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Which Process Should I Document First?

Q. I’ve heard you talk about the need to document processes. That makes sense to me, but what processes need to be documented and which ones should I work on first?

A. There are a large number of processes in every company. For example, every product that a manufacturing company produces requires a process to build. Pulling a part out of inventory, packing it, and shipping it is a process. Executing a stock trade is a process. When a direct mail company sends out a solicitation, it requires a process. There are also processes associated with hiring employees, developing a budget, and executing employee performance evaluations. So, which of these processes should you document? The short answer is all of them.

More specifically, in a midsize company, you should document any activity that has the following characteristics:

  1. You repeat the activity – One-off activities do not need to be documented. Pragmatically, there would be little reason for documentation other than, perhaps, to provide a historic record of proceedings.

  2. It is important that employees execute the activity consistently across the organization and over time – If multiple people across the organization perform the activity and it is important that they all execute in the same way, documentation will be helpful. Similarly, if employees need to perform the activity consistently from one day, week, month, or year to the next, documenting the activity will help to ensure consistency.

  3. It is important that organizational memory remain intact – If only one person knows how to perform a particular function and that person gets hit by the proverbial bus (or is lured away by a competitor), you will lose institutional knowledge. Those people left in the company will have to recreate the processes from scratch. Your organization will waste time and will most likely experience more errors. Proper documentation can prevent this.

  4. There is a frequent need to train people to do the particular activity – Process documentation is an extremely useful training tool. It ensures that the trainer is both consistent and thorough. The instructor won’t inadvertently leave items out of the training. It also serves as a reference manual for the trainees and will help them remember what the instructor taught.

Pragmatically, a company may not have the resources to undertake documentation of all of its processes at once. The project will need to be phased and will take time. But, that’s not a good excuse for delaying the start of this important work. Prioritize the work and get on with it. The old Chinese proverb is correct: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

In determining which processes to document first, it is important to begin by developing a comprehensive list of the processes you want to document across the entire business. Remember that you can most assuredly document some processes in parallel. For example, while Operations is documenting how they build a widget, Finance can be working on the budgeting process, and Human Resources can be outlining the performance management process. Because these efforts involve different departments, they should not be mutually exclusive, and therefore, can happen at the same time.

However, it is likely that you will need to document some processes in series. This will be the case either because you will need to know the details of one process before you can establish another process, or because documenting the two processes will require the same limited resources. When you must know the details of one process before you can begin work documenting a second process, it is clear which you should do first. When documenting two separate processes requires the same limited resource, you must determine a priority order.

First, assign higher priority to those activities that will have the most impact on the customer. In general, internally focused processes can receive lower priority. Second, processes with issues should receive a higher priority than those that are currently running smoothly. For example, if a widget manufacturer is experiencing quality issues due to inconsistent manufacturing processes, this may well be the first place to start with documentation. On the other hand, if the widget manufacturer is having no issues producing widgets of acceptable quality, in a timely manner, and at a good cost, widget production may not be the first process to document. Make sure that you are getting the biggest bang for your buck.

A third factor to consider when determining which process to document first is how often people are trained in the process. Processes that are frequently taught should receive a higher priority.

The most important point is to get the documentation project started. Process documentation is very important, but there will always be something more urgent. Successful businesses don’t ignore the urgent, but they make time for the important.

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