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Running a business

How to create a process & procedures manual

“It never gets easier; you just go faster.”

This quote, from Tour De France winner Greg Lemond, says a great deal about running and growing a successful business. If you put in enough effort, you can operate your company more productively, and make better decisions over time.

The work you do is challenging, but you can save time, spend less, and increase profits when you build yourself the right set of tools.

One of those tools is a process and procedures manual; a written document that explains how you complete every routine task in your business.

What you get from a process & procedure manual

As a small business owner you already have many responsibilities, so adding another task might be frustrating.

But let’s consider the long-term rewards from investing the time now, instead of when your business has scaled beyond the point where you can manage every single step:

  • Clearly stated instructions: The procedures manual clearly states the steps required to complete a process, how often the process is performed, and the employee who is responsible. Creating a manual eliminates confusion.
  • Training: A manual serves as your primary tool to train new employees, and to cross train workers on tasks. For example assume that the accountant who is responsible for reconciling the bank account goes on vacation. Her backup can refer to the procedures manual to reconcile the account accurately.
  • Managing growth: As your business grows, you’ll have to complete more routine tasks, and your procedures manual can help. For example, if company growth requires your staff to triple the number of invoices they generate each month, your procedure manual will tell you how long it takes to produce each invoice. You can use that number to hire the staff you need to manage business growth.
  • Save time, increase profits: Perhaps most important, maintaining a procedures manual requires you to continually evaluate your business processes and find ways to operate more productively. Using the invoice example, you may find a way to save time when you process invoices or locate a software application that allows you to work faster. These efforts can make you more efficient, thus, increasing your profits as you grow.

It takes effort every month, but creating and maintaining a procedures manual can have a financial payoff for your business.

Where to start when creating your procedure manual

Carefully think through every task you perform to operate your firm. This requires input from your staff and perhaps other stakeholders in your business.

Don’t get down on yourself if the task seems overwhelming.

Creating a manual from nothing requires a serious time investment, and you’ll probably miss some tasks the first time through. Don’t worry about it. A procedures manual is always evolving, just get started and refine as you go.

Try this approach: tell your staff that you’re putting together a procedures manual, and how creating the manual will benefit everyone. Give them several weeks or longer to track their responsibilities and send a written document to a shared folder. Once your workers submit their documents, you’ll have a starting point for a procedures manual.

Next, you (or someone who is managing the process) should meet with each employee and talk through each procedure. Having discussions will help you nail down each procedure that will go into the manual. Documents should be updated after each discussion.

Check with your vendors and some key customers to make sure you’ve considered every angle. A customer, for example, may point out that while they receive every invoice in the mail, emailed invoices are inconsistent. If you want every invoice to be emailed, add that to the invoice procedure.

Getting feedback from stakeholders is the final step to create an accurate procedures manual. For example, a vendor can confirm whether or not your company emails purchase orders to the vendor, or places orders by phone. If the company has an outside investor, the investor can confirm whether or not he receives monthly financial statements to assess company performance.

Keep in mind, important procedures such as month or year end audits, only happen occasionally. You’ll have to simulate those infrequent tasks to get a firm grip on a written procedure. Don’t wait, walk through these tasks as if you are performing them. Put everything in writing as soon as possible.

How to create a procedures manual

To visualize this entire process, let’s illustrate a task that a company must complete every business day.

Julie owns Ridgeview Outdoor, a retailer that sells hiking, camping, and biking gear.

In the last 18 months, Julie trained each worker herself, and kept notes on some procedures in a Word document. Since sales and transactions have increased month over month, Julie has found her time is no longer scalable. At this time Julie’s accountant recommends she create a formal procedures manual.

Inventory is Ridgeview’s largest cost, and company growth has required Julie to purchase more inventory to meet demand. Because inventory requires such a large investment, she decides to focus on inventory procedures first.

Getting input

Julie holds a meeting online with her entire staff, and starts by explaining the inventory process from her perspective. She then asks each staff member if her perspective reflects the process they actually use.

After receiving input from everyone, Julie documents the inventory process, starting with the procedure for a customer sale:

  1. Each inventory item is tagged with that item’s retail sale price
  2. A customer, possibly with the help of a sales associate, selects items for purchase and moves to the checkout area
  3. The employee at checkout scans the inventory tag, and the point-of-sale (POS) system generates an amount owed.
  4. The customer makes a payment by cash, credit card, or debit card, and the payment data is posted to the POS system.
  5. Accounting software is linked to the POS system, and the software decreases inventory and increases cost of goods sold. The system also increases sales and cash for the payment. Credit card and debit card transactions are processed through the cash account.
  6. When the sale is complete, the employee at checkout removes a security tag from the item, so that the customer can leave the store without triggering the security system.
  7. On a daily basis, the store manager compares the sales in the POS system with the inventory reductions in the accounting system. The dollar amount of sales should match the total sale prices for all items removed from inventory each day. If not, the manager investigates in order to account for differences.

Julie documents the customer sale procedures along with all of the other store processes and puts the procedures manual in a shareable document online.

Avoiding problems

Using a procedures manual helps Ridgeview avoid problems in every aspect of business. To illustrate the benefits, consider these mistakes that can be avoided and the risks that are reduced by using a formal procedure:

  • Inventory control: Each inventory item is tagged, and the tag is not removed until the item is paid for at checkout. This helps Ridgeview track every inventory item from the time it is put on the shelf until the item is sold.
  • Purchasing: If the procedure for a customer sale is followed, Julie can generate a report from her accounting software that documents the current inventory levels for each item in the store. For example, if Julie starts the week with 20 pairs of hiking boots and sells 8 pairs, she’ll know when to purchase more inventory. This information can help her manage her cash and avoid buying too much inventory.
  • Preventing theft: No procedures manual can prevent loss, because dishonest employees can work together to avoid the controls a company has in place. However, using a written procedure will reduce the risk, and help an owner identity theft sooner. Julie’s inventory procedure, for example, helps to account for each inventory item in the store and reduce the risk of shrinkage.

These procedures help Julie operate efficiently, manage the cost of inventory, and prevent theft.

You can do this

Any improvement you make to your business will require time and effort, but creating a procedures manual has several benefits. Meet with your staff, get a consensus on each type of procedure, and share your manual with your entire workforce. Finally, set up a quarterly reminder, so that you can ask your staff to review the manual for updates.

Managing your business is challenging, but you can do this.

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