You know you need to document your work processes. It’s a pain, but it has to be done — especially if you ever hope to take time off.
But if your company is like most, you probably don’t have a lot of up-to-date process documentation examples to use as a starting point. Or any.
The goal is to convey how to do what you do — to document your standards of practice (or standard operating procedures) — in a format that’s easy to follow. Otherwise, you’ll waste time creating an SOP that nobody uses. The three most common formats for business process documentation are checklists, step-by-step guides, and flow charts.
Checklists are all you need for simple tasks that can be done in any order
Checklists are a simple, straightforward way to make sure a job is done to completion, and they’re easy to make — which is why they’re as common at home as they are in business. Think about your grocery list or your kids’ list of chores.
Great for documenting processes that contain steps that don’t need to be completed in any particular order, checklists help the user break down their workload into smaller, more manageable tasks. They’re best used for uncomplicated processes because they tell the user what tasks to do rather than how to do them.
For example, here’s a simple office cleaning checklist. All of these tasks need to be checked off for the job to be complete, but if you empty the trash bins before vacuuming, no one will get upset.
To create an effective checklist:
- Put the most important tasks at the top.
- Split up large projects into smaller lists. For example, you wouldn’t want to try to complete a checklist of budget items for an entire school system. You’d break the lists down by school — or even by departments within each school.
- Group process tasks logically. If three out of 12 tasks require working in a specialized software program, list them together.
Checklists can be hand-written or created easily using word-processing software like Google Docs or Microsoft Word.
When sequence is important, a step-by-step guide offers clarity
For processes that require actions to be taken in a specific order, you’ll want to create your SOP in a step-by-step format. Step-by-step guides are handy for a lot of different processes — for example, putting together a piece of furniture — but they’re critical in the workplace for sharing knowledge-workers’ process flows and demonstrating how to use different software programs.
For this example, let’s say you’re demonstrating how you do payroll. To ensure employees are compensated for the time they worked — and that nobody gets in trouble with the IRS — the sequence matters.
If someone cuts the check before deducting taxes, things will get messy for both the company and the employee.
To create an effective step-by-step guide:
- Use a separate numbered entry for each process step.
- When documenting computer processes, include the actions that finalize each step, such as “press Enter,” within that step (“Type in client number, then press Enter” rather than “1. Type in client number” and “2. Press enter”). This helps to prevent needlessly long checklists, and you’re not making assumptions about how much the end-user knows about the software they’re using.
- Use consistent sentence structures (e.g., maintain first-person voice, use the same capitalization and punctuation).
- Include screenshots or other images whenever possible.
Step-by-step process documentation is a labor- and time-intensive task if you don’t have the right tools. Creating a document, collecting screenshots, typing out the steps, and putting it all together into a readable, professional SOP can take hours. And when you’re documenting workflows that you’re very familiar with, it’s easy to forget to include important steps.
Scribe is a process documentation tool that records your process flows — while you work — and automatically generates beautiful, editable step-by-step guides with text and screenshots. Like this:
Anyone can use Scribe to create documentation in seconds, so your team can leverage the process knowledge of top performers without disrupting their workflows. You can embed the guides you create in your company’s knowledge base or share them with a link to other stakeholders.
Check out our gallery to see more process documentation examples made with Scribe.
Use flowcharts when decision-making is part of the process
Flowcharts (sometimes called process flowcharts or process maps) are an effective format for diagramming workflows that require the employee to make decisions or use if/then logic or involve multiple variables and/or outcomes. The visual representation is particularly helpful for explaining complex processes such as algorithms, user experience, and large-scale operations.
Say, for example, you’re the IT manager at your office, and a colleague puts in a ticket because their computer won’t turn on. This (overly simplified) flow chart demonstrates the different courses of action you might take.
To create an effective flowchart:
- Design the flow from left to right and/or top to bottom.
- Keep it to one page.
- Make sure the text is readable.
- Keep symbols consistent (e.g., rectangles for processes, diamonds for decisions, start and end shapes should be the same).
- Use different colors — but no more than three or four.
You certainly could draw a flowchart by hand, but you probably wouldn’t want to. Virtual whiteboarding software like MURAL or Lucidchart or a design program like Adobe Illustrator will help you (or a friendly graphic designer) create attractive, user-friendly flowcharts.
Effective process documentation benefits you and your company
Your company’s employee onboarding program covers the basics, but it doesn’t give new hires the kind of in-depth, technical skills that enable them to complete their day-to-day tasks autonomously.
One of the biggest benefits of process documentation is that it helps new employees work independently, create wins, and establish confidence that makes them productive team members — with fewer distractions for tenured employees like you.
Once you’ve created your SOP, store it in a central location like your company wiki or Google Drive, where anyone in the company can access it. Then you and your teammates will have a process documentation template to start with to quickly create SOPs for new processes.
The more jobs you document, the easier onboarding becomes for the new hire and the veterans who are tasked with training them.