A map isn’t very useful for navigating to a new location if you don’t know your starting point, and you can’t improve a process when you don’t know what it currently is.
While process documentation may seem like a nice to have — in the unlikely event there’s time to do it — in reality, it’s critical for scaling companies looking to streamline their operations. With people quitting their jobs at record rates, employers are experiencing unprecedented turnover, and they need to be able to onboard new hires quickly.
We asked leaders of several growing companies for their process documentation best practices. Their suggestions for effectively documenting workflows will help your teams improve quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction while your company scales.
Align your process with company objectives
Before you send anyone on a documenting expedition, they need to understand the process’ purpose and place in the value chain. Otherwise, their process documentation can divert focus from the company’s larger goals, wasting time and resources.
Adam Wood, Co-Founder of Revenue Geeks, says when a company lacks an understanding of the value chain, their BPM (business process management) becomes focused on specific work areas rather than the big picture. That’s not the goal of documentation.
Gerrid Smith, Founder and CEO of Property Tax Loan Pros, agrees: “Remember, 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.” That means you need SOPs that serve as a roadmap toward your goals and enable your teams to work as efficiently as possible.
Bridget Chebo, Director of Customer Success at We are Working, says one way to do this is to include the objectives or process outputs at the very top of the document. “This saves a ton of time searching through a document only to find out it wasn't the SOP (standard operating procedure) you need.”
Don’t get bogged down in details
Effective business process documentation exists in a happy medium — it’s not too short and not too long. It’s not too complex and not oversimplified. Identifying the right level of detail required starts with an understanding of the end user and how much they already know about the process.
Todd Ramlin, Manager of Cable Compare, says the most effective process documentation conveys the message clearly in as few words as possible. "My tip is to put yourself in the place of the person who will have to read the document and cut it down as much as possible while still being effective."
“By being as brief as possible, your process documentation will be more effective, and your effort will be more appreciated.”
Champion Leadership Group CEO Jeff Mains advises people to be cautious about not overdoing documentation. Remember that some process knowledge is already required on the part of the end user, and restating that information within the process steps makes the documentation “redundant.”
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,” said Cable Compare’s Ramlin. That might mean changing your SOPs from text docs to process flowcharts, screenshots, or other visual formats.
If you're worried your SOP is too long, Chebo suggests breaking it up into several different processes. The goal, she says, is to keep your SOPs simple and easy to digest for stakeholders.
Give employees enough time to document processes
Timing is everything. When you don't make the time to properly document your SOPs, you're setting yourself up for failure. Workpuls COO Ryan Fyfe says, "This is a huge problem because without documented SOPs, it’s difficult to train new employees on what they need to know and do."
You don’t want to pull employees away from their core jobs for too long when your teams are already challenged to keep up with demand, but if you don’t give them adequate time to complete the project, you’ll end up with subpar documentation. Wait too long and you risk losing organizational knowledge to turnover before it’s been captured.
“I always felt like [process documentation] was a burden because it took a lot of time to do, and we were never sure what the value of it was,” said Kamyar Shah, founder of World Consulting Group. But he began to understand as his company grew.
Shah designated a group of employees who would be responsible for different areas of documentation. “We knew that not everyone could be responsible for everything, so we divided up the work based on our expertise,” he says. “It wasn't long before we had hundreds of pages of documents that covered all aspects of running a business.”
Don’t focus on input from managers
Your team leaders should be involved in the documentation process, but don’t look to them for information on how tasks are executed — they probably don’t really know. Discovery requires talking to the people who are actually doing the work.
Without consulting the end user, you can end up with fantasy processes rather than documentation that reflects reality. The process doers know how the task gets done — as well as shortcuts and ways to work around roadblocks.
Including the end user also gives them a sense of ownership in the process. Alex Mastin, Founder and CEO of Home Grounds, says, “As with any project that involves a process change, one of the most important steps is to get buy-in from your team.”
“As with any project that involves a process change, one of the most important steps is to get buy-in from your team.”
The best way to do this, says Mastin, is to involve them in the process early. “It's much less disruptive to their day-to-day work if they're doing the documentation themselves. Plus, they'll be more invested in the final outcome and will hopefully create a stronger ROI for you!“
Sarah Archer, Head of Content Strategy at Kona, says every team member should be part of the process and be a "documentarian at heart." And "directors and managers should be role models for that by referencing, linking, and reminding when it comes to documentation.”
Store process documents in a central location
Process documentation isn’t useful if it isn’t accessible. All documentation should be stored in a centralized knowledge base where anyone can view it. This encourages consistency across teams, especially those working in a remote or hybrid model and who don’t have in-person training and support.
Oftentimes employees brainstorm, share research, and have other important conversations across multiple platforms — in project management systems or Slack, for example — and employees waste hours every week looking for the information they need. Keeping it all in one hub will prevent that.
It might sound simple, but Sarah Ohanesian of productivity coaching firm SO Productive, said, “It's amazing how many organizations I work with who do have documents but they aren't being properly used, as employees don't know where to find them!”
Athlete Desk Founder Darryl Higgins suggests also creating process documentation templates for your team members, which you can store in the same repository. That way, employees can document new processes at a time that’s convenient for them and it will be consistent with existing documentation.
Revisit and update your documentation
Processes are constantly changing as new tools are introduced, and better ways of doing things are discovered. Documents can become quickly outdated, especially for rapidly scaling companies. Storing them in a knowledge base and using collaborative software are two ways to remove barriers to revising and updating process documents.
Mario Cacciottolo, PR & Branding Manager at SBO, says it’s important to understand that the job of process documentation is never really done. “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.”
“[There is] no more obvious example than the last two years to show just how much things can change and how quickly.”
Cacciottolo suggests making it a quarterly task for managers to review their teams’ documentation to make sure it still applies to current processes — and if it doesn’t, make sure it gets updated.
"And processes don’t have to be perfect to be recorded, added Kona’s Archer. “Iterate, iterate, iterate. It’s OK to document a half-baked idea or a concept that changes tomorrow.”
Scale faster with these process documentation best practices
Documenting SOPs is critical for effective employee onboarding, and it also sets the stage for continual process improvements. You can’t get where you’re going if you don’t know where you are, and you can't improve processes if you don't know what they are.
With these process documentation best practices in place, your teams can identify bottlenecks and begin optimizing their workflows so you can grow your company even in times of record turnover.