Documentation

How to Write Process Documentation

Writing process documentation is essential for any business. But, it can be difficult to know where to start. We've written this step-by-step guide to help you out.

Introduction

Michael Gerber’s book, “The E-myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work” popularized the idea of using standardized systems to build a successful business. According to Gerber, “once you create your company’s process documentation, it’s easier to empower your low-skilled workers to easily complete tasks and tick off boxes on their checklists.”

It’s how Henry Ford successfully achieved America’s first mass production of affordable cars. Think about it: Henry Ford didn't just invent the car — he developed a process that allowed his artisans to produce his cars on a massive scale. Instead of using one artisan to repeatedly produce the cars, process documentation taught everyone to do 84 simple, repetitive tasks. In fact, this method cut the manufacturing time of the Model T down from 12.5 hours to 2.5 hours!

Mind-blowing, right? You bet!

While we’ve come a long way with the way businesses were conducted in the 80s and 90s since M. Gerber published his book, it’s still mind-boggling to discover that only a few companies can boast about truly letting people do their work. 

While it’s no news that the hunt for talent grows fiercely daily, process documentation shouldn't be tagged as irrelevant just because you’ve hired highly-skilled employees. 

It’s why highly-skilled professionals like surgeons and pilots still rely on process documentation to guarantee high-quality service. For employees like these, process documentation can make or mar — it could result in life or death. This is why implementing checklists reduced mortality by 24 percent in Rwandan hospitals, while also reducing major complications by 60 percent.

The examples above clearly show that process documentation gives your employees more time and energy to do their best work, without sacrificing quality.

Want to know more about process documentation? This article explores:

  • What process documentation is
  • How to write process documentation
  • 5 Benefits of process documentation
  • Scope of process documentation
  • Process documentation challenges 
  • Scribe for process documentation

Dive in!

What is process documentation?

Process documentation is a step-by-step guide on how to complete a task from beginning to end. Think of it as a descriptive document that shows anyone in your company or team the detailed steps to complete a defined task or process. In other words, it explains the “how” in your business.

When documenting how to perform business processes, team members use different documents and file types such as:

  • Checklists
  • Forms
  • Templates
  • Tutorials
  • Policies
  • Screenshots
  • Linked applications
  • Process maps
  • Business policies
  • Linked web content
  • Diagrams or flowcharts
  • Videos, GIFs, or stickers
  • Pictures 
  • Illustration

By documenting a process, you automatically describe the standardized, ideal way of carrying out that task in the company. It’s also important to note that it’s not the same as documenting an entire project, as it likely consists of many different processes (that could be categorized as subsets).

So, what processes can you document? 

For example, a DevOps Manager can create effective process docs to:

  • Maintain an audit trail of edits and updates.
  • Enable your teams to update and maintain best practices as they change.
  • Document dependencies as you build out your CI/CD toolchains (which becomes handy, especially when you onboard new team members).
  • Document processes such as what a bug testing process looks like when you release a software update.
  • Document for automation runbooks, admin guides, etc. (and up to date) — which enables your team members to get automation working again regardless of when it breaks down.

Summarily, it helps you standardize best practices and sets up your team for capturing and benchmarking metrics for quality.

How to write process documentation

Define your goal

The first thing to do before writing process documentation is to determine what you want to achieve. Is it...

  • To onboard new DevOps hires?
  • To reduce the amount of time your DevOps team spends time searching for information?
  • Is it to eliminate the guesswork for certain tasks
  • OR do you want to enhance communication and collaboration?

Make your goals clear. Defining your objectives will help you determine which process to document first.

Gather your process documentation team

Process documentation should be a team activity. No one person can put together an entire organization’s processes. The same applies to teams. Rather, gather a team of documentation experts to lead your team’s process documentation. 

Here, you’ll need technical writers and editors versed in producing top-quality process documentation. Also, remember that the best person to document a process is someone who uses it daily — keep your mind open when deciding which stakeholders to involve in the project.

Design a template

You need to set up a template as the standard for all future documents. This ensures that irrespective of whoever handles technical documentation, you’ll have a uniform standard and always achieve consistency. Process documentation templates should be simple and easy to follow, and must contain all relevant information. 

Writing your process documentation

Step 1: Identify and name the process — Decide on your process documentation’s purpose, why and how the process will benefit the organization, and briefly describe the process.

Step 2: Outline the scope of the process — Briefly explain what would be included in the process and what is not.

Step 3: Establish process boundaries — Outline where the process starts and ends. List factors that indicate its beginning and those that signal its end.

Step 4: Incorporate the process inputs — Identify the resources needed to complete the process.

Step 5: Incorporate the process outputs — identify the outcome of the process once it’s completed.

Step 6: Collate the process steps — Jot down each step in the process, including what triggers the process, or detailing the outcomes and working backwards.

Step 7: Identify the stakeholders — Include everyone involved in the process documentation and describe their roles (plus titles).

Add visuals

After your process documentation has been written, spice it up by adding visual elements such as flowcharts, GIFs, pictures, diagrams, videos, screenshots, etc. These elements would help your employees easily understand the process and boost recall.

Peer review

Ensure your documentation undergoes a peer review process before it is published. It’s important to gather feedback from other necessary stakeholders who can gauge whether your process documentation is useful and if the processes are easy to follow.

Publish the document

Once the documentation is finalized, hit “publish” and make it available to your team and the rest of the organization (where applicable). A good process documentation software enables you to publish private documentation open to only your employees and some selected people within the organization — while also protecting your documentation from unwanted visitors.

Audit the document’s performance

Ask your employees or team members for feedback regarding whether they found the documentation helpful and use it to make appropriate changes.

5 Benefits of Effective Process Documentation

There’s a reason why the likes of Steve Jobs, Fmr. President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg are known for always wearing the same type of clothes. By reducing the number of decisions they make, it’s easier for them to lessen decision fatigue and focus on the most important tasks.

Properly developed and implemented documented processes provide a reliable and audit-worthy record of how an organization or team performs different tasks — thereby, establishing what is commonly known as a standard operating procedure (SOP). 

Let’s examine the importance of process documentation.

Reduces operational overload

Sometimes, when you’re forced to document your team's processes, it helps you discover the unnecessary steps to the task at hand. Therefore, it leaves you no choice but to streamline your operations by cutting your processes down to the bare minimum. You could even decide that an entire process should be omitted; hence, giving your employees more time to focus on other productive tasks.

Record of protocols

Process documentation ensures that you have a record of the protocols your employees follow to guarantee regulatory compliance. Creating well-developed process documents and implementing your protocols is the first step to achieving consistency that results in excellent outcomes, every time.

Achieving 30-50 percent productivity gains

Business Process Management, otherwise known as BPM is a combination of methods used to manage a company's business processes — one of such processes is Process Documentation. Adopted by many companies globally, process documentation has proven to be one of the biggest drivers for increasing employee productivity and reducing waste. Some of the important ways in which process documentation increases productivity include:

  • Reduces the time spent on repetitive tasks.
  • Ensures that the right people are doing the right jobs.
  • Allows for better team collaborations. 

Process documentation can significantly increase your company’s productivity levels when implemented correctly. For example, Forrester reports that BPM projects can deliver between 30-50 percent productivity gains for processes involving primarily back office and clerical staff, and can typically deliver 15-30% productivity gains for processes involving knowledge workers.

Reduce distractions and the risk of operational damage

In a study from the University of California Irvine, researchers, led by Gloria Mark, shadowed workers on the job, studying their productivity. Here’s what study lead Gloria Mark told Fast Company about their research:

“You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were...We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news — it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.

You might think 23 minutes isn’t much of a big deal until you realize that even if your team members get distracted a few times during the day, the amount of time they lose as they struggle to get back to their happy work mode should be taken seriously. Let me do the maths for you:

Let’s say you head a team of ten DevOps engineers…

If one of them gets distracted three times daily, they’re losing an hour of work.

If 10 of them get distracted three times daily, they’re losing 10 hours of work. 10 hours!

You might wonder, “how does this cause operational damage?” Good question!

Here’s an example.

As a DevOps manager, if your team doesn’t have process documentation for a bug testing process when your company releases a software update, your team members would most likely reach out to one another or even you — asking for tips on how to perform the task.

While waiting for answers, they might most likely be interrupted or even leave their desks completely to do something else. There’s also a high chance that they will make mistakes, resulting in costly operational damage since the answers they got were collated from “chats” and not a documented process.

Here’s my recommendation: When creating your process documentation, highlight the major areas where mistakes are commonly made so that your employees are aware ahead of time and are less likely to make them.

Effective employee training and education

With process documentation, you can easily enlighten new hires on a company’s processes, systems and tools. Existing team members can also reference the same documents to perform certain tasks, take on new responsibilities, refresh their knowledge of their current roles or even ensure they know all of the steps of a specific task.

Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page, but it also improves overall team consistency, improves collaboration and communication, and reduces the time spent on developing and implementing new processes.

Scope of Process Documentation

Business process documentation should be part of a framework — where your organization’s processes, policies and procedures are all stored, interconnected and aligned to achieve unilateral business results. A rule of thumb is that they should be kept in one central location and reference one another.

So, what does the scope of process documentation look like?

Policy

  • Typically, it should cover all aspects of the organization, ranging from operational financial to procurement policies, health, safety and environment.

Process

  • A series of inter-related value-adding tasks to achieve a specific business outcome.
  • Ideally, processes are expressed via workflow charts.

Procedure

  • A detailed set of steps that explains how to perform a process task.

To give you further perspective, imagine you’re on a journey:

Your Policy is the traffic laws that regulate your behavior on the road regarding speed, traffic lights, stop signs, and other road rules and regulations. Simply, your policies keep your car (company), driver (key stakeholders) and passengers (employees) safe.

Your Process is the map that gives a layout of the routes to follow from the start of your journey to the end of your trip, including any route stops you might take. 

Your Procedure is the detailed steps you would take regarding the streets, roads, highways or tolls you must travel through before getting to your destination. Think of your procedures as the sat-nav instructions in your car that tells you which way to go.

5 Process Documentation Challenges

Product documentation isn't just a technical requirement. It requires a range of assets, different departments and skills necessary to create and maintain them — all of which could paint a difficult picture.

In this section, we’ll examine the top five process documentation challenges organizations face daily.

Security

Document security is one of the top process documentation challenges that organizations face today, especially for those looking to document trade secrets. To run a successful business and achieve operational efficiency, there’s a high chance that you’ve created intellectual properties, valuable data or paperwork that must be safeguarded against unauthorized access.

For DevOps managers who operate digitally, you must keep an eye on who accesses each document type. A rule of thumb is to create a spreadsheet with document categories as rows and user groups as columns. This would give you information on the groups that have access to certain documents.

Quantity

Managing a lot of process documentation can be complicated, especially when you consider the volume in circulation. From work instructions to product sheets and presentations and maintenance manuals — all of these assets require high visualization to become effective and help employees perform their best jobs. These variables can present a complex matrix; difficult for any team to have control over.

Digital file management confusion

Many organizations rely on certain individuals to handle their digital documents in the absence of process documentation software. The end result is usually chaos — which can include trouble finding documents, overriding other people’s changes, duplicating content distributed in many places or even working on non-active document versions. Using a process documentation tool like Scribe allows you to set up a universal file roadmap, define process documentation standards, and enable document revisions and storage; plus easy access to them.

Document traceability

One of the biggest challenges of process documentation is the ability to trace documents throughout their lifecycle. Ideally, you should be able to determine the status of any document, monitor the changes made, determine its authorization or lack thereof, whether it’s been shared with the necessary stakeholders, etc. 

Accessibility challenges

Remote work is the new working model for many businesses. Therefore, remote employees want to access their documents from anywhere, at any time. While working with paper documents could have been the norm before the pandemic, COVID-19 has clearly shown that digitizing all company activities should be the norm. 

With the right process documentation platform like Scribe, it’s easier to read and access documents via laptop or desktop.

Scribe For Process Documentation

Process documentation software like Scribe offers a centralized library of information that allows your DevOps team to store your process documentation and access it easily.

Some of Scribe’s intuitive features include

Easy editing — allows the admin or editor to add flowcharts, videos, gifs and other visual elements.

AI-powered search — Scribe allows you to easily search for specific information, without wasting time.

Sharing and collaboration — With Scribe, you can easily communicate and collaborate with team members on sharing documents and peer reviews. 

Organizing content — Process documents can easily be organized more clearly and filed under different, appropriate categories.

Document redaction — Scribe allows you to search for and remove text, images and other content containing private, sensitive, or confidential information. 

Conclusion

Learning how to write process documentation begins with effectively mastering its components, acknowledging its benefits and following process documentation best practices. With time and proper care, documenting your business processes would help your organization eliminate confusion and bottlenecks, increase productivity and operate efficiently.

Cheers to setting the stage for ambitious BPM initiatives!