Process: Why Documentation Is Worth The Effort

The health care system receives a lot of flack for a lot of things. And, let's face it, well deserved flack. But that doesn't mean small businesses can't learn a thing or two from it.

For instance, it seems as if there's a process for everything in healthcare. From signing up for insurance to discharging a patient from the hospital, there's a process. Why do you think that is? Believe it or not, it actually makes things MORE efficient.

That's because processes make life more efficient, even bearable. Imagine if you had a different way of making coffee each morning. Or tying your shoe. So many processes are automatic that we would think it lunacy to try and document them all.

However, documenting all of your processes in your small business is exactly what you should be aiming to do. Why? Well, there are several reasons but they all boil down to this: it can save time and money.

Think about past jobs you've had. How many had some sort of manual to explain what to do? Now think about how many jobs you had where having a manual to explain what to do would have been helpful?

Maybe you didn't need a manual to tell you how to do your job. Maybe you needed a manual to tell you where to get supplies, who to talk to about getting access to a computer system, or do-this-and-save-a-gob-of-time-figuring-it-out-on-your-own.

In business it can be of great value in documenting business processes. Yet many small businesses don't take the time and put forth the effort to document their processes.

Regardless if you're a one person company or if you have employees, documenting processes can pay off big time.

One of the most expensive HR functions is the on-boarding of new employees. It takes a lot of time before a new employee is working at full speed. Having documentation for processes can help reduce that time dramatically.

At the other end of the employment spectrum is when your business loses an employee. When a valuable employee leaves it can leave a significant hole in your business. Protect yourself by having documentation for the processes the departing employee leaves behind.

A third benefit is this: documenting a process creates a natural review. Whether intentionally or unintentionally writing processes down makes you think about how and why you do it.

When pressed to give an answer as to why small business leaders don't document business processes many give the same reason: it takes too much effort.

But it doesn't have to be hard if you begin with small steps:

First, document the highest level steps to create an outline. Then fill in the outline with the most critical steps it takes to move through the process. How do you know which steps are critical?  If a step is skipped and it shuts down the whole process, it's critical. For example, if you're writing a process for making scrambled eggs and you skip the step of turning on the stove, the whole process breaks down.

Next, begin filling in the space between steps. This does not need to be exceptionally specific minutia but thinks that improve the outcome. Thinking about the scrambled eggs, note what temperature to set the burner, when to add the salt, and how to recognize that they're almost ready to be taken off the burner. Each of these details helps to improve the outcome of the process.

From there you have to decide how much more detail is adding value, which details are individual preferences, and which are not value added. Use your discretion.

The goal of having a well-documented process is to allow anyone to follow the step by step process and complete the task. Once that minimum criteria is met, move on.

If you've taken the effort to document processes in your business, put forth the little effort to keep them updated. This can be done easily if you have a systematic trigger for review and updates.

If you are bringing on a new hire, review the documents as you show them the ropes. If things have changed, update the document.

One the best ways to keep process documents current is to put someone in charge. You'll be surprised how ready they are to be responsible and take pride in the "process library." Review it quarterly and thank whoever is in charge for the work they're doing.

If you haven't been documenting your processes, it can feel too overwhelming to even try. But it can be done. The key is to start. And remember how valuable these documents can be if someone leaves, or, better yet, your business grows.


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