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Documenting Your Workflow: How and Why

By: Outright

 

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One of the 7 Business New Year’s Resolutions we recommended last month involved documenting your workflow. Putting each step of your workflow into writing (or recording it in some other fashion) can make a big difference in how smoothly your company runs. Actually recording the processes you use can require some investment, but you’ll see a return on the resources you put into the effort.

 
Why bother with documentation? Why not just do everything by rote every time you need to complete a task? Documentation can come in handy in a variety of different ways:
 
  • Even if you’re the only person handling particular types of projects, having a written process to follow can help you speed up—you don’t have to stop and think about what to do next.
  • You can use your documentation to look for opportunities to automate steps or outsource them. Without a written process, making your approach more efficient is difficult.
  • You can hand off a project to someone else with far fewer difficulties. Being able to hand off work isn’t just a question of delegation, though. If you ever want to sell your business, you’ll need to make sure that the new owner can handle every part of the work.
 
How to Decide What to Document
 
Once you’ve been sold on the value of setting up a standing workflow you should follow, there’s a temptation to record everything—down to exactly how you like your morning coffee to be brewed. The reality, like most other business practices, is that you can be a little more moderate in your approach.
 
For many small business owners, the obvious option is to start by writing down the steps to any task that you want to hand off to someone else—the tasks that you’re already confident you’ll be able to delegate. But, depending on how you run your business, you may not have given a lot of thought to that question yet. You may have hired a specialist who didn’t need any guidance, or you may not have even reached the point where hiring someone is on your agenda.
 
If you’re starting from scratch, the easiest approach is to begin by paying attention to what you do each day. You might already have a task list that you work through as the day progresses, which can serve as a great tool. Either keep those lists (and perhaps add some notes if you notice yourself doing anything not already listed) or write down what you work on each day separately. Once you have a clear picture of what you’ve been doing for the past week, you can divide your tasks into those you do on a regular basis and those you do less frequently.
 
It’s not all that practical to document the processes you follow every single day: those steps are basically habit at this point. You might consider documenting them if you want to delegate that work, but otherwise, don’t prioritize those tasks. Instead, focus on the work that you do fairly regularly, but not so often that you know every single piece of the process by heart—the tasks where you have to stop and think about what comes next for a moment. Work that you don’t have to do on a regular basis offers a good chance for making your process more efficient or even handing off to someone else entirely.
 
Should You Write Your Documentation or Record It?
 
Once you have a good idea of what processes you should prioritize documenting, you’ll need to consider what format will be the most useful for both you and your team to use.
 
Video is a popular option, in part because you can often just hit record on a camera or a screencasting app and go about your work. With a little narration, you can wind up with step-by-step video tutorials. While a video walk-through of a particular task can be very helpful when learning how to do the work in question, however, it’s not always useful as documentation for on-going work.
 
For many projects, having a checklist to follow over and over again can be ideal. In the moment, it can be difficult to refer back to a video, especially if you have to skip around to find that one particular section that describes the instruction you need to hear. As an added benefit, many project management tools, like Asana or Basecamp, let you create checklists that you can copy—you can just make a point of working through each step of your project very easily. There are also workflow management tools built specifically for developing standard procedures for your business, such as SweetProcess
 
Before committing one way or the other, you may want to think about what formats are going to be accessible to people you might hire down the road. Not everyone can hear or see well enough to make use of video documentation; not everyone can read well enough to rely on written documentation. It may be worth considering multiple formats if you have the resources to create them. Your documentation doesn’t need to be particularly fancy: if you have a screencast transcribed and turned into a checklist, you can have both written and video formats relatively easily.
 
How to Create a Culture of Documentation
 
Unfortunately, documenting the different steps you take to accomplish the different work that your business requires to run is just the beginning. If you don’t keep your documentation up to date, you may find problems creeping into your workflow—a new hire who can’t figure out a project, but who also doesn’t know that the checklist he’s following is obsolete is doubly dangerous. You’ve got to invest time and resources in reviewing and updating your documentation on a very regular basis.
 
Not only do you personally want to make a point of documenting new processes and updating old ones, but you also need to consider how to get any team members you hire on board. You need to make that sort of record-keeping a key cultural value for your company as a whole.
 
This article was originally published by Outright.com
Published: March 7, 2014
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