7 Simple Tips for Documenting Your Important Business Procedures
Here's a great article from Michael Theriault on documenting systems. This is an area that should not be ignored, especially if you are looking to get your business in shape to sell.
Entrepreneurs don’t generally like structure, and in your startup or small company, implementing formal written procedures may even seem counterintuitive to driving the creativity you want.
Yet procedures are essential. They maintain control, ensure consistency, enable training of your growing staff, avoid issues with legislative regulators and authorities, demonstrate due diligence and even keep you, your employees, and your company out of the press. In some cases, written procedures may even be a legal requirement.
For a startup or small company, procedures don’t have to be like the “bricks” produced by some large corporate organizations. You can keep them light, simple, and flexible while still benefiting from having them in place.
Here are seven ways to implement procedures that are light, simple, and easy:
1. Use Flowcharts to Illustrate the Procedure
As much as possible, replace or supplement the written procedures with flow charts. Instead of one large and unwieldy flow chart, break it up into logical pieces and add another flow chart that gives your employees the big picture and identifies the sub procedures documented in separate flowcharts.
When possible, use the swimlane or cross-functional style flow chart that clearly shows responsibilities in separate “lanes” throughout the process.
2. Implement Checklists to Support the Procedure
Checklists are a simple and proven approach to ensuring that every required step, piece of information, or other task is completed at various stages of the process. Don’t look at them as simplistic or redundant, look at them as important reminders. After all, if highly trained professionals like pilots can benefit from checklists, your staff can too.
Keep them simple and short, focused on the key steps or items. Long checklists can be counterproductive.
3. Use Graphics and Icons to Make It Easier to Read and Follow
Visual aids are useful to get a quick understanding of what is required. You can use them to illustrate a point instead of describing it in lengthy text, or to highlight specific things that are important to the process.
For instance, use the stop sign to indicate specific information about the process that the reader must do or know before proceeding to the next step or where there is a risk involved. Use a diamond to illustrate where a decision is required, a graphic of a sheet of paper where a document is involved, etc.
4. Keep the Writing Short and Snappy
Procedures will only be read and followed if they are short. Lengthy procedures are hard to digest while shorter procedures with short, tight explanations, bullet points, headings, images, and even the checklists, graphics, and flow diagrams mentioned earlier are better than dense and wordy documents.
Similar to the flow charts, break up your procedures into chunks and provide an overview on the first page along with a navigation aid like a table of contents or tabs.
5. Involve the Users in Development
When someone writes procedures, especially if they are an expert, they may leave out steps or provide some confusing instructions because they understand the process so well already. It may not be as effective for training or for other staff to follow as a result.
After the first draft of any procedure, test it out and get feedback from users or even someone who isn’t involved in the process. Test it with related departments or individuals who interact with the process. Does it reflect their needs? Does it dovetail with their own processes? What can be improved or changed to make it a better and more efficient process?
By taking this step, you will end up with a much better procedure.
6. Layer Your Procedures
With any process, there are main steps and sub-steps. By layering your procedures and starting with the main steps and then expanding the sub-steps later, you will have a much better document. While it won’t be effective for short procedures, you can use it for longer, more detailed procedures and make them easier to follow and use.
Start with the overview process on one page. Then start at the first step and when you get to a sub-process, break it out by starting it on a different page or even in an appendix of main sub-processes. As long as you make it easy to navigate the document, it will be effective. For instance, using tabs for sub-processes or including links or bookmarks in a pdf version.
7. Tell Them Why
Even the best processes can’t be followed in some cases due to the specific situation or circumstances. You may even have key points in a process where decisions have to be made.
Tell the reader why the step is important and what the issues are. That way, if they have to make a judgement call, they understand the underlying reason for the step and will be able to use their experience and knowledge to make the right decisions. Where deviation from the process isn’t possible for legal, contractual, or even risk reasons, clearly identify that step with a standard graphic and give them guidance about escalating the issue if needed.
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