The Ultimate Guide to Process Documentation

The Ultimate Guide to Process Documentation

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Startup businesses usually enjoy a honeymoon at the outset. The founders are inspired, partners are energized, and the groundwork gets laid easily.

But as a business grows, it becomes difficult to keep track of all the processes taking place. What’s the best way to handle those growing complexities? Process documentation.

As your startup becomes successful, there are more steps, more checks, more red tape, more clients, and more people involved in running the day-to-day operations.

In the face of all these moving parts, how can businesses remain efficient to ensure they scale effectively?

Process documentation is where to begin.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – What is Process Documentation?

Chapter 2 – Is process documentation just a distraction and a needless waste of your time?

Chapter 3 – Could these misconceptions about process documentation be holding you back?

Chapter 4 – Process Documentation Best Practices

Chapter 5 – How to prepare for a process documentation project

Chapter 6 – Selecting a process documentation software for your business

Chapter 7 – How to Document a Process

Bonus Chapter – Process Documentation pitfalls and how to avoid them

Final Thoughts

Chapter 1 – What is Process Documentation?

What is Process Documentation?

Process documentation is the task of recording, mapping and describing the ongoing processes occurring within your organization, whether that is a process for getting expense refunds, hiring a new program manager, or how a new customer gets set up in your system. The objective is to provide a framework of how the task is done – to create an effective flow that the work will follow.

A process document is designed to replicate business processes that reside in the minds of process doers. Those ideas are laid out in a centralized resource that can serve as a guide, both to employees and managers, for future iterations of that process. It references all documents and resources that are needed to support a process, including policies, checklists, tutorials, forms, or even links to other applications.

What Process Documentation is Not

Process documentation sits below the process improvement rung in the business process engineering space. That makes sense, since you cannot improve a process until you know that it exists and have benchmarked how it currently runs. Otherwise, your ‘process improvements’ may inadvertently be retrogressive.

That said, process documentation should not be confused with procedures, which are detailed step-by-step directions on how to carry out a process. This holds true even though a procedure may be referenced in a process document to provide detailed information on how to carry out that process.

Another area of confusion is between processes and policies. Policies are guidelines or laws that drive processes and procedures. I wrote an article some time back that highlights the difference between policies, processes, and procedures, which you can refer to if you’re unfamiliar with the terms.

However, a consideration to keep in mind is that while policies are strategic tools, process documents are on the tactical level, concerned with implementation and action.

Having made those distinctions clear, let’s take a breather here by going back in time to how the process documentation movement got its start.

A Brief History of Process Documentation

One of the earliest records of business process documentation and the positive impact it yields was made by Scottish economist Adam Smith in 1776.

He described the idea of documenting processes using a hypothetical pin factory’s process in the production of one pin:

“One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.”

By combining process documentation with specialization, Smith found that production capacity of the pin factory increased by 24,000%. Image Source

However, it would take almost 200 more years for the phrase “process documentation” to be coined.

Credit for that phrase goes to a workshop paper delivered by the Philippines National Irrigation Agency (NIA) in 1978, which described how two research-focused institutions documented their methods and outcomes (pdf) in their independent social forestry and joint forest management projects.

Usage of the term quickly spread, and it was soon passed to other sectors and regions.

Distinguishing Process Documentation from Process Mapping

Process mapping is a critical activity in any efficient business operation. A process map visually depicts how inputs interact with roles involved in a given process to produce outputs and it is often the first step carried out in a process documentation exercise. 

This visual clarity improves the quality of stakeholder interactions and simplifies end-to-end process management.

In many organizations, a process map also plays a very visible role in continuous process improvement activities, as analysts can follow the flow to root out bottlenecks and inefficiencies.

This visual role process maps play is likely the reason why when most business leaders hear about process documentation, the picture that pops up in their heads is that of process mapping.

However, this is a case of using the part to represent the whole, as a process map is just one component among many that may be used to support a process in a comprehensive process documentation.

Besides process maps, documentation will likely involve resources such as screencasts, screenshots, forms, checklists, tutorials, or even links to other software applications.

Why would these further documents be needed?

As effective and visual as process maps are, they cannot contain a lot of information that is needed for efficient process execution. Here are some weaknesses of process maps that are offset using supporting documentation:

  • Ownership: A process map may not show who owns what task and activity in  a process. This results in ambiguity of responsibility which may unduly slow down processes.
  • Process Interruptions: A process map may not show exceptions to the main process flow.
  • Access to Information: Successful process completion depends on staff locating and making use of resources that support their processes. The whereabouts of supporting information cannot be depicted on a process map without making the image overly complex and potentially confusing.
  • Time to completion: Process maps do not show how long each sub task or activity in a process takes. Not having this information in supporting documents can result in processes that overshoot their deadlines, and create difficulties in identifying the source of process delays. 

The takeaway from this is that while process maps help provide an understanding of the “as-is” – how things are currently done – the big picture will be out of focus without supporting documentation.

And it is that big picture that we refer to as process documentation.

Process Documentation Example: Onboarding process for new hires

Why it is important: According to data made available by SHRM (the Society for Human Resources Management), around 50 percent of all new hires quit within 18 months of employment.

Now, if you thought that was scary, wait for this: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that over 20 percent of new hires voluntarily leave their new jobs within 45 days.

According to BLS, this kind of turnover costs employers about 25 percent of the annual salaries of departing staff, not to mention the waste of time and negative impression it creates about the hiring company in the job market.

Why do so many employees leave so early after taking on a new job? One reason stands out: failure in the onboarding process that results in a change in their impression of the company.

Process Documentation Example: Onboarding process for new hires

This goes to show how important it is for organizations to have their onboarding process documented to ensure things go as planned every time.

Here is an example employee onboarding process:

  1. HR prepares paperwork
  2. HR discuss role with supervisor
  3. IT gives access to company work station & accounts
  4. HR creates a benefit package
  5. HR notifies supervisor and co-workers
  6. HR assigns a mentor for the employee
  7. Mentorintroduces the new hire to co-workers
  8. Supervisor sets short-term goals and expectations for the new employee
  9. Supervisor assigns tasks to new employee
  10. Supervisor schedules check-in meetings
  11. Supervisor explains long-term goals during check-in meeting
  12. Supervisor sends report to HR confirming that the new hire has been successfully onboarded

As you can see from this process, multiple departments are typically involved in onboarding a new hire. In such circumstances, it’s not surprising that things do go wrong.

By making use of a process management tool, businesses can add predictability to their hiring process and minimize the margin of error.

Interestingly, in spite of clear use cases like the one hinted at in the example above, some insist that process documentation is a distraction from doing business. Could that be true?

Chapter 2 – Is process documentation just a distraction and needless waste of your time?

Is process documentation just a distraction and needless waste of your time?

With the many workshops, swimlanes, triggers, input/outputs, and process diagrams that may result from process documentation efforts, it is not uncommon for business owners to conclude that process documentation is just a feel-smart idea with little ROI from the effort involved.

How far from the truth such thinking is!

Madhav Bhandari, a Marketing Manager at Hubstaff attributes the 700% growth that Trello recorded in two years to implementing processes:

“Before instituting processes, I could have easily spent 30 or 40 hours a week managing the employees to whom I delegated tasks. Constant check-ins, multiple feedback loops, managing assignments, and the frustration of things not getting done how I wanted them done resulted in a huge amount of wasted time. And while I was doing all of that, the tasks I should have been doing to grow the company were ignored.”

If that sounds like you, be assured that implementing process documentation will free you from those unproductive babysittings and allow you concentrate on tasks that add to your bottomline.

Ideally, any task that is done more than once, or by more than one person, should be documented. Until such tasks have been documented, they are in a constant state of flux and cannot truly be called a business process.

But wait a minute. Does this mean that when a process has been documented it is now cast in concrete and everyone should be compelled to complete the process step by step, as captured in the documentation software?

Should you be bound by your documented processes?

While process documentation may reflect how a business process is currently carried out, it never reflects perfection. Documented processes are not cast in concrete – they simply show us what we are currently doing.

Potentially, that visibility yields better insights into how the current process can be improved upon.

When a process doer finds that current processes have redundant paths, an opportunity for process improvement presents itself. That process improvement possibility has to be reported and evaluated. If the process owner finds potential in the improvement, the process is then rewritten to include the improvements realized.

Later in this article, I talk in more detail about having a periodic process review. I share suggestions on how processes can be improved to ensure that they remain beneficial for the business.

For now, however, let us pursue the subject of process improvement benefits.

Who Benefits from Process Documentation?

To answer that question, permit me to paint a somewhat nightmarish scenario – and I do hope it drives home the point.

As an entrepreneur, you have a very busy schedule creating and launching new products, raising capital, and generally wearing a lot of other hats that entrepreneurs are cursed to wear simultaneously.

Thankfully, though, you have some very dependable staff who are on top of their game. They know what to do, which client needs what, how to sell to a particular client, and even internally sync the departments to work smoothly together.

However, the activities of these star players of yours are not governed by any documented processes. You have implicit trust in their abilities to get things done independently and with minimal supervision. They just wing it, and the growth of your business over the years is proof of that they know their stuff.

Who Benefits from Process Documentation?

In fact, you honestly tell friends that you don’t know what you would do without them.

You are forced to confront this reality when one of these key staff leaves (or gets sick, or dies) without warning.

They take their process knowledge with them.

Scrambling to put the pieces of your process together and make sense of your own business, you are screwed until you can figure out everything that key employee knew.

It sounds dramatic but I bet you won’t think so when – not if – this reality comes knocking on your door.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume you are the luckiest employer in the world and all your indispensable staff will never leave, for any reason.  Does that mean that there is no need to document your business processes?

Far from it!

Even if you could safely assume no one will ever leave, the list below,  partially inspired by Edith E. Bell of Bell Design Technologies, presents further reasons for process documentation:

10 Ways your Business will Benefit from Process Documentation

  1. Provides a guide or roadmap for meeting organizational objectives
  2. Lends operational consistency to your business
  3. Reducesoperational risks in regulated industries
  4. Gives employees confidence needed to handle assigned tasks
  5. Serves as a foundation for continuous process improvements
  6. Results in better customer satisfaction due to predictable performance and outcomes
  7. Enhances competitive advantage by reducing waste and inefficiencies
  8. Can be used as a performance measure to ensure process compliance
  9. Serves as a training tool for new employees and a refresher tool for existing ones
  10. Client requirementsfor outsourcing, especially in regulated industries, may sometimes require process documentation

And just because this list ends at a nice, round 10 does not mean that it is exhaustive. If you still feel a need for further justification of why you should be documenting your business processes, you can check out this post by BizManualz on the subject.

And for the very hard to convince (I know this is not you, but we all have those colleagues and bosses who self-describe as “meticulous” and “detail-oriented”), Ian James breaks it down beautifully in the video below.

You see, when processes are documented, scaling becomes so much easier as business owners can be confident that employees have the blueprint to function both in an effective and efficient manner.

Having established why process documentation is important and how businesses stand to benefit from documenting their processes, allow me to highlight some misconceptions that may hinder the success of your project.

Chapter 3 – Could these misconceptions about process documentation be holding you back?

Could these misconceptions about process documentation be holding you back?

It’s time to shoot down some myths that may keep you from getting full process documentation benefits.

Myth # 1: Process documentation will solve all your process problems

This myth masquerades as a good thing but surreptitiously kills the project. When people voice misguided statements that make process documentation sound like a magic pill, ensure you set the facts straight about what process documentation can and cannot do.

That a business has documented processes does not mean that things will no longer go wrong or that people will do what they’re told. Your process is a map. If people don’t follow directions on a map, even though they own one,  they can still get lost.

Myth # 2: We are new and evolving too fast, so there is no point documenting our processes.

Even the fastest-evolving company should provide value. And the best way to guarantee value delivery is to document how you deliver it (or intend to, if you’re just starting).

Publishing your processes will distinguish you from the competition at your level and set you up for scalability by removing potential bottlenecks in the nimbleness of your startup.

If you are seriously evolving too fast to want to invest in documenting everything, you can settle for documenting your most important processes, at the very least.

Myth # 3: Process documentation does not align with our corporate culture

If your business puts a lot of emphasis on culture, you may be worried that documenting your processes will make your employees feel devalued. Well, documenting your processes is not about making your employees feel like you do not trust their initiative. It is about encapsulating their current initiative and making it accessible to others.

Your corporate culture should be hinged on sharing information and helping others grow, not on massaging the insecurities of some of your employees.

An employee hardly gets a promotion if he or she is indispensable in his current role. Besides, sharing is caring!

Myth # 4: We Just don’t have the time for this right now

Too many business owners and managers believe they barely have time to complete their current projects, let alone document their processes.

“I don’t want to waste time writing down things that I cannot find the time to complete in the first place,” they say. “There is no way we can afford to prioritize that now.”

Sound familiar?

Have you considered, however, that you may always be racing against deadlines for the simple reason that your processes are inefficient and need a reevaluation?

While it is true that process documentation may momentarily slow you down, appreciating the big picture will pay off in the end.

Quoted earlier, Madhav Bhandari, Marketing Manager at HubStaff, puts it clearly:

“First, the initial setup takes some time. There will be very few returns early on. You’ll need to handle the tasks that you’re turning into a process, and that might mean you’re actually being less efficient for a while. But if you’re patient, you’ll see the returns.”

Myth # 5: We have no process documentation

This is something you will likely hear if you discuss with a supervisor or middle manager about process documentation already in place that his team employs.

But in truth, there are pockets of process documentation in any business you look at. The problem is that this documentation may be privately used and not generally accessible to others – some staff may just enjoy holding the keys to the kingdom.

These documents could be notes scribbled on a piece of paper, helpful directions sent to a colleague to enable them to carry out tasks while the process doer is on holiday, or screenshots or videos highlighting how stuff is done.

When you sit with those who carry out a process and ask nicely, they may show you that they have ghost documentation in place.

Myth # 6: The important thing is that tasks get done. What’s the point documenting how?

True, getting stuff done is important. But so is understanding how it gets done. This is because variations used by some of your staff, while eventually getting the job done, may be costing the business in time loss and efficiency.

Process documentation will allow you to elicit from your people a unified way a process runs, which provides a benchmark for future process improvements.

Myth # 7: A useful process document must look complicated

Since process documentation takes a bit of effort, some will expect the product to be some complex diagramming that will justify the time and effort invested. They introduce complexities to compensate, so they have a document that looks serious enough.

What to keep in mind here is that the purpose of documentation is to simplify, not to complicate. Obviously, a confusing document does not meet that objective. Ultimately, the simpler your process document is, the more usable it will turn out to be down the road.

Myth # 8: You must map everything at the same time

Some consultants insist on spending weeks or months on interviews trying to map everything they can think of about a business. While the intentions are often good, there is a better way to approach process documentation that is less invasive to the day-to-day running of the business.

Organizations already have indicators of process problems such as complaints, support requests, item returns, customer feedback, write-offs, handoff bottlenecks and so forth.

These are ideal candidates for process documentation and a good place to start. As you measure successful outcomes from already documented processes, that will provide the motivation to document other aspects of your business.

Myth # 9: I am the expert, so I get it right all the time

This one can also be termed “the expert trap.”

However, even in a hospital ICU where the chief physician assumes a demigod status, mistakes happen.

A study carried out in a hospital and referenced in the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande shows that an individual patient requires 178 actions on a daily basis. Only 1% of these actions resulted in an error.

True, 1% may not sound like much, but that averages at two errors per patient daily. That is also the reason why pilots do not rely on memory to fly planes. They follow a process documented in a checklist. After all, to err is human.

Myth # 10 – Process documentation makes work less fun

True, a process document focuses our activity and places some constraints on creative expression in the way we carry out our work. But, that is the whole point! This means you spend less time thinking about how to carry out the task and more time doing the process.

Some fear this will sap all the fun from their work and leave them bored out of their minds. In fact, it’s the opposite. While using a process document does make your work more repetitive and less intuitive, on the plus side, it saves you both time and mental energy.

When you get it right the first time, there is no need to go over your work correcting mistakes or inventing excuses to make to your boss – or worse, a customer – as to why you cannot deliver on schedule. You get to spend less time on tedious and repetitive aspects of your job, freeing up more time for the fun stuff.

In the words of Praveen Suthrum, “Routines keep you and your team emotionally balanced and physically energized. Ignore them and you can be sure to be bothered at the wrong times.”

With those myths dissipated, let me share some best practices that a lot of successful process documentation projects have in common.

Chapter 4 – Process Documentation Best Practices

Process documents are not intended to serve as an archive of best practices adopted by your organization. They are meant to be living maps that illuminate how the pieces come together to form the big picture.

By keeping these best practices in mind, you will end up with process documents that will be frequently referred to by your team.

1. Give consideration to getting the timing right

Process documentation will take some of your staff away from their core jobs into process discovery sessions. You will reduce the impact and invasiveness of your project by choosing to run these in your offseason, if your business has seasonal cycles.

Look through your business pattern and choose the quiet months to kick-start your project. That is called taking the path of least resistance.

If you don’t have an offseason, work discovery sessions into regular meetings and take process documentation in smaller steps. Awareness will be raised, and your employees will see the impact over time.

2. Let the business value chain inform the documentation process

The value chain of your organization is the anchor that will keep your process documentation activities on track.

Michael Porter’s Value Chain

Let the business value chain inform the documentation process
Image Source: Research Methodology

Start your process documentation with concerted efforts to understand your value chain. Make certain your raw materials are producing value. No business should exist without fulfilling that primary objective.

The process documentation template available for download at the end of this article will help you in this regard. Just remember to customize it to your business so your people will readily understand it.

3. Involve users and stakeholders

Do not document a process in isolation of those who own it, use it, or receive input from it. The interviews you conduct with process users and stakeholders will help you have a clear view of how the process runs as well as who owns what task and what exceptions could reasonably occur.

If you fail to involve end-users, it may result in your documenting fantasy processes as current processes.

Prioritize getting feedback from frontline employees. Often, they can provide insight on each step’s importance, shortcuts, workarounds, and other valuable takeaways.

4. Write the document like a “How To” guide

A process document is a “how to,” so write it like you are giving instructions to someone on how to carry out a task. That is essentially what you are doing.

This applies even if you are documenting a process that is currently personally handled.

A rule of thumb is to use a verb followed by a noun. I will demonstrate what this means using two examples:

  • Example 1: “Number of Cold Emails Sent”
  • Example 2: Determine the number of Cold Emails Sent

Looking at the two examples, it is obvious that the second example communicates better, especially when you delegate the responsibility to a third party and they need to follow your process document.

5. Make process documents accessible

Make documents public and visible to your employees. You need to avoid thinking at the departmental level here, as processes often run across multiple departments.

If there are no sensitive trade secrets involved, just provide access to your employees, irrespective of whether they are involved in the process or not, as an understanding of how processes are interconnected is beneficial to the whole team. 

6. Ensure flexibility is built into the system

Processes undergo continual change, and a process flow that made sense six months ago may be completely ridiculous now.

However, making changes in print can be extremely difficult, as all printed copies would need to be located and replaced with the current version.

Therefore, it is best for your process document to be centrally located and accessible, be it as a shared folder in Google Docs or through a purpose-built software system. It is also important that the process document include a means for users to flag bottlenecks or suggest improvements.

Evaluate user suggestions made in this manner, as well as bottlenecks uncovered during periodic process improvement reviews, and add them to the document where necessary.

7. Do not tolerate unreasonable expectations

It easy for people to think that since they have successfully documented their processes, it is smooth sailing the rest of the way. In fact, this is rarely the case.

Process documentation is not a sacred ritual that, once completed, gets things to work smoothly. It is your job to remind people, at every level, that process documentation is about mapping the existing processes. Improvements and best practices come later. Successful processes are usually founded on realistic expectations.

8. Maintain focus during process discovery sessions

I cannot overstate this one. Keep things focused.

When managing a process documentation meeting, it is not unusual for plenty of ideas to come up with things that could be improved. If you are not careful, your process discovery meeting could degenerate into an ad hoc process improvement exercise.

It is your job as process consultant or facilitator to ensure that does not happen to your session. Keep things focused always on the task at hand – documenting existing processes.

Trust me: you will have enough improvement opportunities in the future.  

9. Use thoughtful visuals

Make use of flowcharts – remember a picture is worth a thousand words.

Where it makes sense, include visuals to illustrate a process. In the image below, see how clarified the swimlanes in the document management process becomes with the use of the flowchart. Would the clarity be the same if only text were used? Hardly.

Use thoughtful visuals

Image Source: EdrawSoft

If there are ideas you find difficult to express, could a screenshot, a screencast, or a diagram better bring out the point? Properly used visuals can lend clarity to process documents.

10. Keep things dummy-proof

Resist the temptation to complicate things just to justify the time investment. Remember the key here is communication. A good process document doesn’t distract with excess information. 

Keep things concise, and create individual documents for different processes rather than one mammoth document. Use simple words, short sentences, good grammar and avoid abbreviations.  Keep the words consistent throughout the documentation.

Do not make the rookie mistake of using names of employees currently handling tasks instead of roles. Using names means that when employees leave, your process document becomes obsolete, sometimes making it difficult to update later on.

11. Perform periodic performance reviews

You can’t improve what you cannot measure. That said, it is critical that you set up a process to direct your process improvement. Ideally, the process improvement exercise should be periodic and it should involve end users of the process.

Compare performance data against KPIs to determine if your performance measures up to your benchmarks. Identify parts of the process flow that seem to be bottlenecked and brainstorm alternative routes that may simplify matters.

If you fail to measure the success of your processes, whatever successes you have had in the past will eventually peter out. It’s like trying to lose weight without a bathroom scale – you won’t know when you are heading in the right direction.

12. Celebrate small wins

Even when improvements are being made and your process documentation is a success story, it is not uncommon for your team to lose motivation from doing the same thing over and over again. Keep them committed by celebrating the small wins.

Let your stakeholders know what impact their efforts are having on productivity, sales, and the bottomline. When it adds up, the process will sell itself.

Additionally, you could go beyond just delegating tasks to delegating authority. Let your team own the numbers and work closely with them to set challenges they can rise to. 

Chapter 5 – How to prepare for a process documentation project

How to prepare for a process documentation project

Now that we have taken care of the preliminary stuff, let’s look at  the business of the day. However, before you get started with your process documentation project, do a little housekeeping.

Put a reliable communication plan in place

Justifying the need for process documentation is a necessary first step if you want your project to be a successful one. Stakeholders need to be carried along and informed about the overall objectives of the project.

Let’s break down these stakeholders into three typical categories and differentiate the emphasis we will place in our communication with them:

  1. Senior Management: The emphasis here is on improving productivity and reducing costs. This message is universally appealing to senior management – it is the language they understand. It would not surprise you to know that this is the easiest group to sell your ideas to.

Of course, once senior management have bought in, they should take ownership and allow enthusiastic communication to filter down to the process doers.

  • Middle Managers: These are the ones process doers report to – supervisors who are held accountable for the output of the team. Keep in mind that you are proposing to take their staff away for a significant amount of time to document their processes.

They would be rightly concerned about how this will affect team productivity in the short run.

Your communication should reassure them that business will not come to a halt just because you are documenting their processes.

  • Process Doers: One of the most significant hurdles that may confront organizations as they implement process documentation is resistance from their employees. What makes this so debilitating is that the resistance is often not stated but rather reflected in silent acts of sabotage.

If people are suspicious about your objectives, you may end up with inaccurate data for three reasons:

  1. Fear of change and a desire to continue their work by rote.
  2. Fear that the process is an audit and that their unauthorized workarounds and shortcuts may well get them in trouble.
  3. Fear of demystifying themselves and what they do, which may lead to their becoming replaceable.

A process document is as useful as the integrity of the data on which it is based. It is on this basis that I cannot overemphasize the importance of a communication plan when commencing a process documentation project. People need to know what is going on and exactly why they are required to detail their work process.

Ideally, communication of the process documentation goals should be done well in advance of implementation so that employees have enough time to digest the import of the project and reassure themselves that this is not the first step in dismissing them. If there is potential that process documentation might lead to some roles becoming obsolete, it would be beneficial to reassure your staff that anyone so affected would be upskilled or offered a different career path.

Of course, for the communication to be honest and open, it is important that leaders impart a clear understanding of the benefits of process documentation and the potential impact it will have on everyday operations and on the lives of employees.

Determine what each player stands to gain, and highlight those personalized benefits in your communication with that stakeholder in terms of why the organization needs to do this, what is involved in the process, and how the individual stands to benefit.

Secure needed resources

Just because you have secured buy-in of your people does not mean the coast is clear.

Keep in mind that buy-in does not necessarily stop at your boss saying, “Great idea, Bob!,” only to leave you to figure out how to get the job done without a proper budgetary allocation.

Beyond finances, another resource you will need is time. Effective process documentation takes time – there is no denying that. To make matters worse, you are not going to see any dramatic results early on in the project. It may, in fact, be months into the project before any noticeable impact is discerned.

Additionally, you will take people away from their core responsibilities, albeit briefly. And even beyond the initial process documentation, you will need the team for process improvement exercises on documented processes. It is important that you are upfront about this so managers have no surprises.

And, you also need to decide upfront how you will deliver the completed process document. That may involve securing resources within your IT department to integrate your process documentation software of choice.

Decide how to publish

Traditionally, small businesses printed and bound their process documentation in three-ring binders.

The initial burden of printed documentation may not be dramatic if you are a small shop with just one copy. However, the story changes when you grow and need multiple copies for numerous teams, especially if your business expands to several locations.

The burden of making process changes on paper quickly becomes so unattractive that you may allow improvement opportunities to pass by just to avoid having to make changes.

This is one place where software really shines.

Having a central and searchable system to document your processes is light years ahead of paper. For one, the maintenance cost will be considerably lower. Additionally, people will know where to go to solve the process challenges they are facing.

Ideally, you need a central repository on the Web or an intranet. This holds true both for the one-man startup as well as for the Fortune 100 business. A single point of process truth makes it easy to access process information from wherever one may be.

You may need a process documentation guide

A process documentation guide is a meta process that shows how to carry out process documentation. One use case where a process documentation guide would be invaluable is in a situation where individual employees are tasked to describe their work process independently.

A cheat sheet like this can decentralize the initial efforts of a process documentation project, making parallel process documentation possible. 

And as mentioned earlier, the golden rule of process documentation is “any process that would be run more than once, or by more than one person should be documented.” Since process documentation as a process will be run more than once, it is poetic justice that there should be a process to govern the process (forgive the play with words).

Business Process Documentation Guide

Our Business Process Documentation Guide, which is shown above, provides an example of how the fill-in-the-blanks Business Process Documentation Worksheet at the end of this article can be completed. Click on the screenshot to download the three resources mentioned in this article that you need to document your processes.

Plan on how to maintain the process

Poor project management is the highest cause of process documentation failures.

Ensure that you have in place a process for managing your processes.

Decide on who will be the administrator, who can edit a process, and who will maintain and own the process and ensure that it is kept up-to-date.

Additionally, make sure process users know how to flag issues in their processes.

At this point, you are ready to hit the process documenting ground running. However, having established that this is best handled with software, let’s talk a bit about selecting a suitable system for your project.

Chapter 6 – Selecting process documentation software for your business

You are serious about process documentation, which puts you way above the pack of most entrepreneurs who cannot be bothered. However, you still need to choose from the tons of applications out there.

Something to keep in mind – the software is not the point

If the software is not the point, then what is?

Your people.

As you go about selecting process documentation software, keep in mind that a process document is just a means to an end – the end being that people in your organization are supported to carry out tasks that are important to your organizational goals as reflected in your value chain.

No matter how cool an application is, if it is ignored by your team, then what is the point?

Base your decision on the demographic of your process doers and their level of sophistication with technology. That level of forethought will help you to deliberately select a product that will both engender participation in process creation and utilization of created processes.

So the question is, which tool or combination of tools will encourage your people to fully utilize the process document you are creating?

The Zero Budget Option

If you are a small business without a budget for process documentation, you could start with an intranet solution coupled with WordPress to document your processes. Instead of blog articles, put up process information, complete with process maps and links to supporting documents.

To draw up impressive process maps for your WordPress-based process documentation repository, you could also try out yEd. yEd is a free diagramming tool that does a better job than most paid diagramming tools out there.

If you add a membership plugin to the WordPress mix, you would have a collaborative platform to document your processes. Gravity Flow WordPress plugin is a viable addition, but it is a paid tool. It’s worth considering when you can budget for it.

The drawback to the “free” approach is that there is no yEd plugin for WordPress, so you would have to do your process diagramming offline before uploading. Additionally, you will not have the reporting capabilities and other bells and whistles that most purpose-built process documentation programs offer – without doing some extensive customization, that is.

However, while this combination offers limited features, it is better than using a three-ring binder for your process document, and much better than sitting on the fence on process documentation “until you can afford it.”

If you’re ready to invest in software, you will want to know what you’re getting for your money. While I cannot presume knowledge of what features are important to you because, as I said before, that is relative and depends on your people (and, I would add, the maturity level of your organization), here are some general capabilities to expect:

8 Features to consider as you select a premium process documentation software

As you shop for a process documentation software, keep these considerations in mind:

1. Is it simple to set up?

No one wants to go out of their way to use process documentation software.

While large enterprises may require an enterprise solution, smaller organizations are wise to go with a cloud-based system. That would mean that businesses would not need to worry about installations and can start using their software immediately.

Additionally, users should be able to work on their process models right from their web browsers from any location of their choice.

2. Does it allow for collaboration?

Unless you are a mom-and-pop business with just a handful of staff, you need process documentation software that is strong on collaboration.

It should be possible to add process doers to the software, assign tasks and responsibilities, and have employees make suggestions and comments on process steps.

This will generally result in higher staff satisfaction as employees are on the same page and have the resources to work on their tasks in a timely manner, while the manager maintains a clear view of what is going on.

3. Is the interface modern and user-friendly?

Getting your employees to adapt to change is tough. Don’t pick a tougher battle than necessary by forcing them to learn to use software that isn’t user-friendly.

A modern user interface is intuitive and easy to understand, providing more visibility to important business events so that stakeholders have the right information to take action. Process documentation software that has a modern UI will allow users to focus on job-specific workflow, wasting less time navigating through cumbersome systems.

4. Is the software responsive and mobile-friendly?

Is the software responsive and mobile-friendly? The nature of work is changing, and these days; a higher percentage of workers are on the move or handling operations remotely. You don’t want to deny them access to process information because they are logging in from a mobile device. Your tool of choice should take this into consideration and should scale responsively to whatever device a user is using.

5. Does it play well with other tools?

Your process documentation tool will not be able to do everything out of the box – and indeed, you don’t want it to. There are a lot of other tools out there supporting process documentation that you may want to interface with, such as Evernote, G Suite, Confluence and Asana.

According to data released in The Document Disconnect, an IDC survey, over 80 percent of business leaders surveyed from sales, HR, procurement, and a number of other departments were in agreement that problems “arise because they have different internal systems/applications that don’t ‘talk’ to each other.” In the same research, 43 percent of workers surveyed expressed frustration that they often have to copy/paste or manually key in information that already exists in other internal systems.

Does the process documentation software that you are reviewing support integration with other tools?

6. Does it balance functionality with simplicity?

You don’t want a system that has so many functions that you get lost trying to wade through the maze of menus. Nor do you want a system that does only one thing and you have to pay extra for ancillary features that reasonably ought to be built in. The key here is for the system to be both functional and simple.

7. Is it affordable?  

I don’t know your budget, nor do I know anyone who loves to spend more money than necessary on stuff.

Fortunately, most B2B SaaS products are priced based on the number of users; some even have freemium models and are generally reasonably priced. So, there is no need to throw away thousands of dollars on some software that you may end up not using.

8. Does it feature a drag and drop process diagrammer?

Some process documentation software is very difficult to use, both from the management and employee sides.

On the one hand, management cannot build processes on their own. They would have to hire a high-ticket consultant to come in and code the processes, which is both a time consuming and expensive undertaking. On the other hand, employees cannot jump in and start using the system. They would need to undergo special training before they can get their hands wet.

Unless you already have in-house resources you can deploy for custom coding and people who excel in that area, you should be going for a zero code platform where anyone who can use a computer can jump right in and start designing processes using a drag-and-drop interface, without having to learn code.

Chapter 7- How to Document a Process

We have finally come to that point where the rubber meets the road.

You have done your housekeeping: Effective messaging flows both up and down your organizational hierarchy, employees have been reassured that this is not a prelude to a massive job cut, and you have selected the process documentation software that will best encourage stakeholder participation and process consumption.

Now, let’s create them thar processes!

Step One – Inventory of existing processes

A business is a collection of processes that, when put together, provides value that customers are willing to pay for. All businesses have processes, and right now, you are going to take stock of the processes in your own business and make an inventory of them.

This inventory is important to give you a birds-eye view of all the processes in your business, so you can identify and prioritize them ahead of the discovery stage.

As you identify processes, give them clear and descriptive names, which is what you will use to refer to the process in your Business Process Inventory Worksheet.

Business Process Inventory Worksheet

To download a copy of our Business Process Inventory Worksheet, click on the image above. This document will give you a starting point to identify, name, and take stock of existing processes in your business.

It is from this list that you will pick processes to document in the Business  Process Documentation Worksheet, which is also included in the resource bundle linked above.

Of course, feel free to customize this Business Process Inventory Worksheet to make it applicable to the specific needs of your business. 

Step 2 – Select your first process

Don’t start with the most complex process you can find. What you need here is a quick win, so you can easily establish the value of process documentation to your stakeholders.

Carefully go through your completed inventory and prioritize on the basis of potential impact and anticipated documentation complexity. I would suggest bringing to the top processes that need urgent fixing and at the same time are not so complex as to become a confusing maze of prolonged inactivity for your team.

At the end of this exercise, the process at the top of the list is a good first candidate for process documentation.

Step 3 – Discovery of process tasks and activities

Having selected your first process, get doers and stakeholders of that process in a room and painstakingly document how they carry out this process from start to finish.

Some questions to ask to help surface process details include:

  • What is the point of the process in the first place?
  • What triggers the process?
  • What are the process inputs?
  • What are the process outputs?
  • What tasks are critical for moving the process along its path?
  • Which teams or employees are involved in this process?
  • Which one of them are responsible for the critical tasks in the project?
  • At what process stage are they involved?
  • Who hands off to whom?
  • How do we know the process has ended?
  • How long does it take to complete this process?

As the process emerges, I like to use a whiteboard here to diagram the flow, because it is easy to make corrections if one misses a step on the way. Additionally, a process flow diagram will do a better job of capturing process logic than text alone.

Step 4 – Complete the task yourself

To create a clear process document, it is important that you have a deep understanding of the nature of the process and the subtasks it contains.

Using the draft process map you drew and the details you noted down during the discovery session, complete the task yourself (with assistance from a trained employee, where required), while taking additional notes of points of friction that you encounter.

At points of friction, the process doers can enlighten you on how they handle those issues when they occur, and you can add that to your documentation of the process as supporting documents.

The fact that you are documenting the process while carrying it out will help you capture important details you could have missed otherwise, as well as create a clear and concise documentation that will be usable.

Step 5 – Verify that your process maps current reality

At this point you are happy with your process. But before you check it off as verified in your process documentation template, it is time to verify what has been captured.

There are two approaches to take here, which you can combine for best results:

Approach 1 – Have a process veteran run the process

Have a subject matter expert who has successfully run this process within the company use your documentation to run the process and confirm that is how the process is run. Of course, your expert has to be someone who can give you constructive criticism on the process.

Approach 2 – Get a novice to run the process

Validate that a new employee can come in and use the process documentation in place to run the process as independently as is reasonably possible in your business.

The novice will likely have questions at some point during the process. Instead of answering those questions directly, consider how you could adjust your communication in the documentation to clarify the ambiguity and hand them the new draft to continue with the process – until they get to the end.

Often, what makes sense to you may not be so obvious to others, and this step serves to check that you have communicated clearly about the process.

Step 6 – Create a ‘final’ version of your process documentation

At the end of the session, the facilitator converts the diagram into a process map using a graphic diagramming tool. This is much better than trying to diagram using software during the discovery session as you may inadvertently slow down the process and miss important details as a result.

Fill in details of the finalized process in the Business Process Documentation Worksheet, following the structure in the example Business Process Documentation Guide I linked above or an adapted structure that works best for your specific use case.

This version of your process document is now the official way that particular process will be executed in your business.

However, you will notice that I called it the final version in quotes. It is only final until you improve it, which may happen quickly if your process documentation software allows you to monitor and optimize existing processes.

Maintaining and Improving the Process Document

Despite the effort already invested, keep in mind that one of the biggest challenges is that the documents are very short-lived. So process documentation is an ongoing process that is never really complete.

Now that your processes have been documented, you can take things up a notch by looking out for specific areas that may need a quality overview so as to improve process efficiency. This is the same idea I mentioned in Chapter 4 of this article, under the sub-heading Perform Periodic Performance Reviews.

You can go back to that topic to get some ideas on what to do here, but let me add a couple of things.

One area that often yields improvement brownie points is handoffs – when a process moves from one person, team, or department to another. One best practice worthy of being stated here is to minimize unwarranted movements of processes between departments.

When it is unavoidable that a process is handed off to another department, keep an eye open for repetitive tasks and determine if the repetition is necessary or just inefficiency rearing its head.

It may at times be difficult to improve your own process as you may be too close to it to question the current process. Take a step back and try to see issues through the eyes of an outsider. If you still can’t see clearly, you may need a pair of fresh eyes.

For another point of view on the subject, Joe Barrios gives an interesting guide on how to document business processes. While his article is targeted at business analysts preparing for a job interview, it could also be useful for businesses seeking a reliable documentation process.

You are now equipped to document processes in your business. Well done!

I know this has been a pretty lengthy article, but hang in there. Before you go, here are some potential process documentation pitfalls I think you should be aware of. I initially wanted to add this as a content upgrade, but I decided it would be better to give you access to this upfront.

Bonus Chapter – Process documentation pitfalls and how to avoid them

a. Thinking process documentation is a waste of time and resources

This thought pattern is usually arrived at by feeling that while you are carrying out your process documentation, the work is left undone. In the long run, performing process documentation will help you identify wasteful activities performed by your employees, identify work silos that are impacting your communication, and improve employee training and morale.

b. Waiting until a key employee leaves to document the process

If you have an employee who gets the job done every day, they clearly know the task inside-out. How would it impact your business if that employee got sick or quit? Would you know how that employee carried out the task?

Instead of waiting until a key employee leaves, periodically ask every employee to conduct a process inventory, detailing their typical daily, weekly or monthly tasks.

Deborah Miller, Owner at Miller Productivity captures the essence of this pitfall and a couple of other process documentation mistakes businesses make that lead to poor productivity:

c. Leaving out information

Your process document should be complete. If employees still need to look for a mentor to show them how to do a process you have already documented, you can be sure that your process documentation exercise has failed.

However, this does not mean that the process document should be burdened with unnecessary detail or include virtually all exceptions that may occur.

d.  Thinking only regulated procedures or those that affect your quality certification need to be documented

While these processes are important,they may contain insufficient information to equip your employees for action. Regulators may not require critical business processes that your employees need.

Keep in mind that if your documentation was created to satisfy regulatory requirements, it was likely created by the quality team and may not be a good training tool. Effective process documentation involves everyone who performs that task.

e. Diving into process improvement when you have yet to finish process documentation

Before you are halfway through process discovery, participants would have brought up exceptions and errors and may naturally want to discuss them. Digressing at this point may put the success of your session at risk.

Another variation of this issue is starting off with documenting a process only to get sidetracked into another process that was not included in the original scope.  Take note of these issues and leave them alone until you are done with the current process. Then address those in a separate evaluation.

f. Forgetting process documentation is time consuming

It will always take more time than you assumed to complete process documentation. This is because the participants you require input from will also be busy with their day-to-day job. Don’t rush and produce shoddy documentation just because you want to finish on schedule.

g. Trying to discover a process by interviewing middle manager or senior management

While you need the support and buy-in of senior management and middle managers for your project to succeed, it is unlikely that they will have concrete information for you on how day-to-day processes run. People who can help you here are those who do the process.

They are the ones who can tell you how tasks are performed and what changes will work. Obviously, they also are the ones with the most at stake here. It is wise to ensure that they all participate, not just sending a couple of representatives. This way, the end users will have a sense of ownership over the documented process.

h. Allowing documented processes to become dated

Processes change over time. Roles change, tasks are assigned to other teams, inefficiencies are rooted out, or new technology may even be introduced. Each eventuality necessitates an update to your process document.

It is all too easy for one to shirk making these updates and allow the process documentation to become hopelessly stale. Then, one day, you are embarrassed when a new employee wants to know why the process documentation for “Generate the Monthly Sales Report” requires the final report to be sent to the MD’s desk on a floppy disk.


In the final analysis, process documentation is a great way for a businesses to become self-aware. This awareness will help you question your methods and challenge yourself and your team to become faster, better, and leaner.

If you have followed this process in creating, validating, and optimizing your first process, you are well on your way to having an efficient, lean, and user-friendly process that will add value to your business – far more value than was spent in creating it.

As a reminder, keep expectations managed and realistic, both for yourself and other stakeholders, to ensure that your process does not welter from impatience and over-optimization. If you keep things balanced, you can be sure with each improvement iteration, you will end up with a more efficient process that does a better job of increasing ROI.

Before you go, make sure to download our resource bundle which includes our Business Process Documentation Inventory Worksheet, Business Process Documentation Guide, and our Business Process Documentation Worksheet.

These are the same tools we use internally to kickstart our process documentation, and in writing this article, I decided it would be great to include those internal documents for others to build on.

You must have already noticed how interwoven the ideas in this article are with those resources, so give yourself a head start and download our FREE worksheet!:

FREE SweetProcess Business Process Documentation Worksheet

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