When used effectively, procedures and other documents such as work instructions/methods, policies and forms are an incredibly useful resource for training, to help manage business continuity and enable better organisational consistency.  If your organisation only has a documentation system to meet a regulatory or accreditation requirement then you are missing out on a valuable tool to help your business become more effective and ultimately save money.  Avoid the situation in the case study below, read our top tips for writing effective business documents.

Effective Business Documents - Out of reach

Case Study: Look but don’t touch…

Earlier in my career I worked at an organisation where they had a very impressive (and heavy looking) folder sitting on a very impressive bookshelf containing what they thought must have been some very impressive procedures.

When it was audit time the quality officer would dust it off and walk around the office holding it up in the air (she was very strong) reminding everyone very loudly that when the auditors arrived the next day and we were asked how we knew what to do, we should direct them to the previously mentioned folder on the shelf.  Then a short while later she would come around and physically search all of our desks and pockets to make sure that those illegal hand written notes that we had all written were destroyed – or at least removed from the premises temporarily.

Funny thing is, those handwritten notes were more effective and better reflected the work performed than the procedures in that impressive folder.  The procedures in that folder weren’t often used, often didn’t reflect the current process and were the property of that Quality Officer.  Suggestions weren’t exactly welcome.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Our Top 5 Logical Tips

1. Keep it simple

To ensure your documents are the most effective for your organisation you need to consider who will be using your procedures as the writing style you use will depend on your end users.

If the procedure will be used by team members without a technical background it is best to save your complex language, technical terms and detailed explanations to impress your peers when you present at the next conference.  Consider pictorially representing the process.

However if your end user is performing a very complex process and needs to be aware of the background technical information to assist with troubleshooting it may be appropriate to include links to appropriate background information (or the physical location) so that it is easy for the user to locate.  Too much information creates confusion.

2. Less is more

While it may seem like the more documents you have the more control you will have over your processes, there comes a point where documents transition from being a valuable and effective tool for your organisation to becoming a burden.  The more documents you have the more time is required to review and update them.  When someone suggests a new document is required ask yourself,  “Do we really need another document?”  It may be possible that an existing document could be amended to include the new process.

If your employees comprise of mainly professionals you may require fewer documents than if tasks are being performed by employees with limited education and skills. eg. Do you really need 3 procedures covering how to answer the phone?  Use common sense to guide your decisions.

3. Make documents accessible

An effective business documentation system with comprehensive but easy to read effective business documents sounds great but what if no-one uses it, or there is only 1 copy available among 20 team members.  The effectiveness of a documentation system depends largely on the accessibility of the documentation.

While paper based document management systems are effective they carry with them a large administrative burden.  With today’s more mobile workforce paper based systems also have limited use away from the workplace.  Use a good quality information management system – it can make documents accessible whether team members are in the workplace, out on-site or travelling overseas.

In the workplace consider printing the work instructions on the reverse of the worksheet to be completed or linking the procedure to the applicable results entry area in your information management system to ensure the instructions are readily available at the time the process is taking place.

4. Fresh eyes give a fresh perspective

New employees are often seen as a burden to an organisation as they require a large time and training investment to get them up to speed. However those newest to the organisation can be a very useful resource as they see your organisation with fresh eyes.  During their induction and training phase these new team members are in a great position to evaluate the effectiveness of your procedures and may have some suggestions to improve your current documentation.

Alternatively consultants can provide a professional assessment of your systems, perform a gap analysis against relevant standards and regulations, make recommendations to address areas for improvement and provide assistance to enhance your existing systems and make them more effective.

5. What’s mine is yours

Subject matter experts or managers are often the “owner” of a particular procedure or group of documents.  This term often creates a “hands off it’s mine” mentality within the workplace whether that is the intent or not.  To be effective, documents need to be understood and reviewed by all who will use them, including the facility to provide improvement suggestions for future versions of a document.  These should not be seen as a challenge to the “owner” but rather as an affirmation of the importance that these documents play in the workplace.

Conclusion

Whether you have just started documenting your business processes or you have a very mature documentation system, effective business documents are important to your business.  Incorporate these suggestions into your document writing and your documents will make training faster and easier and your documents will be better received and utilised by your team – and really, isn’t that why they were written in the first place?