Using Documentation to Improve Processes: A Case Study
USING DOCUMENTATION TO IMPROVE PROCESSES: A CASE STUDY
The Client: Company Growth Highlighting Need for Process Improvement
With origins that reach back over a century to the time it was the first electric and gas provider in its home state, this client’s business reach grew—from serving one city to serving the entire state and beyond.
The client is now a multibillion-dollar, investor-owned company that generates, transmits, and distributes electric power to over 525,000 residential and business customers from sources including solar, wind, and coal.
The changes that came with this massive growth have involved more than geography: They’ve encompassed changes in technology and processes, the formation of multiple business units performing various functions, and the need to conform to government regulations for communication between units.
This growth eventually led to the realization that there was a need for process improvement and standardization throughout the company. This is where The Writers for Hire stepped into the story.
The Problem: Managing Change in a Company Culture of Varied Processes
Before beginning the project, The Writers for Hire sent a group of writers to visit the client at its offices, meet company personnel, and become familiar with the systems and software used. Conference calls were scheduled with writers who didn’t make the trip to bring everyone up to speed with the issues involved and into contact with staff members.
Suzanne Kearns, a copywriter and project manager assigned to the project, relates that the company has many departments “doing things different ways; various business units—one that generates the power, one that transmits the power, etc., and those units can’t always talk to each other because of federal regulations.”
As a result of these communications complexities and the company’s diverse units and locations, departments were carrying out the same processes in completely different ways. As the writing team began looking at these, Kearns says it became clear that some of the processes being used “weren’t the most efficient.”
Cecile Brule, another writer on the project, remembers that one company subject matter expert (SME) had a “little paper flowchart that he was kind of making for his own purposes. He would say, ‘To be honest, we don’t have a set way of doing this, as long as it works.’”
The client also had out-of-date procedural documents that needed to be updated; they realized that optimization and standardization of processes across the entire organization was necessary, both for operations and cost efficiency.
Large changes were on the way, and making those changes would need to involve relied-upon experts in each area of the company.
The Solution: Documentation as a Tool to Improve Processes
The dilemma presented by the client needed a practical, doable solution, and that solution required a tool. Our writing teams’ tool of choice was documentation—specifically, the type of flowchart known as a workflow. Workflows would enable the client’s SMEs to see, scrutinize, and optimize processes across all the company’s business units.
Teams at The Writers for Hire tackled the job of producing a workflow for each process used throughout each business unit. To create these, they interviewed company SMEs to get first-hand, accurate information, and used those findings to produce workflows.
Brule’s team, for example, developed a workflow for the company’s accounting department. The next step was using the workflow to create a list of process documents that would be written.
“How many documents do we need to create to ensure that anybody coming into it can know how to do every aspect on the workflow?” Kearns asks rhetorically.
A workflow might need 5 or 500 documents—the number determined by the complexity of the workflow and in consultation with the company’s SMEs.
With types and numbers of documents decided, writers interview SMEs to clarify process issues and arrive at optimal processes that benefit all parties.
Kearns describes the collaborative process of discovering opportunities for greater efficiency. “For example, we ask questions like: ‘This form has four blanks that you don’t really need, and it confuses your project managers. So wouldn’t it be better if we remove them to make the process easier for them?’ That’s a simple example.”
Communications are integral, both to workflows and process documentation, and the very process of writing both turns up gaps in communication.
Brule’s work on the project involves writing work practices narratives. She also writes step-by-step work instructions documents with numerous screenshots that detail the use of, for example, a piece of software.
She’s been involved in the Design Engineering aspect of the prospect, in which the workflow and resulting documents describe everything from the software used for design to procedures for materials requests.
Final process documents are returned to the SMEs for comments and changes.
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The Result: Business Processes Improved and Synched Across the Company
“The end result,” says Kearns, “is that they now have processes they want everyone to follow, so from here on out, that’s the way it will be done throughout the organization.”
Documenting work processes in a workflow is integral to the creation of procedural documents, both for The Writers for Hire and for the client.
As Kearns says, “Coming into it, we need to understand their business model, so it’s invaluable to us. But at the same time to them, because it causes them to stop and think. It helps everyone to step back, look at the big picture. A lot of improvements have been made.”
Not least among these is improved communication between departments. Brule remembers that the process “kind of forced” two departments to talk, “and they realized, ‘Maybe we should talk now about making this flow more smoothly.’ We weren’t fixing their system; we were just asking them the questions that made them want to fix their system.”
In conjunction with company staff, many opportunities for process improvement have been discovered through documentation, and processes revised for greater efficiency.
The workflow charts themselves may also continue to be useful to the client, for example, to orient a new project manager or new employee to the workings of a department.
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