This is your ultimate guide to process documentation.
We’ve come a long way since the 80s and 90s when Michael E. Gerber’s book The E-myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It popularized the idea of standardized systems as a key to building a successful business. Gerber argued that once you had created your process documentation, you could hand it to low-skill workers who simply completed actions and ticked off boxes.
Today, few companies would boast about being able to let “anyone” do their work. Instead, the hunt for talent is fierce, and top candidates get a new job within ten days on the market. But, process documentation doesn’t become irrelevant just because your employees’ skill levels are high.
Even after years of specialized education and training, highly-skilled workers such as pilots and surgeons still rely on process documentation to guarantee high quality. For them, a documented process can be the difference between life and death; implementing checklists reduced mortality by 24% in Rwandan hospitals, at the same time as major complications decreased by 60%.
Following a documented process doesn’t just improve quality but also limits the number of unnecessary decisions. There’s a reason why people like President Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are known for always wearing the same type of clothes. By reducing the number of decisions they make, they minimize decision fatigue and can focus on the essential matters.
As you can see, process documentation frees up time and energy for your employees to do their best work, whether creative work, idea generation, or complex problem-solving.
Curious about process documentation yet? In this post, we'll discuss:
- What process documentation is
- The goal of business process documentation
- Who should be involved when creating process documents
- The benefits of creating process documents
- How to write process documents
- Best practices
- Some of the best work process documentation tools
Let’s dive in.
What Is Process Documentation?
Process documentation is the creation of a descriptive document that shows anybody in the company the steps necessary for completing a defined task or process — the “how” in your business.
For example, it can include:
- Process maps, diagrams, or flowcharts
- Photos, screenshots, or illustrations
- Videos or GIFs
By documenting a process, you map out the standardized, ideal way of doing something. It’s not the same thing as documenting an entire project, as it probably consists of many different processes.
So, what processes do you document? You can use it for any part of the company, such as:
- Engineering or programming. What does the bug testing process look like when you release a software update?
- Customer service. How do you respond to a message from a customer who requests support?
- Marketing. What steps do you go through to publish a new blog post?
Your processes will look different depending on whether they depend on an incoming trigger or an outgoing result. For example, a process based on incoming action starts when a prospect emails you. This process can lead to several different outcomes — the prospect stops responding, declines your offer, or decides to become a customer.
An outcome-based process starts with the end in mind by identifying a single goal, such as publishing a new blog post. You then map out a process that reaches the target.
While process documentation doesn’t have to have visual components, the addition of such components typically will improve the readability of your documentation and improve clarity for how to follow whatever processes are laid out. One popular method for giving a quick overview of the ideal workflow in a visual format is to make use of flowcharts.
What Is the Goal of Process Documentation?
The goal of process documentation is to ensure that your business continuously, efficiently, and correctly completes processes that help you reach your business goals.
You can improve your business processes in many ways, such as working with standard operating procedures or business process management strategies. However, process documentation remains a convenient choice — you can start with just one documented vital process, and build it from there.
As you’re documenting your processes, you’re also building the blueprint of your business. Will continually reviewing procedures and noting down what works make your business more productive? You bet!
Simply put, no matter if the goal is to scale, sell, or simply improve the business — process documentation will help take you there.
Who Should Be Involved When Creating Process Documents?
So, who should you involve in the documentation process?
The Project Team
Ideally, the project team is part of the group of employees who will carry out the processes. By involving the group from the start, you can use their intimate knowledge of the process and increase the chances of a successful implementation.
However, it can also be useful to include people who do not work with the process. A fresh set of eyes can give new perspectives and result in insights into how the process could be improved.
Whether the project team consists of just one person or several, there are three roles to shoulder:
- Owning the process. This position is in charge of the vision, goals, and progress measurement. For example, this person identifies which procedures you need to document, determines a process’ goals and KPIs, and reviews processes to see how they can be improved.
- Maintaining the documents. This custodian role checks that materials are up-to-date, gets rid of outdated documentation and ensures that the documentation library is easily accessible.
- Creating the documents. The document creator gathers, organizes, and edits information into process documents. It also creates illustrations, graphs, or forms. When the person maintaining documents finds something out of date, this technical writer makes updates.
Are there any other stakeholders involved in a specific process? Then it’s a good idea to include them, too, in the process documentation. By engaging them, you can better understand their objectives, while they get increased insight into the process.
The Outside Parties
Which outside parties depend on the process? For example, you may give access to a supplier or contractor, or bring in a consultant to provide additional insight for improving complex processes.
Benefits of Process Documentation
So, why is process documentation relevant? Let’s take a look at a few significant advantages:
- Improve efficiency. Clear instructions reduce the number of decisions, remove confusion, and allow employees to spend less time completing tasks.
- Reduce mistakes. Reduce the number of bad decisions and tasks slipping through the cracks.
- Improve quality. When everyone follows the same process, you create consistency and uphold your standard.
- Retain knowledge. Successful process documentation becomes an essential part of your company’s knowledge sharing, as the collective knowledge of best practice is documented, shared, and optimized. This approach makes your business less vulnerable when a key employee is ill, goes on vacation, or leaves the company.
- Ensure compliance. Checklists and manuals make it easier to remember to follow policies and regulations.
- Onboard employees faster. Your process documentation may not be enough on its own as training material, but it will help new employees grasp the workflow in less time.
- Outsource easier. When working with contractors, process documents help them quickly adapt to your way of working, even if they are remote.
- Increased safety. Following protocol lets employees work in the safest way possible, both for themselves and the people around them.
- Improve scalability. Having your processes documented makes it easier to sell or franchise your business or set up subsidiaries that follow the same procedures.
- Improve overall operational efficiency. As you’re recording a process, you can easier analyze its effectiveness, identify bottlenecks or room for improvement, and implement a better way of working. For example, an established sales process can help your team close more sales.
- Save money. Reduced mistakes, faster-working employees, and higher quality? Even if your processes run pretty smoothly before you documented them, you can still expect to save some money.
Creating a Process Documentation Strategy
Yes, we’ve all heard the old “fail to plan, plan to fail” quote, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Without a plan, you may create documentation that fails to lead to the result you want. First, you’ll want to start with the overview and consider:
What are your goals for working with process documentation? Note down any specific goals your processes should help your business achieve.
What processes do you need to document? Create an inventory of procedures that you complete regularly. Once you’ve listed them, choose a few to start recording. To identify them, you can ask yourself:
- Which processes are most important?
- Which processes do you go through the most?
- Which processes involve the highest number or severity of issues or faults?
Who needs to be involved? Look at which team members you'll need to plan, maintain, and create the documents. What roles do you need in the project group? Gather your team!
What inputs and outputs do you need? For inputs, what resources, information, or equipment do you need? For outputs, what results are you looking to produce?
Who is the intended audience? Consider what previous knowledge they have. If you have employees in many countries, do you need the documents available in more than one language?
Are any processes similar? If you have several workflows that are alike, you can create templates to speed up the documentation process.
How will you implement and work with the process documents? Consider how you’ll involve staff and communicate the purpose of the documentation.
How to Write a Process Document
So, how do you create a process document? Let’s go through it step-by-step:
Create a Plan
Once you’ve identified a process to document, you’ll want to:
- Choose a descriptive title for the process
- Identify the goals with the process
- Explain why it matters
- Describe what the process looks like
- The inputs and outputs necessary for this specific process
- Set the boundaries — what causes it to start or what the end should be
- Note down which team members will collaborate on the documentation
Once you’ve set your plan for the process documentation, consider whether you already have a template that you could adapt and reuse.
Gather Process Actions
Now, it’s time to start gathering information about the process. Start by brainstorming the tasks that should be part of completing the process:
- Are there already official guidelines for how the process should be completed?
- How do employees complete the process? Do they do things differently?
- What tasks do you need to complete to fulfill the process’ goals?
You can gather information by shadowing employees, interviewing them, or asking them to note down how they complete a process as they do it. Just make sure to let employees know that you're not monitoring them on their work performance — instead, they are helping the company to improve.
As you’re editing the document, remember to:
- Use verbs to for the tasks and sub-tasks,
- Clarify the steps until they are specific and actionable
- Stick to one action per step so it is easy to check it off
- Add any additional information such as hyperlinks
Organize and Determine the Ideal Process Flow
By now, you’ve gathered the possible components of the ideal process.
First, start by grouping sequential items together. You can do this visually, in a mindmap, or by simply listing them. As an example:
- Grind the coffee beans
- Add one measure of coffee beans to the grinder
- Prepare coffee
- Pour one cup of water into the kettle
- Turn on the kettle
- Add one measure of coffee to the filter
Then it is time to identify the ideal process flow. Depending on the process, this might be natural or require some experimentation and discussion.
Visualize Your Process
You don’t have to present your process flow document visually, but it will help make it easier to get an overview of the process than if you just have a checklist.
A popular way to present a process visually is by using a flowchart or swimlane diagram.
Flowcharts show the streamlined process step-by-step. They can be a simple flow of tasks:
But flowcharts can be more complex with various inputs or outputs:
Swimlane diagrams are useful for processes that are carried out by more than one team member or team. As you can see, it shows what tasks are completed by what united, at the same time as you keep the flow of the flowchart:
But charts and diagrams aren’t the only way to make your documents easy to review. If you’ve got chunks of text, you can make it scannable by:
- Breaking it up into smaller chunks
- Adding headings and subheadings
- Using bulleted or numbered lists
- Bolding or underlining text
Illustrations, graphics and screenshots are other ways to add helpful visual information to your manual.
You’ll want to use arrows, boxes, and text on your screenshot to guide the user of the manual to the right action.
While a failed business process may not be a life-or-death matter in your business, your documentation won’t do much good if it stays unused. Instead, you want to make it a natural part of the staff’s workflow. Here are a few tips:
- Share the process documents. It is crucial that the documents are easy to access or will never become part of the day-to-day work. Make sure to give access to all who need the materials.
- Communicate the documents’ purposes. Documenting workflows can result in concerns from employees that you will replace them. Show employees how the manuals are intended to improve their work situation and work quality.
- Review the process documents with all employees who will use them, especially if not everyone was involved in creating them. Do they have any feedback, concerns, or objections? It is better to address it and update the documents or give additional training right away, rather than to risk that employees haphazardly skip parts of the newly established process.
- Make the documentation a natural part of the work culture. For example, you want to make sure to include the process documents in your onboarding.
- Communicate how to handle outliers. What should employees do if they face an irregular situation that isn’t covered by the manuals?
It’s easy to think that you’re done once you’ve implemented documentation. But, working with process documentation is not a “set it and forget it” kind of job. As your business evolves, so will your procedures, which is why you’ll need to:
Reviewing and continuously working with your processes is necessary for continuing to benefit from them.
- Test the processes. How are they working? Identify any bottlenecks, issues, or frequent complaints.
- Get feedback. You want to get continuous feedback on how the system is working, both from team members who work with it and from others who are affected. What can be improved?
- Optimize. Based on the identified issues and the feedback, how can you improve the process further? Make changes and test the new process.
- Monitor progress. Identify the process KPIs and start tracking them if you haven’t already.
- Review. Set a reminder to review it within a year.
Process Documentation Best Practices
Now when you know the steps necessary to create a process document, let’s take a look at a few do’s and don’ts as well:
- Keep it clear and concise. Focus on being specific without getting verbose. For example, “heat the water” leaves more room for error than “heat the water to 155-175°F”. An image or screenshot can help cut down unnecessary words. It’s also important to be mindful of the words you choose — will all users understand jargon or abbreviations?
- Keep documents accessible. The process documents will never become a natural part of the workflow if they are difficult to find. The solution? Store documents in a centralized location that is easy to access, such as a knowledge base. Doing updates and fixing mistakes just won’t happen if the files are on someone else’s computer.
- Make it easy to edit. Fixing an error or adding new information shouldn’t have to take long — make sure to choose a solution that doesn’t turn simple edits into a hassle.
- Control document changes. It makes sense that your documents should be easy to edit — but it’s also a good idea to track changes. Versioning lets you review and restore old versions of the document, and authoring allows several team members to contribute to and rework the content.
- Review your manuals at least once a year. Is the process still relevant? Do you need to make any changes so it reflects new best practices?
- Add a timeline. Don’t forget to include a sense of the process timeline in the documentation. Once started, within what timeframe does the process need to be completed? If the process involves waiting time, what is an acceptable amount?
- Choose a specific, well-defined process. If the scope is too broad, your team members may become overwhelmed when working with it. Instead, narrow down the scope to cover one specific process — then add another, if necessary.
- Create and use templates. Are several procedures similar? Save time by creating templates that you can reuse again and again.
- Back up the documentation. Don’t some unfortunate button-pushing or server meltdown disrupt your business (or, in the worst case, erase it). Ensure that you back up the documentation so you can easily restore it.
- Keep it secure. Your documented processes are part of the company’s secret sauce. Keep it out of the wrong hands by ensuring that your system holds a good security standard, secure log-in, and features a way to manage document access.
- Link to related documentation. Once a team member has completed this process, what other procedures usually follow? For example, once you've gone through the process for publishing a new blog post, other processes may include sharing the post on social media, adding it to a newsletter, or sending it to select prospects.
- Don’t build bureaucracy. There’s no need to turn absolutely every process into a long checklist. Identify the most important, frequent, or fault-ridden processes and start with them.
- Keep an eye out for improvement. While you document a process, pay attention to how it can be improved. Process redesign is easier to do as you’re documenting than once the manuals are in full use.
- Involve frontline staff. While you want the project team to feel engaged in the process, it’s crucial to involve the people who will be using the documents.
- Spend time implementing the new documentation. You don’t want to spend all that time, money, and energy and then not put it to good use.
- Working version vs. user version. Do you need more than one version of the material? If users are active in the document while using it, you risk accidental edits. Having a working version also allows you to finalize your edits before sharing a new user version.
- Think bigger than checklists. Sometimes, a list can be all you need! But process documents can hold so much more. What supportive information do you need to link to or include? Consider how you can help with troubleshooting, addressing potential risks, and give tips.
Software and Tools to Create Process Documentation
So, how do you make it as easy as possible to work with process documentation? Luckily, there are tools to help you:
- Capturing information with screenshots and video recording. Techsmith has two of the most popular capture tools on the market, Techsmith Capture (formerly Jing) and the more advanced Snagit. Both tools let you take screenshots or record the events on your screen.
- Visualizing information with flowchart tools or graphics. Dedicated programs such as Microsoft’s Visio and Lucidchart make it easy to create a visual representation of your process.
- Gathering, storing, and sharing information with a knowledge base. A knowledge base like Helpjuice isn’t the only option for holding your information, but it is one of the most powerful yet accessible tools you can use.
As we’ve seen, process documentation is a powerful way of ensuring high-quality procedures in your organization.
We haven’t discussed the risks of process documentation yet, but there are a few common traps.
First of all, you don’t want to spend all this time and energy on manuals that won’t be used. Dusty ring-binders that are “here somewhere”? No, thanks. No matter how fancy your flowcharts are, they won’t be of any use if nobody can’t find them.
This is why you need one centralized location for storing all your process documentation. If you want employees to follow the new protocols, you need to make them easy to access — preferably from any device.
Then there’s the issue of creating and maintaining the documents. Ideally, you’ll involve several team members to gather inputs, edit the process flows, and comment with their feedback.
But with the wrong tools, this work can quickly turn into a cumbersome process — think endless email chains and accidentally deleting parts of the work. The way to avoid this dilemma is by using a tool with versioning, authoring, and editing features.
Tweaking the systems and rolling out a new version of the documents becomes a piece of cake.
And finally, you don't want this handbook on how to run your business to get into the wrong hands. After all, the way you do business is part of your competitive advantage and may contain sensitive information. That's why it's key to ensure that your documentation is safe and seen only by those who should have access.
So, how do you avoid these issues altogether? We’re glad you asked. Helpjuice offers a powerful knowledge base that lets you:
- Store all documents in one centralized place accessible from anywhere (and yes, it is backed-up)
- Share the right documents with the right people
- Collaborate by writing and editing documents together in real-time — with the option to restore older versions
- Keep your information secure with secure log-in and control access
Creating business process documentation doesn’t have to be an insurmountable job. You can start out small today with one key system. And when you do, we hope you take the opportunity to test run Helpjuice for free for 14 days.