How-Tos of Technical Writing, Part 3

or, What Is a Procedure and Why Is It Important to Your Business?

A procedure is a document that describes a process in sufficient detail that it helps someone who’s unfamiliar with that process to reasonably understand the process in a short amount of time. Processes are sets of activities, or processes, designed to achieve specific goals or objectives.

A procedure should give you a general, overall view of the process it’s describing — from the viewpoint of the process manager or someone higher up. A procedure differs from a work instruction in that the work instruction describes a low-level process; a work instruction is generally intended for non-managerial staff as a work aid or teaching tool.

Some of you are familiar with process maps and value stream maps — two kinds of diagrams that depict processes, ostensibly to help people understand them better. Sometimes, people make the mistake of thinking such maps can stand on their own — that they’re acceptable substitutes for procedures. Not true, and I’ll tell you why.

If I show you a picture of a rainforest floor (fig. 1) but I tell you nothing about it, you should be asking me, “Why are you showing me this? What’s your point?”

Figure 1 - Rainforest Floor, Tau Island, American Samoa (Q.T. Luong, 2008)

To understand, you need context. Either I give you that context or you’re going to (a) not care and walk away or (b) make something up. In this case, I’ll give you an overview — “The rainforest floor is where the process of life takes place. A life begins, is nurtured, matures, dies, and becomes food for new life, all on the rainforest floor.”

In the business world, we don’t want the intended audience of our procedures not to care, nor do we want them to figure out processes on their own. We want quality and consistency of both the process and its product. The quality of results reflect the quality of the processes that lead to them.

The best way to ensure consistency and quality — as well as repeatability, reproducibility, and accuracy — of any process is to explain it in a procedure.

Procedures, when written well, are invaluable training aids. They can also lower the barriers we sometimes erect between different functional areas of our businesses by promoting better communication and fostering collaboration. And, by fostering collaboration, procedures help ensure that the goals and objectives of one function are aligned with the goals and objectives of other functions. Everyone is “on the same page”, so to speak.

By promoting better communication and understanding, procedures help your organization reduce or eliminate a variety of risks — chief among them the risk that errors will occur at any given point in the process. We can think of procedures as preventive actions.

How to Develop, Implement, and Maintain a Procedure

  • Understand the process you plan to describe, or document.
  • Identify those who play a role in the process.
  • Interview those role players in the process, to help you understand its purpose and scope.
  • Try to map out the process — draw process maps, SIPOC diagrams, Value Stream maps, etc. — to help figure out where you are now (your current state) and help you plot the best method and route — the process — by which you’ll arrive at your intended destination, or future state.
  • Use the process model — also known as the PDCA (or PDSA) cycle — as the framework for your procedure. Through ongoing iteration, measurement, and review, you’ll identify the strengths and weaknesses in the process, which will help you to continually improve it.

Keep In Mind…

Procedures, by habit and no other reason, generally come in text form, on paper, though it looks like we’re getting away from that. At the very least, your procedures — and other business documents — should be electronic documents and managed in a database system. Document management systems can help keep your documents available but secure and they should allow you to manage the document review and approval process, a necessity if you’re to guarantee compliance with the standards and regulations that affect your organization…

…but I digress. Now for your opinions and suggestions. If you have any — and I’m sure you do — please send me an email or leave your comment below.

Thanks for your time.

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Posted in Better communication, Policies and Procedures, Process improvement

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