Discovering Process Optimization Opportunities Through Process Documentation

03 Mar 2023


With competition booming and profit margins becoming ever tighter, companies are always looking for new ways to improve their efficiency, workflows, and internal processes.

One of the most effective ways to streamline your internal processes is by developing internal process documents such as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), visual process maps, flowcharts, checklists, and reference guides.

The purpose of these documents is to provide step-by-step instructions and guidance on how best to perform specific tasks and follow procedures such as onboarding for new recruits.

Simply documenting existing processes may seem like a simple task but, through the act of compiling and reviewing the content in these instructional documents, you may find that there is indeed much more to learn about additional ways to improve your existing processes.

First, we will explore the complexities of the concept of process documentation, followed by the advantages of deploying these documents in your organization. We will then look at the importance of getting feedback from the end users and how constant revisions can help you identify further improvement opportunities.

What is involved in process documentation?

Process documentation is the act of collecting and recording all the information regarding a specific business process and the steps to follow to achieve the right outcome. Although you may have several types of process documents as listed above, we will focus on SOPs because they are the most comprehensive.

Steps in Creating SOPs

1.  Identify the end user and goals.

Some business processes and procedures can be extremely complex, taking a significant amount of time to master. When you have new workers with limited knowledge on the subject, you want to ensure you have just the right amount of detail and use easy-to-understand language in your SOPs.

Second, you want to define exactly what you want the SOP to achieve. Some valuable questions to ask yourself include:

  • What value will this SOP add to the worker, team, and organization as a whole?
  • What is the return on investment in developing this document?
  • What specific problems will this document address?

2.  Choose the SOP format and layout.

The format and layout of your SOP will be determined by its complexity. There are three main format types:

  • Simple Format. This format is best for straightforward, low-complexity SOPs. It has about three to five steps, including a purpose statement, summary, simple bullet point instructions, and lists of all the responsible workers.
  • Hierarchical/Complex Format. This format is ideal for very complex, technical SOPs. In addition to a purpose statement and summary, it requires a table of contents and headings to help organize the document. This format makes provisions for comprehensive details on the steps to completing tasks and processes, including links to further information when required. It also lists not only responsible individuals, but also entire teams and groups of stakeholders.
  • Flowchart Format. This format can be used for either simple or complex SOPs, or a combination. Key components include an introduction and purpose statement, instructions, easy-to-understand flowcharts, and visual diagrams.

3.  Identify SOP developers.

The content of an effective SOP must be provided by one or a combination of experts on the subject. These can be internal or even external Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

They are usually a mix of C-Level executives who ensure that the document is aligned with all high-level business goals, management leaders, and frontline workers.

Because SOPs are by nature very technical documents, you want to ensure that the person assigned the task of writing the document has significant experience in technical writing. SMEs are great at what they do, but they are not necessarily skilled in writing complex documents. Hiring a writing agency to draft these complex documents may be the most financially viable route.

4.  Define the SOP scope and boundaries.

It is important to keep your SOPs focused on the specific issue or task you want to address and not cross boundaries into other, non-relevant processes.

For instance, if you are writing an SOP to educate your employees on how to back up their data to your cloud system, the SOP should deal with that subject only and not include any other IT-related issues.

5.  Collect the data.

There are several ways to go about collecting all the data you need to inform the SOP. This will likely include a combination of SME interviews, surveys, research, and focus groups.

It may also be helpful for the writer of the document to observe the task or process being performed to ensure the most accurate transfer of information. Assigning a dedicated person for data collection is also very effective. Some of the information you would need includes:

  • The time it takes to complete the task or process, such as induction training which, when structured well, usually takes approximately three months.
  • The documents and resources needed for each process, such as computers, software, and safety equipment.
  • People and skills required to perform the tasks detailed in the SOP, such as trainers, new recruits with specific skills, and supervisors.
  • Detailed inputs about the specific methods, processes, and procedures of the tasks.

Advantages of Process Documentation

Process documentation is really like the blueprint of your organization and should not be overlooked as simply a clerical obligation. Rather, it is a fundamental function of success. SOPs are valuable for a myriad of reasons, some of which include:

  • Creating consistency in the way tasks are carried out
  • Providing clarity to all the employees
  • Ensuring consistency in the production of quality products or services
  • Eliminating costly errors
  • Maintaining delivery schedules
  • Ensuring compliance with government and other regulations
  • Reducing product recall rates
  • Enhancing overall business performance and efficiency
  • Reducing expenses and increasing profits
  • Ensuring employee safety
  • Preserving internal business knowledge
  • Promoting accountability

End-User Feedback and Input

SOPs are very much live documents, which means they need constant monitoring to ensure they remain effective.

The scope and content of your SOPs will grow and transform as your company transforms.

To ensure that your SOPs are fit for purpose, the documents must be tested and reviewed by the employees carrying out the daily tasks for which the SOPs have been developed.

Your end users with the most experience are in the best position to give you feedback, as long as the testing phase is structured well with clear guidance on the feedback that is required. The theory in the document must be compared to the actual process in order to gather comparative data on its efficiency and make specific, focused adjustments.

The critical points in the document you need to assess are whether it is clear and concise, is written in easy-to-understand language in active voice, is free of jargon and errors, follows a logical structure, and consistently engages the end user. A good approach is to have the document reviewed by at least three pairs of eyes—and don’t be afraid to get some C-Level and management feedback as well.

Updates and Revisions

A well-developed SOP will have update and review protocols built into the documents. There are a number of factors that can prompt mandatory updates in your SOPs, such as changes in laws and regulations, extending or modifying your products or services, working with new suppliers, and mergers and acquisitions.

A good approach is to either incorporate a review step at the beginning of your SOP or to place variable checkpoints with expiry dates throughout the document to check if each step is still relevant at the time the SOP is being used. This will ensure that the document can’t be distributed until a thorough review has been carried out and new expiry dates have been issued.

To ensure effective and timely revisions of your SOPs, you must appoint one person or a specific group of people to be responsible and accountable for the revision process. These individuals must have the appropriate experience and agency to recommend changes and work with the creators of the SOPs to update the documents.

The Learning Loop

In addition to being great tools to standardize processes across your business, the practice of process documentation is also a great way to learn more about your own operation and identify further opportunities to fine-tune existing processes and discover completely new processes that you were unaware of in the first place.

An effective approach to writing and reviewing the processes in your SOPs is to explore them through the theories of single, double, and triple-loop learning which, as suggested by the Tamarack Institute, means:

Single-Loop Learning is about making adjustments to correct a mistake or a problem. It is focused on doing the things right. Causality might be observed but typically is not addressed.”

Double-Loop Learning is identifying and understanding causality and then taking action to fix the problem. It is about doing the right things.

Triple-Loop Learning goes even deeper to explore our values and the reasons why we even have our systems, processes and desired results in the first place. It is about trying to ascertain an understanding of how we make decisions that frame our work.”

To put the above theory into a practical context, we will use the example of developing an SOP for dealing with customer complaints.

Let's assume you are a large bank with a centralized customer complaints call center with 200 advisors who are targeted to achieve a 95% customer satisfaction rate. You have written your initial Standard Operating Procedure for how to handle difficult customers complaining about unexpected fees and charges on their accounts.

Through single-loop learning, you have identified the problem to be your customers having a lack of clarity and understanding of how the bank account fees are calculated and you have now written new procedures into your SOP which require your advisors to explain the fees clearly to your customers when they call. .

After implementing the SOP, you notice that your overall customer satisfaction rate has gone up from 60% to 75%

After another couple of months, you notice that not a single advisor is able to achieve above an 80% customer satisfaction rate.

This low satisfaction rate now forces you to think outside the box and consider other reasons for the low satisfaction rates. Through double-loop learning, you realize that it is simply not enough to explain to your customers how the account fees are calculated, but it is also the tone and language the advisors use when speaking to your customers that determine satisfaction.

Eventually, after revising your SOP, you achieve your 95% satisfaction rate, but, through triple-loop learning, you start to question why your advisors are spending so much time on the phone explaining the fees to customers in the first place.

In other words, you are questioning the viability of your process itself. You realize that the terms and conditions provided to all customers when they open their accounts are far too complicated, with financial jargon only understood by lawyers and professionals in the banking industry. You run your epiphany up the chain of command and, before long, your complaints relating to account fees have been reduced by 90%.

Writing agencies have external perspective.

Whether you have been trading for several years or just starting up, any successful business must have these instructional documents in place to ensure everyone operates at the same high standards across your business. To achieve high standards, you must ensure that these documents are written by exceptional writers, to the highest quality.

The biggest problems sometimes manifest when you try to get frontline workers who are  doing the job to also write down the steps and processes for the job. There are a few reasons for these problems.

First, when you know how to do your job well and have done it for a long time, during the writing process, you may neglect to consider what your journey to proficiency was like. This can lead to assumptions about the information you believe any new user of the SOP already has. You may leave out critical steps and information that could lead a newbie to make errors and mistakes. This is because you as the expert have tacit knowledge and perform your tasks without even thinking about them (second nature).

Second, no matter how skilled you are in a certain field, that skill set does not necessarily translate into being a skilled writer. Writing high-quality SOPs requires great attention to detail and the ability to work with complex, multi-volume documents. You also need an exceptional vocabulary, the ability to simplify complex ideas and information, and the ability to write in a variety of different styles and tones.

Lastly, when you have to write a complex document on a topic you are very close to in your everyday life, you can lose perspective entirely, go off in the wrong direction completely, or get writer’s block, leaving you uninspired with no creative insights.

Writing agencies are great at stepping in to develop SOPs because of the external perspective they bring with them. Part of their writing process is approaching your SOPs from an inexperienced person’s perspective and building the content with that in mind. They ask the right questions and dig down into the detail that experts sometimes don’t consider to be relevant. In addition, they work with a range of clients at any given time, which keeps them on their strategic and creative toes at all times.

Chris DeLange 

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