Every business is a collection of processes. These processes can be done well or poorly. When they’re done well, the business grows, when they’re done poorly, the business degenerates into barely controlled chaos.
That’s why process documentation is so important. Growth requires more people to do things without sacrificing the quality that your business is known for. Process documentation removes a lot of the guesswork and inconsistency in the products and services you provide.
In this guide, we’ll look at what process documentation is, the benefits it brings to the table, and how to go about creating process documentation.
What is process documentation?
As the name implies, process documentation is when you codify or document the actions required to complete a specific task. Put another way, it’s a step-by-step breakdown, put in writing, of what needs to be done to complete a process.
When a process has been documented, that’s not the end of the line. In fact, it’s just the beginning. That’s because it should be reviewed regularly and improved over time. If some parts of the process become outdated then they can be removed or tweaked to represent the current reality.
Avoid treating a documented process as inviolable because that can be detrimental in the long term – especially when a process stops providing the desired result.
When process documentation is done well, it produces many benefits which we’ll discuss in the next section.
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Benefits of process documentation
Below are just a few of the many benefits associated with process documentation. When start using clearly documented processes, you’ll discover many more benefits unique to your organization.
Improve processes over time
It’s a common saying that what gets measured gets improved. For processes, the measurement starts with documenting it and then, over time, determining which parts of the process are useful and working well and which parts are outdated or holding it back.
The problem is that most organizations create a process once and then leave it to gather dust. They may use it all the time but they don’t review it. The major benefit of documenting your processes is the ability to regularly review and improve them using the feedback of relevant stakeholders.
Makes automation easier
Automation, like document automation, robotic process automation, and general business process automation, can be a major advantage to any organization. What many people don’t realize is that you need a well-defined process before you implement successful automation initiatives.
Documenting and refining your processes early on can make the transition to automation much smoother.
Makes it possible to produce a consistent final result
The more people that work on a product or service, the harder it is to maintain the same quality. Some batches will be better, some will be worse, and so on.
You can mitigate this problem to a large extent by standardizing the required steps. The closer each step is to being consistent, the more likely you are to provide each customer or client with a consistent product.
Now, this doesn’t improve the quality of the product or service. Rather, it maintains it. If you wish to improve the quality of your deliverables then you’ll need to either improve the process or revamp it completely.
Formal knowledge transfer
This is a challenge, especially with small businesses. Key employees or even the owner holds the majority of the proprietary information in their heads. If that key employee leaves then the important knowledge is partially or totally lost and to be relearned. If the owner is incapacitated or unavailable for some reason, then the process they’re in control of grinds to a halt.
Documenting your processes circumvents these bottlenecks. You no longer have glaring key man risk. At the same time, it makes it easier to train new staff because the processes have been formalized to a certain extent. All the new employee needs to do is learn those steps.
Reduced risk and liability
Many positions have inherent risk and liability and the more inexperienced someone is at the task or process, the greater the risk. For example, working with heavy machinery has a lot of risks. Drafting legal documents has a lot of liability.
In many jurisdictions, having a documented and clearly visible process for doing things protects you from legal liability. In a more practical sense, having a process for working with machines and enforcing specific checks can reduce the prevalence of accidents.
For work with lower stakes – at least physically – processes are still important from a liability perspective. For example, if you’re creating legal documents, a process for editing, checking, and approving paperwork will help ensure almost no grammatical and or issues with clauses make it out the door.
How to create process documentation
After knowing the benefits, it’s tempting to dive right in and start creating process documentation. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that. You’ll need to do a bit of preliminary work to make sure you produce the best outcome possible.
People involved in the process documentation process
The first step is to identify and recruit the people that need to be involved in the process that you’ve chosen to document. This will be different for every process and organization, but generally speaking, it will include:
- The person that does the process – Who is on the ground executing the task day in and day out? They’re an essential part of the documentation process because they may have altered the process to make it more efficient over time. These improvements are often not communicated up the hierarchy in a timely manner. To capture these benefits, include them in the documentation process.
- The documentation owner – This may be someone different from the person performing the task. It may be their manager or supervisor that distributes tasks and is in charge of enforcing quality. They’ll often have a clear idea about the process but not know every detail.
- The writer – This is the person responsible for creating the documentation. The other players may not be able to communicate it as clearly and succinctly as a proficient writer. They’ll ensure you have something usable the first time around.
1. Determine the goal of the process
Every process has a specific outcome that it’s targeting. The act of carrying out the process and the act of documenting the process may want to achieve two different things.
For example, the process may be to create content. The goal of the process would be to create a piece of high-quality content. The goal of documenting the process would be to create a repeatable way to create high-quality content within a short amount of time.
Document both goals. The goal of the process and the goal of documenting the process.
2. Identify where it fits into a larger process and its scope
This is important because most processes are just a piece of a larger puzzle. Using the example of writing a piece of content, you need to complete the keyword research process, the content outlining process, and the content research process. Only then will you be able to write the content.
After you’ve written it, it’ll go through an editing process and an uploading process. As you can see, writing is only a small part of everything that needs to be done. Consider the following.
- Who is involved – This will consider who’s involved in the step before the task is to commence and what they need to deliver before the current task can be carried out. It’ll also consider who needs the output of the process.
- What tools are needed – List them all out even if you think it should be self-evident.
- How long should it take – This should establish a baseline to target or even exceed over time. On the other hand, it’ll help you with planning workflows and projects.
- It’s importance to the larger process it’s a part of – is this an optional step or is it one of the core parts of a larger process? Make it clear so the person carrying out the task can apply the proper amount of attention and care.
3. Provide an executive summary of the process
The executive summary will include all of the information from the previous steps. Additionally, it’ll include the following information:
- The things needed to complete the process – These are the process inputs and can range widely. The main thing to add here are the essential parts that cannot be negotiated.
- The things you expect to receive when the process is completed – These are the process outputs that you get after carrying out the tasks properly. It’s important to note that the output here should be something specific and easily measured. For example, it shouldn’t be a blog post, it should be a blog post with a minimum of 1,200 words, 5 sections, and 4 relevant images.
4. Write the steps required for the process
This is the part most people think about when they consider creating process documentation. As you can see, it’s far from the first thing that needs to be done.
It’s often the most straightforward aspect.
Before you start writing, list them out. Brainstorm with the person that does the process and the documentation holder. They may have different considerations that need to be taken into account.
For example, the person that carries out the process may be more concerned with speed and efficiency. The person that owns the documentation may be more concerned with safety and quality.
The process writer needs to take both of these viewpoints into consideration and write a process document that:
- Prioritizes one viewpoint or
- Balances both viewpoints.
Of course, this will be a decision that needs to be made internally and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Everyone that uses the process after it’s documented will have to follow the decisions made therein.
5. Create a visual flowchart for the process
This is an optional step but can also be helpful for the people involved in carrying out the task. It can show dependencies associated with the process and even highlight areas that need special care.
Below is a basic example of how a process flow chart could look.
Of course, it could be much more complex than this and have many more dependencies.
6. Test the process
Next, you want to test the process exactly as it has been laid out. The goal here is to determine whether or not there are any redundancies that need to be worked out.
For example, is there a step that isn’t necessary and you can skip but maintain the quality of the final deliverable? It’s at this point that you remove it.
7. Publish and audit
The final step is to publish the process documentation where anyone can access it. It’s important to note that you’re not done at this stage. On the contrary, you’re just getting started.
You should set up a regular timeframe for reviewing the processes you’re using with the aim of improving them based on new information. The time interval will vary depending on what the process is.
For example, heavy manufacturing processes won’t be reviewed as often as social media marketing processes.
Wait at least six months between reviews and at most two years. That way, irrespective of the process, you’ll have enough time to accumulate new information and optimize it further or even introduce new technology to make it better.
Process documentation is the beginning of excellence in any organization. It makes it possible to maintain quality irrespective of how large your organization grows.
With that being said, it does take multiple steps and constant iteration to get it right. This guide has detailed what you should expect and the steps to take to create strong process documentation in your organization.
If you’ve already documented your processes and are ready to get automate them, then be sure to take a look at our electronic signature software.