Imagine this: You manage a small team of absolute rock stars. They know what needs to be done and they do it well, with minimal supervision and without delays.
Their processes aren’t documented anywhere — there’s no need. They can do their jobs in their sleep! You never have to worry about them. The work just gets done.
Until a key player gets sick — or quits — and takes their process knowledge with them. How do you prevent this nightmare scenario? With process documentation.
Business process documentation takes the information that lives in the minds of your employees and turns it into a tangible, centralized resource to prevent organizational knowledge from walking out the door.
What is business process documentation?
Business process documentation is the act of recording processes that take place within your organization. Those processes could be anything, from employee onboarding to handling customer complaints to taking out the trash. (Okay, probably not the last one. But you get the point: All kinds of different processes — even relatively straightforward ones — should be documented.)
Process documentation is not the same as process mapping, though they are similar. Process documentation is creating a written document that outlines the steps and key details of a business process. Process mapping is focused on creating an in-depth visual representation of a process. While many process documents include a flowchart or visual element, they don’t all — and even the ones that do are not as detailed as a process map.
Process documents can take many forms, including:
- training manuals
- step-by-step guides
- video tutorials
Whatever form it takes, a process document should make every step in the process clear to the reader.
How to document a business process
Effective business process documentation follows four main steps: Scoping the project, researching the process, creating the document, and obtaining feedback.
Determine the scope of the process
Start by looking at the process you’re documenting from a 10,000-foot level. To understand the project you’re about to undertake — and make sure you don’t under- or over-document — you need to identify:
- The process boundaries: Establish the start and the end point of the process you’re documenting. For example, will it cover one piece of a chain of operations or a multi-process workflow?
- The goal of documenting the process: Include success metrics — determine what you hope to gain through this documentation.
- The timeline: Decide how much time you’ll spend documenting the process. The project could span a few minutes to a few months.
- Key stakeholders: Identify everyone involved in the documentation process, such as researchers, managers, and process owners.
- Project’s priority: Determine how important documenting this process is compared to other things your team is working on.
Now you’re ready to start your research.
Collect data about the process
Gathering all the relevant information about the process upfront will ensure a smooth process once you sit down to create the document. You need to know:
- Process inputs: What tools and resources are needed to execute the process? What software is used? Is the process dependent on the completion of another task?
- Process outputs: What is the outcome of the process?
- Timeline: How long does it take to complete the process?
- Business process steps: Brainstorm all of the activities involved in the process and list them in detail. If you find yourself using multiple verbs or the word “and” within a step, break it into smaller ones.
- Process doers: Identify which role (using their job title, not their name) is responsible for each step of the process.
Once you have all the information you need, it’s time to create the first draft of your document.
Create the business process document
Using process documentation software (or you could even start with pencil and paper, if you like), start building your document — ideally, in this order:
- Start with the process name and an introduction that briefly describes the process and its purpose in context of the organization's broader goals
- Organize the steps you've compiled chronologically
- Create a flowchart or other visual representation of the process flow, if warranted
- Add screenshots or graphics that offer clarity
- Write in the details using straightforward language (avoid unnecessary adjectives and adverbs) and include relevant links to resources
- Include exceptions to the process flow, for example, if a step can be skipped under certain conditions
- Mention potential hazards, common roadblocks, and workarounds
- Review your document for any missed steps or extraneous information that should be eliminated
You may not get it exactly right on the first try (and that’s okay!). That’s why the next step is crucial.
Get feedback on your document
You have several ways to obtain feedback on your process document, and you should take advantage of them all.
- Ask for suggestions from your peers, process doers, and other stakeholders. You might do this through one-on-one or group meetings or by using collaborative software that enables them to leave comments.
- Have someone execute the process using your document (This is the true test!) and gauge the results.
- Fine-tune your document and store it in a central location where other team members can access it, such as a knowledge base.
It’s important to remember to keep your business process documentation current. It should be a living document that gets updated every time you implement new software, hire new positions, improve processes, or make any other changes to the workflow. An inaccurate or out-of-date process document is about as useful as none at all.
The benefits of business process documentation
The practice of documenting your processes can help you identify bottlenecks in your workflows so you can optimize your current processes to get them done in less time.
Thorough documentation also helps organizations improve budgeting accuracy, ensure compliance with industry regulations, reduce operational risk, and meet client requirements. It empowers both veteran and new employees to complete their work independently and effectively. And it provides a foundation for making continuous process improvements that result in increased efficiency, quality, and customer satisfaction, and reduced costs.
Coming soon: More tips and tools for documenting your business processes — watch this space!