When a business is starting, there are so many big-picture ideas happening in an owner’s head that the small things might get pushed to the side. However, as a business grows and continues to be successful, the number of processes and the tasks that require step-by-step documentation grow as well. At this point hopefully, the business owner or manager has fine-tuned many of these processes, deciding on specific ways that each task needs to happen whenever it is done.
One important way to make sure that tasks happen correctly and that the work flows seamlessly is by process documentation. This means outlining and detailing the steps that each task requires. When this is done often and well, training for employees can happen quickly and without a large amount of effort, people can come in and help with the business without having to be directed in every area, and there is information available so that everyone is always on the same page.
This article will detail what process documentation is, what it is not, and the best practices for implementing it into your workplace.
Detailed Definition of What Process Documentation Is and What It Is Not
Process documentation is the outlining of specific tasks, detailing each step that needs to be completed so that the task can be done correctly and efficiently each time, no matter who is performing it.
If an employee knows how to complete a task, imagine them putting that task on paper with every single detail about how that task or system works. Then that document can be referenced by anyone else ever needed to complete that task, anyone who has a question about it, or anyone who has a problem regarding said task.
Process documentation, however, is not meant to improve processes. (This is called process improvement.) Process documentation needs to be done first if you ever want to efficiently carry out process improvement because to improve upon something, you need to know how it is done and have the steps laid out so that you can see the places where things can happen more efficiently.
Note that process documentation should not be synonymized with procedures. Procedures might be referenced within a process document, but the procedure is the list of steps taken to carry out a process.
Process documentation is also not about policies. Policies tell why something happens, procedures tell how, and process documentation tells the tactical actions needed to implement procedures.
Process mapping is also something that is often confused with process documentation. Process mapping takes all the processes and the steps involved and puts them in a visual infographic to clearly show the workflow direction and the places where teams and tasks are responsible to each other. The process mapping step is very important to organizational improvement, and process documentation is an important step underneath process mapping, but it is completely separate.
Why Does a Company Need Process Documentation?
Imagine hiring a new set of employees and setting them up with projects. However, you explain things to one set of five people, then in another session explain it to five more, but the first set got a different picture than you gave to the second. So, they are doing things a different way, and when you check in with them, they have already told the second set of new hires that the way they understood it was incorrect. How frustrating for everyone involved!
Or, imagine that you have a small team of people who have always worked together and have an inherent knowledge of the way your small business is run and the day-to-day things that often go unsaid. Everything runs pretty smoothly and your business reaps great profits until a life change happens for one or two of these employees and they leave, get sick, or—heaven forbid—pass away without notice. Everything they know about how your company works goes with them! They might have done so many little tasks that improved the way the office works without anyone even knowing.
Businesses who run this way (thinking that process documentation is a waste of time and energy) end up doing a runaround and having to micromanage many tasks and people because there isn’t a set way of doing things that everyone understands. Employees do not feel empowered, confident, or valued, and many quit within the first month or so of being hired.
Large-scale employee turnover is a huge source of revenue loss for companies. Every hour that a person spends looking for, training, and onboarding new employees is an hour of work that could be put elsewhere, for example, in creating new and innovative ideas for product development or service solutions.
Process documentation might be a good amount of work initially, but it will save you so much time and effort in the long run that you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.
Remember, too, that none of these documents will be written in stone. There is always room for flexibility and improvement. (Remember, though, that for process improvement to be done well, documentation has to come first!)
General Process Documentation Benefits
A business will benefit from process documentation in ways that the ripples will continue spreading outward. Here are 10 foundational benefits. Process documentation:
- Sets a guide for obtaining a business’s mission and goals.
- Allows consistency to happen without micromanagement.
- Mitigates risk in organizations with liability.
- Helps employees become confident in their requirements and tasks.
- Lays a foundation for future improvement.
- Increases customer satisfaction by creating predictability in production.
- Heightens profits by reducing waste.
- Measures performance and keeps things compliant.
- Allows for easy training of new hires and provides an access point for veteran employee refreshers.
- Assists in necessary documentation when outsourcing is required.
Best Practices for Process Documentation
Putting these ideas into practice while you imbed process documentation into your workplace will help ensure that everything gets off on the right foot. Your employees will feel empowered and not constrained or frustrated, your management team will be freed up to spend their time with innovation and big picture tasks, and your business will become more profitable and competitive.
Remember that at the beginning of this process (no pun intended) a great deal of employee time and energy will be devoted to doing the research and documentation. If your business has a busy season (such as tax season or the holidays), try to do this work before then. If it has to be done over the busy season or you know it will take a great deal of time, block out regular days and times for it so that the rest of the work does not get ignored.
Regard the Business Value Chain
What is the main value source of your business? Keep this as the overarching goal when you are completing the process documentation steps.
Involve Everyone Affected
If stakeholders, shareholders, users, and employees are all affected by the implementation of process documentation, then their feedback and input should be taken into consideration. Interview them all first as they may have valuable information that can improve the initial implementation of process documentation. The frontline workers will be a great resource, as they are the ones who actually do a great deal of the labor.
Use Simple ‘How-To’ Language
Use direct verbs and short, easy-to-understand sentences that can be read at a glance and do not have to be “analyzed.”
If you want everyone to follow the processes that are being documented, then everyone needs to be able to access them! They should be public and visible, both digitally and in paper form.
Allow for Flexibility
It is inevitable that processes will change over time, so make sure that there is an easy way to go in and edit them when necessary. Use a template so that things can be updated, changed, and removed without a great deal more work.
Remove Unreasonable Expectations
Know that documenting processes does not mean problems won’t arise. Be prepared for kinks in the system and create a process for fixing them when they happen.
Keep Sessions Focused
Remember that your task during process documentation meetings is simply that: to document processes. This is not the time or place for coming up with new ideas for improvement; that would keep you in those meetings forever! Keep your eye on the prize; improvement can come later.
Use Visuals When Appropriate
Flowcharts and maps help many different types of learners understand and grasp concepts quickly. Use these when they prove helpful.
‘Process Documentation for Dummies’
Don’t overcomplicate matters. You are trying to simplify tasks so that everyone can complete them without confusion. Concise, clear, simple language is key.
Make Use of Performance Reviews
Review the processes often to determine if they are working and what might need to be changed or updated. Are your business analytics improving? If not, where could things be tightened or done differently?
Take the Small Wins
If this is a new way of organizing your business, know that it won’t perfect things overnight. Find the places where you see improvement and take that positive feeling with you onto the next step of the journey.