Paula Berman on Seven Times You Need a Documented Procedure and One Time You Don’t

Photo of Paula Berman, author of Successful Business Process ManagementThe following is a guest post from Paula Berman, author of Successful Business Process Management: What You Need to Know to Get Results.

Most people realize it’s a problem if you need documented procedures and don’t have them; inefficiencies creep in because everyone is doing the work a bit differently, and all knowledge is stored in someone’s head, so that the expert is always being interrupted by people who need help with a task. Good managers know that without a procedure, it’s also difficult to create a standard metric to tell you how well things are going.

As people move up the hierarchy, they tend to lose sight of what every technician, young engineer, or administrative worker knows intuitively: too much documentation can be worse than too little. Employees can spend too much time trying to read and decipher the procedures and work instructions they need to do their jobs, or get so frustrated that they ignore the documentation entirely and go back to figuring things out for themselves. Morale drops because people feel like they’re floundering in a sea of paperwork and red tape.

If you want your business to be both efficient and effective, keep your process system simple. Document only the procedures you need, and no others.

Note: For this post, I’m using the term “procedure” to mean “documented way to execute a task” – whether it’s a formal procedure, work instruction, checklist, or training guide. Don’t make your procedures any more complicated or detailed than they really need to be.

Here are 7 cases where you really do need a documented procedure:

  1. When you want to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of your way of working. If you want to make an improvement, you need to understand the current situation and be able to measure your process so that you can tell if your improvement worked. When you’ve made your improvement, do it again: document the new planned procedure so that everyone understands the changes. Again, measure the process so that you’ll know if you’ve succeeded or if you need to take additional steps.
  2. When the process or its product affects more than one team, group, department or company – in this case the documented procedure serves as an agreement between the people performing the process, and the ones who do the next step or who receive the process outputs. It provides a common understanding of who will provide what information or product to whom, when, and with what characteristics.
  3. When a process is complicated and its output is critical – this is especially true when you want to make sure that someone else can do the job, if the person who normally does it is out of the office. You do not want the functioning of your company to be vulnerable to a single point of failure.
  4. When you have several people performing the same task and you want them all to do it the same way. Sometimes, there is one best way to work and everyone needs to follow that method. Other times, there are multiple good ways to accomplish a task but it’s most effective if everyone has a common vocabulary and way of working.
  5. When you need to be able to train new people – it’s helpful to have a document that new people can refer to so they don’t have to interrupt more experienced people to ask for help. Otherwise, you can find yourself in a situation where bringing in more resources to help actually slows things down.
  6. When people who are not performing the work (such as managers) need to understand the process, so that they know when intervention is needed or how to change the business to make it more efficient (e.g. combining two groups that do similar work).
  7. When the procedure is required by a governing standard or law.

These seven points all come down to two important questions: (1) Will a procedure make it easier for you to meet your customers’ needs? (2) Will it help you do a better job meeting your customers’ needs? It’s OK if a “yes” answer to these questions is indirect (such as “Yes, because our Employee Evaluation Procedure helps us keep and reward the best people” or “Yes, because our Document Control Procedure enables the rest of the procedures required to support our business and produce our product”). If none of these points apply to your situation, then maybe you don’t really need a documented procedure. A “no” answer is a chance to minimize your paperwork and avoid unneeded complexity. Just be careful to re-evaluate periodically, as your business evolves.

Jacket image, Successful Business Process Management by Paula BermanPaula K. Berman has worked with Quality Systems at companies of all sizes and in a range of industries. Her varied experience helped her develop a holistic approach to business process implementation, and practical solutions for getting results. Berman has lived and worked in the US, Europe, and Asia in the semiconductor, aerospace, and Internet industries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in physical science from the University of Houston; in addition she is a Six Sigma Black Belt and is certified by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) as a Certified Manager of Quality and Organizational Excellence (CMQ / OE). A Philadelphia native, she currently lives in Portland, Oregon and works at SSOE, a leading architecture, engineering, and construction management firm.


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