Business Process Documentation Guide

Last updated by Ian James, Mar 31, 2019

Organizations, large and small, need appropriate and up-to-date business process documentation. Without it, all sorts of problems crop up.

Sketch of figure looking at piles of paper process maps scattered around floor of office

What’s included in Process Documentation Guide:

Is your process documentation a mess? (video)

  • What is process documentation?
  • The difference between process mapping and process documentation
  • Why you need process documentation
  • How to create process documentation
  • How to maintain process documentation

What is process documentation?

Generally, when people hear “Process Documentation” they think about the narrower topic of “Process Mapping”. But really business process documentation includes any and all documents that go to support a process. That might mean policies, checklists, tutorials, forms or even links to other applications.

Process documentation is a complete description of how to execute a given process. Here is the acid test. Can someone somebody, with a reasonable knowledge of your company, find and read the documentation and successfully execute an instance of the process? If so, you passed the test and you have some pretty good process documentation.

Why you need process documentation

There are at least three important roles for process documentation:

  1. Process Improvement
  2. Training
  3. Reducing vulnerability to key employee process knowledge.

It might seem counterintuitive, when you see a desperate need to improve a process that you have to stop and document exactly what you’re doing right now. Why would you even want to stop and record what you already know needs to be changed?

The short answer is that process improvement is a journey. And, like a journey, if you can’t agree where you are, how can you plot a route to where you want to go?

Remarkably, even people who been working together for a long time, often don’t have a common view of the steps in a process. If you don’t have a process down in black and white, then you are relying on what is in people’s heads. That’s hardly better than running your business on myths and legends.

When you do actually sit down with these folks to hammer out the process on a whiteboard, these different versions of what’s in people’s heads start to emerge. It can come as a great surprise. There is usually at least one moment when somebody says: “I didn’t know you did that” or “Oh, that’s not the way I do it.” That’s when you know you need process documentation.

The second place where process documentation is invaluable is in training. When you’re trying to tell somebody what his or her new job is, what you’re really saying is this is the process we want you to follow. All too often training is divorced from the process. It’s no wonder that people are frustrated when they start to do a job and they have to ask a thousand questions. It’s also pretty irritating to the experienced people who have to give what amounts to on-the-job training.

Finally, process documentation is the best way to capture the secret processes that only one or two key employees know how to perform. It’s usually pretty easy to tell when this happens. It’s when you are terrified that the key employee will win the lottery, fall under a bus, or simply take a new job.

If you find yourself in this position, you are vulnerable. You need to document whatever is the employee’s mystery process. Often such key people are reluctant to give up their insider knowledge. One reason is simply job security. However, a responsible business owner or departmental manager has a right to know how their employees get things done.

The difference between process mapping and process documentation

process mapping vs documentation

So, is part of process documentation. But it’s not the whole story. The goal of process documentation is to provide a means to communicate what the process is. And if we want to give a complete picture, we need all the other documents, not just the process steps. If you want to learn more about process mapping, try here.

There is no generally accepted term for this stuff. I just called it “associated documents”. Ironically, the right time to gather associated documents is actually during the process mapping process. In a process mapping session as you discuss activities and steps, people will refer to these documents. That’s when you pounce and ask to see a copy of it.

Often, this will produce many versions of the same document. One of the virtues of process documentation, if done well, is that you can ensure that is only one source for the latest version of a given document.

How to create process documentation

Boss welcoming new hire but not offering to explain job duties}

Let’s assume for a moment that you have absolutely zero process documentation in your organization. If this is the case, you’re not alone. Many companies grow from small beginnings. Under these circumstances it would be a waste of time to have to sit down and write out processes that are most likely to change rapidly anyway. It’s only after the company grows that it begins to become clear that there is a real need for some documentation.

If you truly are starting with a blank slate, and there’s really no other way around it. You have to go through what I call Process Discovery. Starting at one end of the process, for example, order entry to cash, you painstakingly gather all the steps in the process. You can find out more about how this for my clients here.

I like to do this in diagrammatic form because it’s really a very efficient way to convey what happens at decision points. Writing things out in pure prose only really works when you have a linear process without any decisions.

It’s really important to involve everybody who is part of the process in this process discovery phase. If you try and do it with their supervisors you will miss things. After all, the people who use the process on a daily basis are the ones that know it best. Often a supervisor will tell me what the process is supposed to be. But then when I talk to the actual users I find that it’s really quite different.

One of the most efficient ways to do this is an experienced facilitator and a small group. Preferably, the group should not be any more than six or eight people. Too many, and things gets slow and unwieldy. If necessary, break the groups of and run them in parallel.

The facilitator should lead the meeting and guide the discussion. The starting point is whatever triggers to the process. Once you have established that, then it’s simply a matter of the facilitator asking questions. What happens next? Who does this? What information do we need at this point in the process?

As the process emerges, the facilitator draws a rough sketch of the process using simple symbols. You can use large sheets of paper to do this, but I find it easier to make changes and edits on a whiteboard. When you run out of space, simply take a picture with a phone camera. Then erase your board and start again.

I would not let a session go on longer than a couple of hours. You can usually get to enough information in the amount of time without people losing focus. When the session is over, everybody in the team can go back to his or her day job. This minimizes the disruption.

The facilitator converts the diagram on the whiteboard into a neat process map. This is much easier to do using a graphical application such as Visio or Lucid Chart. Please don’t try and use Excel, Word, or PowerPoint. These are great applications for their intended purpose. But Microsoft did not design them to create process diagrams. And if you try it you’ll find that it will take a very long time. That will make you reluctant to make any necessary changes later on.

I know that Visio and lucid chart can seem pretty expensive. If you’re looking for a free alternative, then take a good look at yEd. It’s a very good alternative, better in some ways than it’s paid competitors. And no, I don’t get a kickback from the developers for recommending it.

There is more information about it here including a detailed tutorial video series. It’s a bit confusing to use out of the box but the video tutorials show you how to download it and set it up.

Finally, don’t forget to collect examples of the latest versions of all the associated documents. We’ll talk about how you publish all this material later on.

How to maintain process documentation

maintaining process documentation

The biggest problem with documenting processes is not gathering the information together and going through the process of mapping it all out. No, the problem is that processes documentation has a very short shelf life.

The very first time I did process documentation in my own company, we had a brief moment of euphoria. At last, we all understood the process. But processes are dynamic. They change over time. Managers redistribute tasks. People leave the company. People join the company. Roles change.

Before long, you discover that despite having beautifully written process maps, they no longer represent what the process is now.

The only way to combat this is to have a plan in place to maintain your process documentation. And the best way to do that is to appoint a Process Owner.

The responsibilities of the Process Owner are very simple:

  • Hold frequent and regular reviews
  • Involve everybody who is part of the process in any changes to the process
  • Maintain the documentation
  • Notify everyone who needs to know of any changes

Process Documentation Software

process documentation software

If your documentation is on paper, how good are you at updating all the copies? Yes, this is an occasion when documentation software really helps. Having one central, searchable location for your documentation is obviously preferable to printed copies. Not only will it reduce the maintenance problem, but also people will know where to find the answers to their process questions.

Choosing a specialized application is beyond the scope of an article of this size. However, there are some pretty good software applications for this. Two examples of these are Triaster or ProMapp. Depending on budget, a small business might find these little bit expensive. However, if you need a mature and fully featured product, this is where to start.

As a cheaper but less featured alternative, you can use your own intranet. I typically offer my clients a content management system. [See Here] But instead of the usual blog articles, I put in process information. It even features process maps with links to associated documents.

Whatever system you choose make sure it has a search feature. This is very important for the user. Half the time people don’t know exactly the document that they need but they do know the key word they are looking for. A good search function will help them find what they are looking for. Finding something easily and quickly will help them trust in the system. That trust will make it more likely that they will continue to use it.

Don’t expect compliance through documentation

Finally, it’s important to be realistic about what process documentation can do for you. Please, don’t expect compliance through documentation. Often senior managers assume that once you document the process all will be well. Nothing will ever go wrong. Everybody will be accountable for adhering to the process.

Sadly, knowing what the process is and sticking to it are two different things. Don’t get me wrong; process documentation is a huge step forward for any organization that makes the effort. What I have found over many years as a process consultant is that embedding process documentation into your company DNA requires some sort of workflow application.

Need help documenting your process?

Get in touch via email or Call me now on: 412 945 0102 – Even if you only think you might need a process consultant, get in touch. I can tell pretty quickly if I can help you and that first consultation is free so you have nothing to lose – except maybe a whole bunch of tangled processes.

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