In 1999, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter Satellite, designed to study Mars from orbit and serve as a communications relay. The mission ended up being unsuccessful when the satellite disintegrated, costing NASA $193 million. This massive loss could have been prevented if NASA’s employees had followed standard procedure. They didn’t because that procedure was undocumented, and key personnel assumed someone had checked the required boxes. Why spend time and money putting out fires (literally) when a single document could prevent a $200 million loss?
So, what is Process Documentation?
Process documentation is a fancy term for writing your business’ tasks, procedures, and processes in an organized way. And we mean writing. It only counts if the process is written out in words or recorded in a video. Process Documentation seeks to define and improve procedures by documenting and auditing them. As an added bonus process documentation often reveals opportunities to reduce expenses and create stability in the company. Process documentation can be done at all levels of a business. For example, you could document a role, task, interdepartmental process, or a single procedure.
Good process documentation should answer three key questions.
- How to do it?
- Who is responsible?
- Why is it important?
How to do it?
This element of process documentation defines the requirements or necessary steps for the process or task to be successful. For example, if you were going to describe the process of driving a car, it would begin with putting the key in the ignition to start the car, putting on a seatbelt, putting the car in gear, etc. Describing the steps of a process clearly ensures that any individual could follow the process, which makes it repeatable.
Repetition is important in business because it enables leadership to step back and trust in employee autonomy without leaving employees wondering what to do. For example, take safety training. Putting on a seatbelt is essential because it decreases the probability of a car accident occurring. Likewise, explaining the steps of operating heavy machinery or dealing with hazardous chemicals is important because it reduces risk. No manager wants to stand around reminding employees to do safety checks or wear full length-pants, just like no police officer wants to inspect every car as it leaves the house to ensure everyone is wearing a seat belt. Instead, these expectations are documented, and individuals face consequences for non-compliance.
Who is responsible?
Process Documentation outlines responsibility for specific roles and tasks. This allows employees to take responsibility and be accountable for their actions. When accountability and responsibility are outlined, leaders can enforce policy and reduce risk. In our car example, you are individually responsible for securing your seatbelt and you are also responsible for ensuring any minors in your car are properly secured. A good business example might be cyber security. Everyone gets phishing emails and cyber-attacks regardless of their job. Most companies write these off, but a cyber breach can cost millions of dollars in ransomed data, insurance claims, and security software (implemented after the fact). While it’s easy to assume everyone knows what a phishing looks like, it only takes one employee to accidentally bankrupt your company. Trust us, investing in a simple cyber security training is much more affordable.
Why is it important?
Process documentation informs the employee why this step or procedure is vital to follow. If the task, process, or procedure is diligently and correctly followed, mistakes are avoided. However, employees often view standardized processes as busy work created by evil corporate overlords to drain their life of all meaning. It is important to take the time to explain the why behind a process to employees. This build trust between the overlords and the minions and it creates buy-in among employee teams.
In our car example, we wear seatbelts because it dramatically reduces the number of fatalities in a car accident. In a similar business example, we force sales reps to enter their CRM data because it increases close ratios by facilitating better lead tracking. Most sales reps hate admin work but it is actually good for their income, just like kids hate seatbelts but it’s good for their safety. Taking the time to communicate the why matters.
Take the time to document your company processes. While the upfront cost is either time, which most leaders don’t have, or money, which can be hard to part with, the long-term gains are well worth it. Process documentation falls into the old adage, you don’t appreciate it until you need it, but then you are really glad you have it.