One big difference between your small business and a Fortune 100 company is the sheer volume of documentation that guide its everyday operations.
But even if you have only a few employees, writing down your most essential procedures can be beneficial. Having formal processes makes it easier to maintain standards and consistency, train new hires, adhere to external rules and regulations, and support due diligence efforts when required.
Here are six easy ways to get started — without going overboard.
1. Replace words with images. Well-chosen graphics are often more readily recognized and understood than written instructions, especially when those reading the documentation are busy, distracted, tired, or in a hurry. Photographs or drawings that illustrate how to perform each step are often helpful. You can obtain the necessary photographs easily by snapping off a series of shots as your most experienced employee performs the task you’re documenting.
2. Use flowcharts. Again, a picture is often worth a thousand words of documentation. Instead of literally describing a vital business process, you may find it helpful to create a flowchart that outlines the steps of any given procedure. Look for opportunities to mark some of the concepts or instructions with simple visual aids, such as an octagonal Stop sign, a triangular Caution sign, or a branching arrow to indicate a choice point. For especially complex processes, consider using a cross-functional flowchart, which makes it easy to specify who’s responsible for each step.
3. Build checklists. Cut down on confusion by including checklists in your process documentation. This prompts people to complete the required steps in the correct order. Number the items in the checklist, too, so that if employees are interrupted midstream, they can more easily pick up where they left off. As with other types of documentation, short lists work better (and are more likely to be followed accurately) than long ones. If a checklist requires more than two dozen items, break it into two or more shorter lists.
4. Get feedback from your staff. Owners and managers often believe they know a business’s processes the best. But frontline employees who routinely implement these processes often have a keener understanding of the relative importance of each step, time-saving shortcuts, and differing performance standards that apply to separate parts of the process. In other words, you generally want to incorporate their insights and input. So, ask for employee feedback on early drafts of your process documentation.
5. Start with the big picture, then drill down. The best way to document a business process is to first show how it fits into the organization’s overall activity and then explain the steps of the process to cover its specific details, technical specifications, and procedures. For example, describe the process overview on a single page. Next, create a flowchart depicting its key steps (see #2). Then document the tasks required of each step, supporting each task with specifics. Separate your process documentation into as many hierarchical layers as needed. This way, anyone seeking to learn the process, or compare it to the actual work being done, and can quickly see what ought to be accomplished at any point.
6. Provide context and reasons. All documentation should explain why a particular process is important and what steps it involves. Providing this information helps your business in two ways: In processes that require judgment, employees will be better equipped to draw upon their personal knowledge and experience to make appropriate choices. In processes where judgment is disallowed — for reasons of legality, contractual obligations, risk factors, etc. — employees will be alerted to this fact and the importance of following procedure exactly.