Business and start-up adviser Barra Ó hÍr outlines the critical importance of documenting processes to keep everything running smoothly.

Everybody’s been there. You take on a new role and couldn’t be more excited when, all of a sudden, you’re launched into a new process that you’ll be repeating multiple times and there isn’t a written procedure available to guide you through.

You scramble to take notes while whoever is training you talks you through the process. It can feel like you’ve hit a wall in terms of learning and productivity. If you have chicken scratch handwriting it’s even worse.

“Maybe you might ease into the role without the fear of looking incompetent for asking a simple question that someone else could have easily laid out for you in advance”

You’ve been thrown in the deep end. Again!

But what if your predecessor had taken the time and the effort to document the process so that it acts as a map for you?  What if they were supported and encouraged by management and a learning culture to do so?

If you had been adequately supported from the beginning, the following could have happened instead:

You would boost your productivity and contribution faster, through learning the role in a better, more structured way. This could lead to a gentle learning curve rather than a steep wall. You could learn your job while asking fewer questions about basic things, such as what the source of a particular figure was. You could still ask questions (and you would be enthusiastically encouraged to do so in a learning organisation) and that would solidify the process for you even more. The key point is to distinguish key elements from the less important parts of the fog that you have to deal with on your first few runs through a task.

Once you’re clear with it all, then it would be your turn to update the process documentation to fill in any gaps in your own knowledge. You might feel like a welcome and valued member of the team sooner.

Maybe you might ease into the role without the fear of looking incompetent for asking a simple question that someone else could have easily laid out for you in advance.

Certainly, you would still be stretched in a new role as you learn it, which would help a lot with your sense of flow and sense of fulfilment in the role.  You don’t have to worry about scrambling around without a guide looking for the source of every little bit of information on a given reconciliation, calculation or whatever the task may be. It doesn’t have to be a memory test.

You’ll still be working closely with others and collaborating on this process while you get up to speed, but you’ll see that you’re doing more work over time and needing less and less input from your busy colleagues. Having well thought-out and well-communicated processes raises everybody’s confidence level in the whole endeavour, especially during a time when so many of us are working from home.

Over time as you become more familiar with the distinct elements of the process, you will pick up a valuable and transferable skill in practical process documentation. You won’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you run through the process.  Much of the work has been done for you, and you get to concentrate on learning the process rather than stressing about individual snippets of information and other gaps in understanding along the way.

If you didn’t have to worry about getting to grips with the basics to the same extent, you might feel ready to take on other more value-added work.

How to prepare process documentation

There are many ways of preparing process documentation.  A key part to it is that it be easy to follow for the user.

The options include a full narrative of the process with clear headings and screenshots and as much detail and nuance, based on the user’s personal experience, as is possible.  You could do a full run through with a learning document that shows the process from start to finish. Mindmaps and other visuals such as flowcharts and simple block diagrammes can show the key elements of the process from an appealing and easy to follow visual perspective.  A learning document could be rolled forward the following month and used as the basis of that month’s work or as a reference point for future use.

For some processes a checklist might be the best approach, showing a detailed and thoroughly tested sequence of events that must be followed in order to get to the correct output.

A combination of these options can be used also, depending on the situation.

Regardless of what method or combination of methods are used to document the process, it helps to start off with some context. A clear explanation of the what, why, who, where, when and how of the process.

  • What are the main elements of it? What’s the end goal or output?
  • Why is this being done in the first place? Is it worth doing or is it even needed?
  • Who gets the output of this work, how do they get it? Are their contact details noted? Who prepares it? Who provides the inputs? Who is responsible for the process documentation?
  • Where is the task document/spreadsheet located? Is it on the network drive?  Where is the process documentation located? Is it accessible to potential users and its existence well communicated to them?
  • By when is it needed? What is the deadline? When does the user reach out to whoever prepares the inputs, if applicable? Should the user send them a reminder? When should the process be started? Has the user added these dates to their calendars on a repeating basis?
  • How – this is the key part, where the process is run, having gathered all key inputs. Is it rolled forward from the prior month or is it built from scratch? Is it a cumulative report or does it show only a single month? How can it be compared to previous month’s work for consistency?

In the body of the process itself – the “how”, it is helpful to provide the following information for completeness. Let’s face it, people are too busy to think about every little bit of information shown here month in month out, so it’s helpful to include as much as possible.

  • In an actual task document notes and queries preparers can add a hyperlink to the relevant folder on the drive where the inputs and process documentation are located, so they don’t have to fumble around trying to remember where they are.
  • Print document location/file path on the face of the document, so if it’s up on the wall, or in a hard copy, they can be located and changes made as necessary.
  • Naming conventions for processes and the tasks themselves. If there is inconsistent naming on files it will take much longer to locate and recreate them, and it can cause problems for secondary or backup users of the processes. It is best to keep this simple but unique and user friendly.
  • Explain calculations and hard coded numbers. Every piece of information ha a source and a reason, and as such it should be clearly explained.
  • Keep irrelevant work out of it. The simpler and cleaner the better.
  • Highlighted tabs showing inputs, processing and outputs.
  • Ensure that appropriate deadlines are recorded on the calendar so nothing is missed.
  • Add in any relevant nuance in areas where this might be needed, e.g., if A happens, take action B, or if X happens, take action Y. This could be in a note on the area of a spreadsheet or other document, but its inclusion might mean that the question will not need to be answered, so confusion is reduced.

So the procedures have been documented. Now what?

These things need to be considered from the points of view of both staff and the organisation.  Any cultural change like this will benefit from top-down encouragement.

Creating a well written process document is going to take time, with the main pros being an effective and efficient process, clearly communicated and one that is of real help to users. 

It will reduce stress and increase the productivity of new hires and of people being cross-trained.

It will assist in the effectiveness of the process while increasing efficiency, both of which people tend to find motivational and is a clear plus for the organisation.

It has cultural and strategic benefits, where it’s clear that new hires aren’t going to be thrown in the deep end and left alone to figure things out. It lends itself to continuous improvement and is strongly connected to corporate resilience and recovery, and in providing much needed structure to the organisation.  It makes for a more agile and more adaptable workplace as part of any continuous improvement initiative by management.

Processes need to be regularly reviewed and rejuvenated so that they’re current and that they do in fact show users exactly how to do key tasks in the event of a change in staff.  These reviews can be done remotely by teams, rather than individuals, as two or more sets of eyes are better than one. The use of screen sharing tools while reviewing and preparing these documents will also help as a good method of fostering ties between colleagues and boosting working relationships, while allowing for some creative input and imagination.

For a more formal and structured approach, organisations can look into ISO-9001, Processes, Procedures and Work Instructions, but giving due thought and focus to the above should be a good starting point for anybody willing to make things flow a little more easily in their daily work for themselves and for their teams.

I always tell my clients that having this kind of documentation in place and kept up to date will be of huge benefit for so many reasons, not least the fact that it helps people get stuff done. It starts from the top, why not take some small steps to start off and then continue to improve over time.

  • Barra Ó hÍr, FCCA is Managing Director of Córla Consulting Teoranta, providing financial and business advice to startups and SMEs.

Published: 17 December 2020