Explore process documentation, a systematic approach to detailing tasks, with 4 essential steps to streamline operations and boost efficiency.
Do you ever wonder if your business runs efficiently? Are you getting the most out of the time and effort you put into your company? Or could you be bringing in more revenue with just a few simple improvements?
There’s a single, straightforward step you can take to figure it out: process documentation. It’s a simple idea. But it has a huge amount of power.
And it works. Read on to see how one company made a 71% improvement in the efficiency of an employee group through process documentation and optimization—and how you can use the same technique for your business.
What Is Process Documentation?
Process documentation outlines the steps needed to take some sort of action or complete a task. Every step that takes place during the process is documented, often along with the responsible parties and the tools they need to use to complete the task.
Your entire business is made up of processes, and each process document details a single one.
How to Create Business Process Documentation
You might think that process documentation is as simple as writing a checklist for employees to follow. The truth is that it’s more complicated.
Effective process documentation includes a wide variety of actions, steps, feedback loops, and other factors. And it requires the input of many different employees.
Here are the steps you’ll need to take to effectively document processes at your business:
1. Figure out which processes to optimize
You can’t document every business process. Managers know which processes are most inefficient, and they’ll tell you where they’re losing time.
You may also need to determine which processes cost the most money, as those are good clues as to where you can get the greatest ROI. How long does the project take? How many labor hours? What costs are associated with the process?
After getting a good grasp on these details, compare them with the expected return of a successful process. In a perfect world, what do you, your team, or your company get out of the process? How, and in what measure, does the process serve your business goals?If the tangible benefits of a process greatly outweigh everything that you pour into it, you can probably leave the process alone. If the benefits are about even with the costs or less, then you’ve found a process that needs optimization.
As an example, we’ll break down a sales outreach workflow.
2. Outline the process
In the following steps, we’re going to create a very detailed breakdown of how the process works. Before we start, though, we need a general understanding of the process. If you already have a good idea of what happens, you can create this outline yourself.
If you have no idea of how it works, you’ll need to ask the people who do. Here are some questions to keep in mind:
- What is the point of the process? What is its goal?
- When does the process start, and when does it end? Are all the steps outlined in a centralized location or is the process undertaken in an ad hoc fashion?
- What tasks underlie the broader process, and which ones are critical to moving the process from one step to the next?
- Which teams and employees are involved with the process? Which ones perform essential tasks and which ones oversee the process’s progression?
- Are there team members or pieces of information that carry over from step to step throughout the process? Are procedures in place to facilitate these transitions?
For our example process, we’ll say that we have a general idea of how our sales outreach process works:
- A lead is documented in your company’s CRM software.
- Sales sends a personal email to the lead.
- Sales schedules a CRM task for a follow-up call.
- Sales qualifies the lead.
- Repeated contact builds a relationship.
- Sales verbalizes a deal proposition.
- Sales creates a written deal proposition.
- Customer agrees to proposition.
- Customer is passed to the implementation team.
As you can see, we’re going to need to coordinate at least three groups: the team that adds leads to the CRM software, the sales team, and the implementation team. And this is a simple process. You may have many more groups involved at your own company.
Still, though, the process itself seems fairly simple. In the next step, we’ll see how misleading that thought can be.
3. Identify the component parts
Every process has a number of tasks, transitions, and sub-processes that you’ll need to document.
It’s important to note that many business processes require the cooperation of multiple people, often spread across multiple departments. You’ll need to take a close look at how the process works. If you’re missing steps, you won’t be eliminating inefficiencies—and you might be making them worse.
For our example process, imagine that we talked to people involved in the outreach process. And we found that the process is much more complicated. For example, it needs to include follow-up emails, CRM notifications, a sub-process for lead qualification, guidelines for creating a deal proposition, and so on.
During this phase, talk to as many people as possible who are familiar with the process. And take lots of notes.
4. Lay out the process document
Now that you have a clear picture of what the process entails, it’s time to create the actual process document. There are plenty of business process documentation tools you can use. Process documentation software like Hello and Process Street are built for the task. But there are free options as well. If you want to use process mapping software for free, I highly recommend Lucidchart, which I used to create the image below.
List all of the tasks necessary, then connect them based on chronology and responsibility. We might come up with something like this for our sales outreach process:
As you can see, this is significantly more complicated than our original nine-step checklist. But it also includes a number of steps that are crucial and could have been overlooked without the full documentation.
There are many decisions, pre-defined processes (“Is lead qualified?” and “Propose sales deal” are defined elsewhere), and loops that are required for the process to work effectively.
Now we can move on to process optimization, where the real increases in efficiency start. First, though, let’s talk about some best practices for documenting business processes.
Business Process Documentation Best Practices
Going through the steps above will give you a detailed view of the processes at your company. If you don’t go any deeper or think about it further, you’ll still have a solid set of documentation.
By following these process documentation best practices, though, you’ll get the most accurate, useful documentation possible.
1. Complete the task yourself
In order to create clear, concise process documentation, you need to understand what each task in the process entails.
Trying to reconstruct the process from memory or a pre-existing template won’t reflect the actual state of the process in your company. By going through the process yourself and taking notes, you’ll see exactly what happens.
It might seem like more time than you’re willing to commit. But you’ll capture salient details that you may have missed otherwise. Your documentation will be better for it.
2. Have a colleague follow your process documentation
When you’ve outlined the process in sufficient detail, ask a team member to perform the process according to your documentation. They’ll have questions along the way—but instead of answering them directly, integrate the answers into the process documentation.
After a few rounds of this, you’ll have extremely accurate process documentation that you can optimize.It’s important to select a colleague that you have a good relationship with. You need honest, straightforward, constructive feedback for this to work. Even if it’s negative feedback.
3. Keep separate documents for processes
Once you start outlining and creating, it’s tempting to pack as many different processes into a single document as possible. This does, after all, help you see the entire customer journey in one place.
But it also results in complicated documents that employees won’t use. It needs to be easy for people to see what the document describes and what they should be doing. Remember that these documents are supposed to be useful.
4. Update processes regularly
As your company changes, so too will your business processes. Small changes in staff or technology can affect numerous processes—even if they don’t seem related. That’s why it’s important to schedule regular reviews and updates of your process flows.
These reviews and updates can be relatively quick. They just require that people who regularly use the process review the documentation and make any changes necessary.
Accurate documentation along with regular reviews and updates contribute to a culture of continuous improvement at your company. And that’s what’s really going to drive efficiency.
5. Store documents in a central location
No matter how useful your process documents are, no one is going to benefit from them if they’re impossible to find. A single central repository—like a corporate intranet or learning management system—ensures that everyone who needs access to the documentation has it.
This is especially crucial during reviews and updates; if the process gets changed, people who use it need to know right away.
How to Optimize Your Business Processes
Process documentation by itself is very valuable. But when you take that documentation and use it to optimize your processes, you’ll be amazed at the results. The most efficient-looking process can still be improved.
There are three basic steps to streamlining your processes. But first we need to make sure we know if our efforts are going to pay off.
1. Measure the process
At the end of process optimization, you’ll want to know if your efforts paid off. Which means you need to take measurements before you start the optimization process.Any metrics you can gather will be useful. How long does the entire process take? (In our case, that would be the average time from a lead being added to the CRM to the handoff to the implementation team.)
How much does the process cost? Include labor hours, supplies, software licenses, and the cost of time lost due to inefficient workflows. Does the cost fluctuate based on how often the team goes through the process? What are the tangible benefits of the process?This measurement will differ greatly depending on your industry and business model. Remember that you’ll never know if you improved in a particular area unless you measure it beforehand. When in doubt, measure as much as possible.
Once you have an idea of how much the process costs, you can start optimizing it.
2. Eliminate unnecessary tasks
Bureaucracy. Habit. Redundancy. These contribute to employees completing unnecessary tasks. Your workers are almost certainly doing things that they don’t need to. Get rid of those steps.
You might get some pushback from employees if a particular task “has always been part of the process.” But if you can demonstrate that eliminating the task will save time without affecting performance, your employees will be more willing to try the new method.It’s not always easy identifying tasks that you can get rid of. You have to think outside the box. In our sales outreach example, for example, you might consider getting rid of the “Submit to sales manager for approval” step. If your sales manager approves 95% of submitted contracts, you may find that it saves time to run a training on contract writing for your salespeople and eliminating this step.
You could replace it with something that doesn’t require any work on the part of your salespeople. Maybe it becomes the manager’s responsibility to check on contracts in your company database.
This is a difficult step, but it’s crucial in optimizing your processes.
3. Rethink how you complete tasks
Even tasks that are necessary can be reworked. Using new tools is a great place to start. For example, we have “Schedule call with lead” on our flowchart. If salespeople are emailing back and forth with leads to schedule a call, it could take days or weeks for that call to actually happen.
Why not use a system like Calendly to let both parties sync up their calendars and see when they could hop on a call?
Or in the “Propose sales deal” phase, use a tool like Qwilr to speed up the proposal creation process? This is a predefined process on our flowchart, but it could easily be optimized as well.
Look for bottlenecks during this step. We mentioned that waiting for a sales manager to sign off on a draft contract could cause problems. How might you eliminate or reduce that bottleneck?
4. Automate as much as possible
Look for ways that you can leverage technology to free up employees’ time. Does a document need to go to a second employee or department? Instead of requiring the parties to handle this handoff themselves or conducting the handoff yourself, find a way to automate it.
You don’t need to have custom solutions developed. There are tools for automating almost everything. Instead of asking your salespeople to continue emailing their leads until they get a response, why not automate the follow-up? Many CRMs include this functionality.
Scheduling the call and adding it to the CRM could also be automated with a service like Zapier. Maybe there’s a way you can automate the delivery of new contracts to the sales manager so salespeople don’t have to worry about the handoff. You might even be able to automate the signing and filing part of the process after the customer has approved the contract.
Business automation is a huge field, and it’s constantly becoming more powerful. Don’t overlook these tools because you haven’t used them before or because they look complicated. Even if there’s a learning curve, you’ll save hundreds of hours in the long run.
Why You Need to Start Documenting Business Processes (Today)
In short, you need to document your business processes because the stakes are high.
Planview estimates that poor processes cause 44% of business inefficiencies. And those inefficiencies cost money. It’s commonly stated that businesses lose 20–30% of their annual revenue to inefficiencies. Process documentation is the first step in fixing that problem. And it works. Elevations Credit Union underwent a regimen of process documentation and improvement that resulted in underwriters handling 71% more loans. That’s a huge increase in productivity.
(Elevations has made their business process workbook public if you’re interested in seeing how they did it. Be forewarned: it’s a huge document.)Of course, you’ll need to do more than just document your processes to get this sort of ROI. You’ll need to optimize as well. We’ll talk about that a bit later.
But the act of processing documentation itself can save you time, too. It makes onboarding new employees easier, aids interdepartmental communication, and helps you measure the effectiveness of changes.
Continue Documenting and Optimizing
Of course, creating process documentation and optimizing the process it describes isn’t a one-time event. A successful business may have dozens or hundreds of processes across departments and teams. And many of them could benefit from documentation and optimization.
As you might imagine, this can be time-consuming. But when weighed against the huge monetary and time savings that it can create, the documentation process is well worth it.