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What Is Process Documentation?

Give your project team the organizational clarity they need with effective process documentation.

Have you ever given someone instructions on how to do something? The answer is probably yes, right? We’ve all given instructions, or process steps, on how to do something at some point—such as giving directions on how to get somewhere or telling someone how to complete a set of chores.

Take the classic instructions for creating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example. While most Americans know how to make this sandwich, imagine if you had to write out every single step from start to finish.

Then, imagine you had to give that written document to a group of extraterrestrials. Writing out “Put the peanut butter on one slice, jelly on the other, and put them together” may make perfect sense to you. But to a group of E.T.s, this direction may not be as helpful.

Now, take this idea of a detailed, step-by-step procedure and apply it to a company-wide internal process known as “process documentation.”

Define: Process documentation

A process document is an internal document that provides clear instructions on how to complete something. Each step in a process document outlines a set of tasks with a detailed description of how to execute each task. It can be used to educate new hires, monitor internal business goals, streamline current processes, and provide go-to resources for all employees.

These are some types of process documentation:

  • Project steps and milestones
  • Internal policies
  • Completion checklists
  • Tutorials
  • New employee onboarding
  • Internal goal checklists

Process documents are evergreen and accessible, allowing team members and managers to integrate new processes or steps into a live document. Typically, the project team holds responsibility for keeping each part of the internal business process up to date.

However, the person in charge of the entire team (e.g., project manager, creative director, HR executive) should always make sure to document processes as job titles change, responsibilities shift, and the business evolves.

Process map versus process document

One thing to note about process documentation is that it’s different from creating process maps. As mentioned, process documentation entails creating a written document that goes in depth into each step in a process. On the other hand, process maps are part of the documentation process, providing a visual representation or flowchart of the entire process.

Examples of process documentation

Documented processes can take many forms and be used for a variety of reasons. Here are some business process documentation examples:

  • How to approve, respond to, or deny a PTO request
  • New employee onboarding materials and milestones
  • Article and blog publishing guidelines
  • Remote, hybrid, and in-office work policies
  • New client sales guide and checklist
  • Manager training manual and modules

Benefits of process documentation

While process documentation may seem like a lot of boring work, it can be incredibly helpful for team members, managers, and executives. Some companies may feel that procedures already change too often, a documented process can impede creativity, or that there simply isn’t enough time to write and continuously update a process.

Although these are valid concerns, the downsides are no match for the benefits.

Organizational clarity

Fundamentally, process documents ensure that everyone—from seasoned to new employees—is on the same page during every step of an internal process. That means the bedrock and number one purpose of process documentation is to remove confusion and establish consistent organizational clarity among all team members.

When employees don’t have direct instructions, they might get confused on what steps to take, who is in charge of what, and how something should be completed. The absence or lack of clear instructions could also lead to individual employees having vastly different processes from each other, eventually causing miscommunication, confusion, and frustration.

Identify bottlenecks

Process documentation allows managers to identify problem areas and open bottlenecks at the source. Some employees may be quick to raise a hand and point these out, but others may not even realize they’re stuck in a bottleneck every time they go through a process.

Once you’ve identified the process bottlenecks, you and your project team then have the power to make adjustments wherever you see fit. This could be accelerating one task so another one gets more time, cutting unnecessary steps that don’t add value, or adding a new step that will streamline the process overall.

Guide new employees

New employees usually get some sort of training module or an onboarding manual when they start a new job. Of course some new employees will already be well integrated into their industry and have lots of experience in their field.

However—no matter their skill level—newer employees will still need guidance on company processes. This can also help set expectations in the early stages of employment so new hires aren’t confused or misled from the get-go.

Process documentation can also benefit new employees’ managers and coworkers. Instead of taking up others’ time with questions, employees could look for an answer in a process document before escalating their question to someone else.

Provide a written source of truth

For many businesses, process documentation serves as the written source of truth. This doesn’t mean that processes need to be written in stone, but rather process knowledge best serves a company when it is written and not spoken.

Describing processes by word of mouth isn’t reliable because employees will end up playing a game of Telephone where everyone relays information that changes each time it’s repeated. When process knowledge is written and put in an accessible, central location, multiple employees and managers can refer back to it and maintain a standard across their entire team.

Writing down processes is especially vital if only one person is tasked with a specific job. It may seem like the least necessary process to have properly documented—if one person is doing a job, they don’t have to explain it to anyone else, right? Unfortunately, if that one person leaves the company, the source of that process knowledge leaves with them.

Establish measurements for operational efficiency

Process documentation can be a great tool to evaluate standard operating procedures for businesses with multiple branches, stores, or teams.

First, this can improve the quality of your brand on an external level, ensuring that customers will have consistent experiences no matter where they interact with your company. Second, employees can feel supported knowing their workplace values operational consistency—no one gets special treatment for cutting corners. Finally, process documents can ensure that all team members learn the same procedure if the company introduces a new process.

Eight steps to create process documentation for your project team

The steps for process documentation are similar to the steps in an action plan in a few ways. Both help you outline your goals, learn about your priorities, and break down complex processes into smaller, manageable tasks.

However, process documents are used repeatedly, as they guide people through a particular process each time they encounter it. Action plans apply to one project and stay unique to that project.

In general, these process documentation steps boil down to asking yourself the right questions. Once you have all the answers, you’ll have a near-complete process document.

Step 1. Select a process documentation template or tool

This step is more of a precursor to the following 7 steps on process documentation. Before you get started, think about what kind of process documentation template or tool you want to use. Sometimes processes are just lists in a shared Word document, but other times you may need comprehensive project management tools and software.

If you know how involved your process will be, then go ahead and get started by selecting the medium for your documentation.

However, if you aren’t sure how long each of your process steps will be, which project stakeholders will be involved, or how many resources are necessary, continue to step 2 and then think about what kind of process documentation template or tool you’ll need.

Step 2. Define key objectives as well as process inputs and outputs

This is the first big step you’ll need to take in order to create an official business process document. There are a lot of key objectives to think about here.

Write out your goals. Think broadly about why you want to have a process documentation strategy. What are the company’s business objectives and end goals?

Summarize the process scope. Roughly write out the big deadlines and what major tasks need to be completed before the team can move onto each next step.

Define roles and responsibilities. Think about the stakeholders involved and how many people are a part of this process. Is it a few people? A dozen? Does it involve the entire company? As you write out each individual job title, think about what their responsibilities will be and why their role is important.

Gather resources. You may find yourself gathering resources slowly along the way—or even completing other documents before this one. Keep track of each resource (articles, previous projects, client emails, links to other processes) and document them. This will help provide context as each employee reads your process document.

The next part of this step is to think generally about the “inputs and outputs” for each of your goals. This phrase refers to how computers have inputs and outputs for digital information, but it can also apply to process documentation.

  • Process inputs: The steps, resources, effort, and people involved to make the process flow seamlessly from one step to the next.

  • Process outputs: The outcomes or results that you want to produce from each input.

For example, if one of your goals is to not overload copyeditors before publishing a set of articles, your process inputs could be to include links to style guides and allow each copyeditor ample time to edit each piece. The process output in this example would be that copyeditors have quick access to their materials and aren’t stressed about their deadlines.

Don’t write out every single detail of your inputs and outputs just yet, but do think about any resources you’ll need to collect as you move forward.

Step 3. Define process boundaries

Next, you’ll have to define your process boundaries. Most of these boundaries are related to time management, but not all of them. Ask yourself questions regarding when your process will start, what may get in the way, and how you’ll know when a task starts, ends, or gets put on hold.

Here are some process boundary use cases:

  • For employee onboarding: How much time does a new employee need to be considered “fully trained”?*
  • For manager training*: Once an employee is promoted to manager, how many subordinates will they have?
  • Defining hybrid office rules: How many days should employees come into the office?

Handle the outliers

Try not to make your process boundaries too demanding. There can be a variety of exceptions that may lead to someone deviating from the normal process flow.

The reality is there may be times where customers or clients have odd requests, a medical incident happens on-site, or colleagues don’t get along. People can also get sick, go on vacation, or take long periods of time off, like parental leave.

Employees and managers are bound to experience unusual situations that won’t fall neatly into the exact processes you’ve created. So make sure that you include some wiggle room or include answers to frequently asked questions.

Step 4. Assign and define roles with project team members

Now you’ll want to assign and define roles for each key employee. Don’t just think about who is assigned to what task, but ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  • Why does each role matter?
  • Does one person oversee a group of people?
  • Can any small responsibilities be consolidated and assigned to one person?
  • Can any large responsibilities be split up between more than one person?

As you start to think more in depth about each person’s role, you may get a better idea of how the documentation process will unfold. With each role having a solid foundation, you may begin noticing where potential bottlenecks might appear or how the team can streamline tasks more efficiently.

Step 5. Define each step, task, and subtask

In step 2, you created an initial process outline with a brief description of each of your process steps and major tasks. Now, you’ll need to define every task or subtask for those steps.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is this task?
  • Who is responsible for it?
  • Are there any resources needed to complete the task?
  • Are there common challenges when completing this task? If so, can you list potential solutions?
  • Who should this person delegate their task to if they’re sick or on vacation?
  • When does this task need to be completed?

Clarify and describe each step and stick to one action for each task and subtask. You can organize your document with bullet points, headings, tables, checkboxes, or different colors and fonts to differentiate each step.

Make sure to add links and other internal or external information that someone would find helpful when they read through your processes. Include anything you think is important but try not to overload your document with hyperlinks.

How to prioritize process tasks

If you aren’t sure how to prioritize different tasks or you feel overwhelmed because everything is just too important, try out the “Eisenhower Matrix” method. Developed by former United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, this method defines tasks by their urgency and importance.

The Eisenhower Matrix has four ways to help define a task:

  1. Urgent and important: This task needs to be done now.
  2. Less urgent but important: This task should be scheduled for completion later.
  3. Urgent but less important: This task should be delegated to someone else to do now.
  4. Less urgent and less important: This task can be eliminated.

When it comes to process documentation, the Eisenhower Matrix can help your team understand what is or isn’t a priority, thus increasing productivity, creating better work, streamlining tasks, and reducing stress.

Step 6. Build a process document flowchart

Now that you have all your steps, tasks, and subtasks written down, you can start building a process flowchart—or process map—to help you visualize everything.

It can be as simple or as complex as you want, and some project management software tools can help you get started. Ultimately, the purpose of a process flowchart/map is to provide employees with a general, visual representation of your business processes.

This step is placed near the end of the documentation process so that you don’t have to keep adjusting your flowchart.

Step 7. Review your process and publish at the right time

Before publishing, confirm with all project stakeholders that this new process works for them. Take their feedback into consideration, make adjustments, and don’t be discouraged if you have to start again at step 3 or 4. As the process owner, you’re responsible for letting all stakeholders involved decide that this process will work for them.

If your process document is an update to a procedure or reoccurring project that your team is already in the middle of, don’t introduce the new process right away. Instead, wait until the start of a new quarter or when that project has finished to avoid confusion.

Step 8. Stick to your process, but adapt when necessary

Make sure to stick to your new process document! It won’t help anybody if you put a lot of effort into creating a new process without a team effort to stick to it. Note that this could mean breaking some bad habits or going against the grain of what some employees are used to doing.

However, any process—new or old—will need tweaking at some point. One of the key components of process documentation is that it’s ongoing documentation. So if it’s not providing any benefits, you should absolutely adjust.

If your team has genuine concerns outside some of the general discomfort that comes with change, take some time to identify which processes are or aren’t working. Remember the Eisenhower Matrix if you need help prioritizing tasks in your new version.

Tips on versions

Losing edits during process documentation can make it difficult to understand why you made certain adjustments or if you want to return to an old process. To avoid this, file away every new version of your document and label them appropriately (e.g., version 1.0, 1.1, 1.2). If you’re saving your document on a shared platform like Google Drive, make sure to download and file each new version once you make changes.

If your document is fairly long, you can add a “recently added” or “recently changed” section so that employees know exactly which processes have changed since the previous version.

Lastly, review your process documents about once a year to decide if they need adjusting or not.

Wrapping up: Why business process documentation is important

Internal written processes are vital for businesses to establish consistency and share knowledge among employees. When everyone—from new hires to seasoned employees to upper management—has access to clear, instructional process documents, businesses can run smoothly and efficiently from start to finish.

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