The Value of Documented Processes
by Marcia Weedon
Most companies start small with a dream of what they would like to become someday. Small companies take pride in “we wear many hats around here.” With relatively simple, straightforward processes and a few key personnel, it is easy to make changes and keep the business going.
Success means growth and with that growth, the workload expands. It requires more people to fill orders or provide the services that customers want. Success also brings in more customers. New customers might have needs, because of their specialized end uses of your product or services, other than what you originally anticipated. Their requests for modifications and exceptions reflect their confidence in your company’s abilities.
In addition to providing customer satisfaction and building your company’s reputation, accommodating these requests expands the business’s offerings thus attracting even more customers.
Your customers also encounter their customers wanting more from them thus changing your customers’ needs and requirements. They logically pass these along to you, meaning more modifications and work.
As a result, businesses relying on “what is in the heads of a few” find themselves slowly morphing into behemoths. Somebody typically suggests at this point that perhaps it would help to document our processes. Most agree, but then the questions start – Who is going to do the work? Who has the skills? Even with the skills, who has the time? Who drives this? Quietly, documentation gets pushed back into a low priority.
Refinement of work duties
As a company grows, work duties become more specialized. The handful of personnel who once did it all evolve into departments. Tasks and responsibilities are divvied up and assigned elsewhere. The company moves from everybody easily ascertaining what must be done next to “who takes care of this?”
Personnel are dedicated to tweaking what customers want or need. If the business is manufacturing-based, there may be a cascading chain of changes. Service activities may be job-specific or apply across the board.
Changes may be for one customer or many. Changes could be permanent or a one-time occurrence, or apply only to a few under certain circumstances. Sometimes, personnel are required onsite at a customer’s either temporarily or permanently.
Ordering and logistics are concerns. If you can control the suppliers, you can control the end product. How are raw goods, materials, and finished goods moved and handled? What gets warehoused? What gets shipped and how?
Departments develop for operations, human resources, testing, quality, and information systems. Employees, contractors, customers, and end users all have different training needs.
No business exists without money. As sales, salaries, taxes, purchases, and operations expand, somebody needs to monitor the coming and going of the monies.
Hardware and software must be in place to handle the activities and data along with systems that keep everything confidential and secure.
Either employees or contractors carry out these duties. All of them need to know what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and for whom.
Smaller companies love Person X, the employee who knows how everything is to be done around here. The danger with Person X is that tonight might be his or her multimillion lottery win or when a new job offer comes through. A college degree, a significant other, child, or a parent can also place their priorities before yours.
Even the most loyal employee may make an unplanned exit from the company. People become ill, have accidents, have loved ones suddenly in need, or die.
Beyond the company’s walls
As valiant as a company may be with staying on top of how it functions, events and influences exist beyond the company’s walls that require work, adaptations, and compliance.
Regulatory requirements exist for labor, taxes, environmental impacts, product safety, and quality, to name a few. In the event of lawsuits, well documented processes can prove exactly what a company did, when it was done, and who did it. Liability and its accompanying fines are often reduced or avoided entirely when compliance can be demonstrated.
Regulatory issues aside, the marketplace changes via technological advances or the introduction of new products and services. To remain competitive, companies must adapt, complicating “business as usual” even further.
Then there is the economy. Many companies struggle when business is slow. Well documented processes show what can be consolidated, eliminated, or improved for output and cost reductions.
If anything is to be moved off-shore, how does the company ensure that workers half a world away know what to do?
Nobody wants to assume that a catastrophe will happen to them. We have all seen news stories of factories destroyed by fires, yet other catastrophes can befall a company. Tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes can level a business in minutes. Nobody could have foreseen the scope of destruction from Hurricane Katrina or the business interruptions from the 9/11 attacks.
What does a company do to recover? Those with documented processes and records, particularly those backed-up securely off-site in water-and-fire proof locations, have better recovery and survival rates than those who put documentation aside for another day.
In the event of the unfortunate or lawsuits, good documentation is among the best insurance a company can have.
Planning for the future
Documented processes capture changes made over time and their consequential benefits and challenges. Annual reviews of documented processes highlight what is obsolete, redundant, what needs updating, what is working, and the adequacy of or need for policies.
Innovation can take place with confidence because documented processes provide excellent ideas for the types of changes possible or directions to take. A process in hard copy, black-and-white may also evoke ideas that might have not otherwise been apparent.
Certainly, many changes occur as a company evolves from rolled-up shirtsleeves, “let’s get this done” workdays to subsidiaries, private jets, and gleaming corporate headquarters.
Good documentation assists well-planned, business growth, while helping to make business dreams a reality, by providing clarity, history, road maps, insurance, and checkpoints.