• Jen May

The How to OF How To's

Having well-communicated, robust procedures for everything you do is essential to running a profitable, productive, controlled business. Procedures are needed for restructuring, resource planning, on-boarding, performance management and managing change. They’re key to proving your business is an asset, when the time comes to sell. They make your business sustainable and scalable.

But how do you capture them? It’s amazing how something so simple can be so daunting if you haven’t done it before. These, after all, are the Play Book for your business. So they need to be right.

This How To on the How To’s, gives the key steps to creating procedures that will be used.

What is a Procedure?

At the risk of teaching grandma to suck eggs, here at May Dynamics we think of a Procedure as describing how to do a standalone task. They are the basic building blocks of your Operations Manual, along with your Processes and your Policies.

Think of a procedure as a set of instructions, designed to communicate how to do a task which is:

  • Done by a single resource (individual, or team working as one (e.g. a tyre change at a pit-stop)

  • Simple – usually between 3 and 8 steps

  • Standalone – once the task has started, it can be completed without outside intervention

  • Repetitive – whether it’s answering enquiries 50 times a day, or renewing the web domain every 3 years, there is no point capturing a procedure for a task that is genuinely one-off

Generally, the best time to capture a procedure is during, or immediately after, the 2nd time it takes place. This way you know the work is not a one-off, and can invest in formalising and simplifying the way it is done.

How do you want to use the Procedure?

Traditionally “writing a procedure” meant exactly that. Opening a blank Word document and typing a series of bullet points. If you were feeling really advanced, you might insert a screenshot. Ooh, fancy!

Today there are so many other versions of procedures you should consider, all with their own applications:

  • Video “How To” guides (appeals to a different learning style and can be a great media for on-boarding)

  • Audio “Talk Throughs” which can be played simultaneously to Doing the Task (ideal for discreet scripting of interactive procedures)

  • Posters / Visual Aids (e.g. the graphical instructions on flat-packs; also ideal for Health & Safety procedures)

  • Augmented Reality Helmets (instructions & guides on peripheries of screen, and/or through audio – ideal for complex procedures such as surgery)

They can be stored on YouTube, your website, your wall, even your head … anywhere but on the shelf. Because the number one thing about writing a procedure is, it’s not worth doing if it’s never used.

What is it that you Do?

Get the absolute basics clear first. Ask, What needs to happen, in what order?

You may be surprised to find that “the way it’s done” is actually the way YOU do it. Your colleague does something different. That’s OK – a bit of natural adaptation is normal.

What is more worrying is that often the Senior Management understanding of the process (the “official version”) differs radically from what is Actually Done. Chances are this is due to gradual changes, workarounds, etc. In nearly all cases, the Boss Version is simpler than the daily reality.

Aaah! The good news is, this is a great opportunity to put the 2+ versions together, understand what is really happening, pick the best combination, fix minor obstacles to doing it simply …. And design a great, working procedure.

Where to Start? The 4 basic elements

  1. Aim to break your “How To” down into 3-8 steps and sort them into the best order.

  2. Highlight all decision points, which will cause different flows or outcomes. These are called Gateways and you don’t really want any in a Procedure – more than one and chances are this is a Process. If possible, aim for Gateways to be Yes / No answers. The only exception is simple logical data variations, and include a reference table so the choice is clear:

  3. Gather evidence to illustrate the story. This might be videos, screen shots, images and/or data tables. If possible use real life examples (e.g. your data and field names in an application).

  4. Then tell the story. You can caption video, dictate or write out the steps, depending on how you intend to use them. It’s time to get bossy! Be sure to use simple language – there should be no ambiguity here. Best practice is to use an Imperative Verb followed by a Noun (e.g. “Archive file”, “Send email to customer”).

When is a Procedure not a Procedure?

If it's too Long or Complicated

A Process is more complicated than a Procedure. There are usually multiple decision points and are not necessarily controlled by a single resource.

How do you know whether you’re genuinely thinking about a Procedure, or if it is actually a Process? There are 3 giveaways:

  1. It feels too long or time-consuming to be reliably completed in one sitting (look for more than about 5-8 steps)

  2. There are multiple actors (if there’s interaction between 2 staff members or teams, this is 2 dependent procedures – a procedure is designed for a single resource to follow)

  3. It’s too complex (there is more than one decision point splitting the possible flow)

If it is a Process, that’s a whole other ball game. Processes are much better expressed in diagrams (or through pre-programmed forms and workflows), to capture their complexity. But a great way to think about it, is that usually a Procedure will be a single task in a Process. Sometimes what you thought as one Procedure, is actually two. Especially if they’re dependent.

If it tries to define Organisational Rules

Your policies define the rules of your organisation. You should already have Policies in place for the basics – things like HR, purchasing, technology, health & safety and quality.

What tends to happen, when you start capturing Procedures, is that you stray into Policy territory. You start defining the organisation-wide rules in each Procedure. This is not only time-consuming, it’s dangerous because it creates all sorts of version control issues. Define your rules in your Policies; refer to them in your Procedures.

Example? In a How to Raise a Purchase Requisition, don’t talk about purchasing limits. Instead, create a table in your Purchasing Policy and refer to it whenever relevant.

Checking your Procedures

Never forget to check and double check what you've captured. It needs to be accurate, to follow a logical order, to be non-ambiguous and to give sufficient detail that someone with no prior knowledge can complete the task successfully.

We like to make Checking part of the Capturing process. For simple Procedures, or those where a small amount of variation isn't an issue, it's just a case of being disciplined in capturing each step then following only what is written. Here the aim is primarily speeding up training and cross-resourcing.

For more complicated, critical, new or contentious Procedures?

Our favourite approach involves 3 people - your most capable person (at this task), someone without any prior knowledge (ideally a change management resource. as they will be experienced in thinking the right way - but it could be a new starter or someone from another team) and a third person (ideally the person who will be accountable for reviewing the Procedure - it's a good time to involve that manager who thought life was rosy!). Here are the steps we suggest:

  1. The existing expert runs slowly through every step of the task, explaining what they are doing and why, and highlighting key steps

  2. If possible record this (screen capture or audio). Failing this, the outsider takes notes during this process. This forms the basis of the procedure that will be captured

  3. Edit or write up the notes into a basic procedure, with the 4 essential elements

  4. Get the 3 people together. Have the third person (e.g. manager) complete the task, following each step in the draft procedure. They can only ask questions of the outsider / new starter who wrote the procedure. The expert resource annotates the draft, or takes notes for how to change the procedure to make sure it is accurate and simple

  5. Repeat Step 4 until everyone is satisfied

This might sound like overkill, but time and again it has proven a cost effective, fool-proof way of uncovering gaps, simplifying explanations and leaving everyone on the same page.

Taking the Next Step - Adding Value

Once you’re confident you’ve created realistic, useful procedures, it is a good idea to add some value add information. Elements to add to your basic How To are:

  1. Who Performs the task – and who provides cover (if they are absent, or overwhelmed)

  2. When or Why it is done (this might be 8:30am 1st Tuesday of the month, or the Trigger Event – e.g. When a New Joiner starts, will trigger an Introductory Meeting discussion

  3. Resources required – like the Ingredients list in a recipe, it makes sense to split these out at the top, so they can be assembled before starting. Include any system access, data requirements and physical items required

  4. What determines successful completion? It’s important the person performing the task is aware of what is required as an end result. For example, emailing the monthly newsletter could be complete once Send is pressed, or it could include following up with failed email addresses, etc.

  5. References to your Operations Manual – Ideally each document has its own unique code and version number, and you would usually include that in a Footer, but you could also list which Process this Procedure can be found in, and any Policies it references. Even better, add these as LINKS – it makes following the bouncing ball so easy!

  6. The person who OWNS the procedure (this is often not the person who performs the task; it is quite often a team leader or department head). This person is accountable for issues, reviews and updates, as well as any KPIs it drives

  7. The date the Procedure was last reviewed, any key changes made, and the next review date. This keeps the Owner accountable

If you are comfortable with it, including a small SIPOC at the top can also be incredibly useful for putting your procedures in context. A SIPOC shows the Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs and Customers for a process or procedure. It helps enormously with accountability, cross-department communication and quality control.

Even if you are using video or audio, you can still top and tail your narration with the aspects above. Consider adding slides or an audio cue to highlight them.

At May Dynamics we capture Procedures in a standard template, as it’s visually simpler and easier to cross-reference. Especially when procedures are written, they can be very dry … so do put some effort into enlivening them.

What to do with your Procedures

Your Procedures form an essential part of your Operations Manual and are some of your most important business resources. However you capture them, and whether this information is included on them, do make sure your Procedures are assigned owners, regularly updated, secure (they’re key IP) accessible and version controlled.

Here are the things you MUST do with your procedures:

  1. Get them approved by senior management – if possible, demonstrate the task. This is essential if there were any differences of opinion in how a task could or should be done.

  2. Train the people doing the work and address all their concerns. If it doesn’t work for them, it will never work. Take steps to ensure any future new starters are also trained as part of their on-boarding

  3. Assign an Owner who is accountable for reviewing, changing or resourcing the procedure

  4. Create and enforce a review schedule; often the first review is 3 months after initial publication (to iron out teething issues), then reverts to annual reviews

  5. Store electronic files in a single repository on a shared drive or similar – this means you can manage access and create links to cross-reference Procedures, Processes and Policies

  6. Create a paper copy and organise it into a folder, ideally by team. This is your back-up if all hell breaks out, your systems go down, your people leave, etc. Consider also holding a copy of your Ops Manual off-site, to mitigate risk if the building is out of bounds.

And some ways you can extend the usefulness of your Procedures:

  1. If you’re starting with your Procedures and nervous about creating Process Maps, you can lay out printed copies or thumbnails of your Procedures and move them around to organise them into your Processes

  2. Use them to identify issues, uncover workarounds, communication breakdowns and potential ways to reorganise the way you do business

  3. To enhance your On Boarding and Training, create quizzes from your Procedures

  4. Go next level and use a Workflow App to automate your procedures, e.g. creating custom forms for data entry, performing background calculations, routing approval requests and generating outputs and reports

Got any questions? Procedures are in our blood, so we’d love to help. Contact May Dynamics to talk about your needs around creating living Operations Manuals.

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