’s matters keep getting bogged down in the other parts of your workflow.

So first let me let you in on a little secret I’ve learned as I work with my consulting clients: Most lawyers should never try to improve their client intake process at all.* Why? Because client intake is almost never the stage of the lawyer’s (or firm’s) workflow that is holding back the rest of the system. (And, by the way, unless your practice is brand spanking new your marketing probably isn’t the problem either.) I’m not saying that your intake system can’t be improved; it most certainly can. But even if your intake system is downright terrible, I’ll bet you a nickle that fixing it won’t do a thing to improve your overall practice efficiency. Why not? Because I guarantee there is some other part of your workflow that is worse.

Some time back I wrote about the Theory of Constraints. You should read that article for a more complete look, but the basics go like this:

  • In any workflow or process, there is typically only one bottleneck that is constraining the flow of the entire system (and there are never more than two).
  • If you can improve the flow of work at your bottleneck, then you can improve the flow of the entire system.
  • Any effort you make to improve the flow of work at a part of your workflow that is not the bottleneck cannot improve your overall system. If you fix something upstream of the bottleneck, you will only increase the amount of pressure on the constraint. If you fix something downstream of the bottleneck, your newly fixed stage will be starved for resources due to the bottleneck. Not only will you have wasted your time and resources on an ineffective fix, if you increase pressure on the bottleneck you can actually make things worse.


The key to any process improvement effort, then, is to find your bottleneck and fix that first. Of course finding your bottleneck is easier said than done, but here are a few tips:

(1) You have to measure things. Actual, hard number measurements, and you have to have enough data about your system to give you some actual information (never conflate data and information, they are not the same thing). You don’t need data about a lot of things (at least at first), but some basic metrics are essential. Here are my top four:

  1. How long does it take you to handle a matter from start to finish? This is your average takt time. Yes, some matters will take longer than others—such is the nature of averages. At some point I may care about your outliers and your deviations from the mean. But at first I only care about your average.
  2. How much money do your typically make from a matter? Again, I want averages here, although if you typically handle lots of different matter types then you’ll want to group them to get averages for each.
  3. How many matters, on average, do you close each month?
  4. How much money, on average, do you make each month?

(2) If you are using a kanban board to track the stages of your workflow, then finding your constraint is usually easy. Your bottleneck is where you see work stacking up in a single column of your board. I haven’t yet written about how to set up a kanban for a multi-stage workflow, but if you want to build one please don’t hesitate to contact me (schedule a call or send an email).

(3) If you aren’t using a kanban board, you probably still have a good intuitive sense of where your bottleneck may be. The trick is to validate your hunch. Here’s how: Run an experiment where you make a small improvement to the part of your workflow that you think is the bottleneck. Then measure to see whether your improvement actually makes a difference. So, back to #1, that means you also need to measure performance of that particular workflow stage. But there’s a catch: you can’t use improved performance at the bottleneck stage to validate whether your improvement worked. Why? Because improvements made to parts of the system that aren’t the bottleneck do nothing to improve the entire system. So you have to check those four measurements I outlined in #1 above: If one or more of them improves after you make the change, then you know you’ve found the bottleneck (obviously keep measuring month to month to make sure you’re right). If they don’t improve (but your local measurement says that stage got better) then you now know that you haven’t found the bottleneck. So pick another stage and run another experiment. And so on, and so on.

It isn’t always easy, but it isn’t complicated either. The trick, as with so many things, is patience and perseverance. And having some accountability doesn’t hurt either, so if you work with a team make sure everyone is aware of your efforts. And if you’re a true solo, then I strongly suggest finding a coach (and yes, I do that, but this isn’t meant to be a shameless plug) or some other accountability partner.

Questions? Comments? I welcome them all. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch. And also check out the Agile Attorneys Slack Group if you want to join the discussion on how to use Lean and Agile methods like the Theory of Constraints to improve your practice.


* A caveat to this blanket statement: If you can do things at the client intake stage that will grease the skids for some other part of your workflow that is a demonstrable bottleneck, then making improvements at Intake can be worthwhile.

© 2015, John E. Grant

Photo Credit: Kev Lewis, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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