Documentation

The Process Documentation Handbook: Everything You Need to Know for Effective SOPs

Everything you need to know to create top-notch process documentation.

Introduction

If you’ve ever tried to bake a cake without a recipe, you understand the importance of process documentation. Without specific steps to follow, your results will be inconsistent at best.

A failed cake isn’t the end of the world. Maybe you lose a few dollars and a few hours, and your sweet tooth goes unsatisfied. But if baking cakes is your job — and your employer has invested thousands (or millions) in perfecting the cake-baking process — you have a problem.

Business process documentation is like a recipe: it’s a detailed, step-by-step description of how to perform a task from start to finish. It enables employees to work efficiently and autonomously, ensures consistent results, and lays the foundation for innovation and process improvements.

What is process documentation?

Process documentation is the recording of ongoing processes that take place within your organization in order to provide employees with a framework for how to complete a task properly. The documents that are created are called standard operating procedures (SOPs). Organizations have SOPs for all kinds of different tasks, from filing an expense report to onboarding a new customer. And though they lead to different outcomes, they all have the same goal: to make sure the job gets done right —  and as efficiently as possible — every time, whether a veteran employee or a new hire is doing the work.

What are the benefits of process documentation?

The purpose of most business process documentation is to make sure a task is done correctly. But why does that matter? Understanding the benefits of getting things right — or the risks of not doing so — gives fundamental context to the people who are creating (or following) the SOP. SOPs are essential onboarding tools that help new hires get up to speed and allow them to complete tasks autonomously. They also help companies preserve process knowledge when an employee leaves and enable everyone on your team to follow best practices.

For example, say an employee needs three pieces of information to complete a task. For the person who used to do the job, gathering that data ahead of time was an established part of the process. But a new employee doing the task for the first time might not know in advance what information they’ll need, let alone where to find it. So each time they get to a question they can’t answer, they have to stop what they’re doing to seek out the information — which also means disrupting their co-workers to ask for assistance — and the job ends up taking three times as long to complete.

It’s like taking separate trips to the market for ingredients after you’ve started making the cake: Not very efficient. In addition to employee onboarding and preserving organizational know-how, process documentation also helps companies mitigate risk and ensure compliance with government and industry regulations — for example, those that ensure data privacy or worker safety.

How is process documentation created?

Creating an effective SOP requires time invested upfront, but it will save your company much more time in the long run. The initial documentation process has four stages: planning, researching, drafting, and reviewing.

Plan your SOP

Thoughtful planning will help you avoid over- or under-documenting your processes or going through dozens of iterations before it’s even published. SOP planning starts with identifying the roles within your organization,  brainstorming a list of the different processes they complete, and determining which ones require documentation — not everything does! The next step is determining how much time you’re going to dedicate to documenting the process and whether you'll designate one person or a project team to complete the document. Finally, you need to define the end user and the desired outcome so you know why you’re writing the SOP and for whom.

Research your SOP

Even if you know the process back, forth, and sideways, seeking input from other people provides valuable perspective when creating an SOP. Managers can give you important context and tell you the desired result, but the most important people to talk to are the process owners — the ones who are doing the work. They understand the process flow and are familiar with the shortcuts, the workarounds, and the potential problems that can delay the job. They may even have documentation already created that you can use to build your new SOPs. Observe and take notes as they walk through the process steps.You can also interview other stakeholders and subject-matter experts who can offer insights into best practices and identify potential bottlenecks.

Draft your SOP

Here’s how to write an SOP once you've identified the process, boundaries, stakeholders, inputs, and outputs: Add the process instructions to a doc and break them up into small, repeatable steps. Then decide which format best suits the process — a checklist, hierarchical steps and a flow chart are three process documentation example formats — and plug the steps into a template. Add screenshots or other visual representation where possible, and your first draft is done!

Review the SOP

Once your first draft is complete, share it with stakeholders and ask for their feedback. Have someone complete the process using your document and identify inefficiencies or superfluous information. Use the feedback to tweak your SOP until you get it just right. Learn more about how to create standard operating procedures here.

How do you make sure SOPs are followed?

No matter how painstaking your documentation process is, an SOP doesn’t help anyone if nobody uses it. Here’s how to implement standard operating procedures your employees will understand, value, and follow.

Include context

Knowing the task’s desired outcome — and why it’s important to get the process right — provides context and clarity for the end user. (And besides, following instructions just because you’re told to is less than inspiring.)  Give employees the big picture. What are the stakes?

Make it readable

Make your SOPs easy to follow by keeping them short and using the proper format. For example, if the process you’re documenting requires paragraphs upon paragraphs of explanatory text, there’s probably a better way to do it. You might cut it down into several SOPs or replace all those words with images or add screenshots that better demonstrate the steps.

Train and test employees

Especially if you’re working with sensitive data or in a highly regulated industry, you should ensure your staff gets thorough training on the SOPs, which you can verify through testing. You could use a simple survey, or for more complex operations, test each person individually by having them demonstrate the process.

Ask employees if they’re using it

It’s easy to become complacent when you do the same job day in and day out. Whenever there’s a problem, ask the employee if they were using the SOP. If they weren’t, ask why — or if they have any suggestions to make it more relevant and valuable.

Keep it up to date

When you check with a resource and find it’s no longer relevant, you’re not going to look at it again — it’s of no use to you. Prevent this from happening to your team members by establishing a review schedule for your SOPs (yearly, for example) and updating them to reflect best practices or shortcuts that have been discovered. With a process documentation tool like Scribe, you can update the original SOP and every place it's referenced will show the most current version.

What are some process best practices for SOPs?

Creating and implementing effective SOPs is a long-term investment. But you want to minimize time lost to trial and error — especially if you’re a startup or scaling company — so we surveyed business leaders about their process documentation best practices. Here’s what they said:  

Align SOPs with company objectives

Property Tax Loan Pros Founder and CEO Gerrid Smith said, “At the conclusion of the value chain, you want to produce a product the customer values more than all of the time and effort you put into it.” Make sure your teams understand each task’s objective and where it falls in the company’s value chain. This creates a roadmap toward the organization’s broader goals and enables stakeholders to focus on the big picture.

Keep SOPs concise

Todd Ramlin, Manager of Cable Compare, said you should convey your message in as few words as possible. "Put yourself in the place of the person who will have to read the document," he said. “By respecting other people’s time by being as brief as possible, your process documentation will be more effective, and your effort will be more appreciated.”

Keep process owners in the loop

Engaging the employees who are doing the work will prevent you from ending up with documentation that reflects fantasy instead of reality. It also gives end users a feeling of ownership, which is critical. Alex Mastin, Founder and CEO of Home Grounds, said, “As with any project that involves a process change, one of the most important steps is to get buy-in from your team.”

Make process documentation accessible

In addition to distributing them to the relevant team members, store your SOPs in a centralized location, like a knowledge base, to ensure people can find them when they need them. Athlete Desk Founder Darryl Higgins suggests you also create a process documentation template employees can use to document new processes and have it be consistent with your existing documentation.

Keep improving

Your SOPs don’t have to be perfect — in fact, they might never be, because things change as companies implement new apps and processes to optimize their workflows. Mario Cacciottolo, PR & Branding Manager at SBO, said, “We live in a world that feels like it’s always changing and developing, and [there is] no more obvious example than the last two years to show just how much things can change and how quickly.”Check out our post Process Documentation Best Practices: 6 Dos and Don’ts for Scaling Companies to learn more.

Documentation is an ongoing process

A professional baker will find new and interesting ways to improve their creations — make their cake moister, fluffier, or tastier. Likewise, your company will discover more efficient ways to work (by implementing process automation, for example) that will require updates to the existing SOPs. But you can't optimize your current processes if you don't know what they are. SOPs are the basis of business process management (BPM) and the improvements that will enable your teams to work more efficiently and create higher quality results.Want to spend less time documenting your processes and more time improving them? Sharing process know-how is a piece of cake with Scribe. Try it for free today!