Jan 22, 2019

The Easy Guide to Business Process Documentation

process-documentation

As your business grows, things inevitably become complex. There are more people, more tasks, and more steps, all of which need to be arranged in the most efficient way possible. Assuming things will naturally fall into place and procedures will work themselves out is why many startups lose momentum as soon as they expand their team.

Maintaining accurate and well-organized business process documentation is considered to be one of the best ways to avoid chaos and keep things efficient and consistent.

But let's face it – process documentation sounds tedious and boring. Some businesses perform it only because they think it’s what they are “supposed” to do. Others avoid process documentation entirely, feeling that it's a complete waste of time and money. Most companies feel a push and pull between trying to do the right thing by documenting and trying not to waste resources by documenting.

The reasons many companies cite as excuses for avoiding documentation are countless:

  • Too much is changing right now.
    You wouldn’t want to spend valuable time documenting and standardizing things that might change in the near future.

  • Procedures are constrictive.
    You need to be flexible to be successful. Standardization would only stifle your ability to innovate.

  • There is no time for this.”

    It doesn't seem like a priority to document things that you might barely have time to complete in the first place.

  • It's too corporate and bureaucratic.

    You want to keep a more informal, personal company culture and don't want to adopt what seems like a practice best suited for large corporations.

Sounds familiar? If so, you're certainly not alone.

What is process documentation and is it worth your time?

“We're going to start a completely new job.”

Henry Ford to Charles Sorensen, 1907.

Henry Ford did not invent the car – he invented a process. His novel approach to manufacturing allowed him to create America’s first mass-produced affordable car, transforming the automotive industry and the business world as we know it. The idea was simple: instead of one artisan creating a product alone, everyone was taught to do one of 84 simple, repetitive jobs.

The introduction of the assembly line cut the manufacturing time of the Model T down from 12.5 hours to 2.5 hours, becoming one of the world’s most influential business process improvement examples.

LongBeachFord

Any business is essentially a group of interrelated and often repetitive tasks and processes. But it's only when you formalize them, that you are forced to think about the workflow with productivity in mind.

The biggest value of process documentation is standardizing and scaling the things that already work for you, identifying ways to optimize the things that don't, and sharing that information with others on your team.

Documenting processes can help you achieve five key things:

  1. Process optimization. Identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies by documenting the exact processes. You’ll quickly see what processes that you need to improve or get rid of.

  2. Process automation. Process documentation helps discover tasks that can be easily automated, saving time and resources.

  3. New employee training. Documentation helps new employees understand their job roles and familiarize themselves with the processes they’ll be involved in.

  4. Company knowledge sharing and retention. Documentation preserves a record of processes known only to a few people specialized in doing them. Without it, when an employee leaves, any process knowledge leaves with them.

  5. Operational consistency. If you don’t document a process, essentially it is being reinvented by someone every time it is repeated.

Processes can be documented in the form of policies, checklists, tutorials, forms, screenshots, and so on – anything that describes how a process should be executed. Think of it as your team's cookbook. Recipes are written down because they’re the easiest way to duplicate a tested process. Similarly, any task that is done more than once or completed by multiple people needs to be documented. Doing so provides consistency for your company and allows you to monitor and revise processes as you go along.

Of course, standardization is only effective if you have validated processes to standardize. That means that if you are a startup that hasn't yet laid a solid foundation, documentation will be a waste of time. However, as soon as your business begins to mature, diligent process documentation starts to play a critical role.

How to create process documentation

Let’s assume that you have absolutely zero process documentation in your organization and are starting with a blank slate.

You have to go through what is called process discovery. Starting at one end of the process, start gathering all the steps. It's always helpful to do this in diagrammatic form, especially if the process is not linear and includes multiple decision points. Try to involve everybody who is part of the process.

standard-operating-procedure

Step 1: Define the process and its scope

Decide which process you are going to document. Determine its purpose and scope – why and how the process will benefit the organization. Establish what should be the desired outcome of the process and list down what resources are necessary to carry out each of the steps.

Step 2: Organize the steps

Gather all information on process steps from start to finish and identify the starting point is whatever triggers to the process. Once you have established that, the rest is simply a matter of asking questions. What happens next? Who does this? And how do you know when it’s done?

Step 3: Describe who is involved

Decide each individual who will be responsible for the process tasks. Define their roles. Keep in mind to mention their job title rather than their name.

Step 4: Note down exceptions to the normal process flow

A business process may not always follow the same flow due to various reasons. Mention these exceptions and what steps will be taken to address them.

Step 5: Add control points

Identify where risks could occur in the process and add control points to help monitor the process. Establish measurements to determine its effectiveness and possibly improve it.

Step 6: Review and test the process

Gather everyone involved and review the process you’ve documented. Once done, test the process and see if you’ve missed anything.

Will anyone actually read it?

Part of what makes process documentation seem so frustrating is that the finished documents are never read or updated, becoming a relic of some long-forgotten meeting decision.

There are a few ways to ensure that the time you invest in documenting processes is not wasted and creates real value for your business.

Make documentation easy to access and search

One of the main goals of documentation is to share knowledge. When access to the documents is restricted or available on demand only, it sends a message that the information is only relevant to certain people and discourages your team from using it. Process documentation needs to be published on a platform where your team will see them daily. One example of such a platform is Nuclino, a real-time team collaboration and knowledge sharing tool.

sales-process-documentation

Make it easy to edit

Processes are dynamic. They change over time – managers redistribute tasks, people join and leave the company, roles change. Feedback and new input are essential for the process documentation to be effective, so contributions need to be as effortless as possible. In Nuclino, every document can be collaboratively edited in real time, while version history captures the changes and makes it possible to easily restore earlier versions if necessary.

Be concise

Doesn’t distract your readers with excessive amounts of information. Provide only as much guidance as needed without going into unnecessary details. Stay clear, concise, and to the point.

Make it visual

A picture is often worth a thousand words of documentation. So, instead of literally describing every step of a business process, help the readers digest the information by presenting it in the form of a diagram or a flowchart. In Nuclino, you can embed live diagrams by simply pasting a shared link from draw.io, Gliffy, or Lucidchart. These tools also provide the ability to document processes in the business process modeling notation (BPMN).

process-documentation-flowchart

Turn documentation into an asset, not a source of dread

Documentation can be a boring and tedious chore. It can also be a great way of empowering your team to do more, faster – if done right.

Documentation is a reflection of your business philosophy. If your company documents are inaccessible, outdated, or confusing, they’ll be a source of frustration, if they are read at all. On the other hand, if they're succinct, informative, and up-to-date, they can enable your employees to be efficient and independent, and help create a culture of transparency at your company.

If you decide to invest time into process documentation, make your time and efforts count and treat it as an asset rather than a chore to cross off your to-do list.