Spend Now, Receive Later – The Ongoing Value of Documented Processes

I own two businesses – my consultancy and an e-tailer of kayaking gear. The latter, Outdoorplay, migrated to a cloud-based software package called NetSuite in early 2010. From the very beginning we required everyone to document the various business processes they learned about the NetSuite system. Google Docs was used to share the process sheets amongst ourselves. Now, one year later, we have a complete library of How-Tos on almost every feature we use in NetSuite.

When we hired a new employee recently, we had her review the applicable process sheets before digging into the software. Then, while she was coming up to speed, she referred to the process sheets to guide her way. The net results were faster learning by her and fewer questions to be answered by others = 2x productivity! 

Here are the basic steps to getting this right the first time and keeping it right over time.

Commit to the Time Needed

Like all forms of communication, documenting a process takes additional time and focus.  The key to good process documentation are to (a) capture the process while actually doing it and (b) slow way, way down to make sure you are recording every single step.  One of the greatest risks here is that you miss or skip a step that is “obvious” to you, but not so obvious to the person who is unfamiliar with the process and is relying on your documentation.

Use a Shared Location to Store Your Documented Process

Ensuring that everyone has both (a) access to the documented processes and (b) the ability to update or revise them as necessary over time are critical paths to success.  There are a number of ways of storing written processes in shared environments – office file server, Microsoft SharePoint, Google Docs – but it’s very important that everyone has the ability to revise the documents. 

Processes can quickly become stale and inaccurate if they are not updated.  The time for updating is best achieved at the time a person realizes that the existing process is incorrect.  Allowing them the privilege to correct it immediately greatly increases the longevity and value of each process documented. 

If you are concerned about tracking changes, you can either ask people to note any changes in a different color text (with their intials in brackets) or ask that they save the document as a new document with a sequential version number.  This latter option preserves the old and the new, though it risks some confusion by future users.

Test on the Unwitting

It’s vitally important that someone unfamiliar with the process be asked to follow the documentation to determine if each step is captured and communicated clearly.  The fundamental value statement of documenting processes is that someone new to the situation will successfully complete the process.  The only sure-fire way to determine that is by asking an employee who performs a different role to run through the process using the instructions. 

Periodic Updates

Some processes don’t get much attention over time.  They may only be applicable to a new employee or a little-used feature of your business or software.  Working through every process at least once a year will help ensure you have kept them current.  A note at the bottom of each documented process that identifies the most recent “test date” is a great way to track when it’s time to review a particular process

A Clear Map Guides the Path to Success

Documenting processes can feel onerous when you are working through your first set.  However, the pay back becomes readily apparent whenever someone unfamiliar with a certain aspect of your business is asked to complete a process.  Whether it’s a new employee or existing person pinch-hitting for the day, their ability to quickly review the steps and complete the task with little to no additional assistance makes for a more productive and less stressful day for all those concerned.

For more words of wisdom on this subject, check out this post from Stephanie Calahan and others – http://tinurl.com/49kgpao.

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