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How do I start documenting processes at a growing business?

Q. My company has reached the point where we need to document our processes, but this seems an overwhelming task. Do you have any tips for how to get started?

A. Documenting processes can seem overwhelming, but don’t delay the start of this important work. The old Chinese proverb is correct, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In our experience, following the five tips outlined below will ensure that the work goes smoothly.

1. Identify the processes to be documented – Document any activity that has the following characteristics:

  • The activity is repeated frequently. One-off activities do not need to be documented.

  • It is important that employees execute the activity consistently across the organization and over time.

  • 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 if the processes aren’t documented.

  • There is a frequent need to train people to do the particular activity. Documentation ensures that training is consistent.

2. Prioritize the work – 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. Consider the following factors when prioritizing the work. Assign a higher priority to:

  • Activities that will have the most impact on the customer – In general, internally focused processes can receive lower priority.

  • Processes with issues – Processes with problems should receive a higher priority than those that are currently running smoothly.

  • Processes that people are trained to do frequently – It is important to have consistency when processes are frequently taught to others.

3. Choose the right person to oversee documentation – Make sure that only one person is responsible for the documentation process. This person need not actually write the documentation for every process. However, he or she will be ultimately responsible for the quality and consistency of the work. Obviously, the person entrusted with this responsibility must be a good writer, but they also need to be a very structured thinker. They must be able to write clear and concise process descriptions.

4. Support the documentation effort – It is essential that senior management publically support the documentation effort. The organization will not devote the time necessary to succeed unless senior management is seen to be 100 percent committed.

5. Ensure that the documentation matches the actual work – Document the activity that is actually happening, not what management thinks is happening. These two things are unequivocally not always the same. Make sure that those doing the documentation sit with the people who actually do the work. If you wish to change the way employees complete the work after you document the process, you can absolutely do that. Of course, it’s important to make sure that both the documentation and the way employees do things actually change in tandem.

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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