Process documentation 101: What is it, the benefits, and how to start

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What does the disintegration of a $193 million satellite and your company’s last failed project have in common?

If we had to guess, the answer is a failure within process documentation.

Your business isn’t going to accidentally destroy a satellite – we hope – because you failed to specify whether measurements were in the metric system. No, seriously – that happened.

Still, there are real business consequences when processes aren’t properly documented and serious gains to be made by committing to the practice. First, let's look at what defines process documentation.

What is process documentation and why your team needs it

Process documentation is a written explanation of the steps and tasks involved in any business process. It’s a roadmap that lays out the way that the work will get done or how the process will run.

Process documentation can also serve as a guardrail of sorts, a way to measure whether team members are working in the way the team or company intends.

So why does your team need process documentation?

Business process documentation is strategic for many functions within an organization. It’s crucial for the employee onboarding process, where new employees must quickly get up to speed on their job responsibilities and the processes they’ll be interacting with.

Without documentation in place, new hires are at the mercy of whoever trains them or sits next to them for any questions they might have about how to do their work.

Similarly, creating high-quality process documentation is a crucial way of nurturing your relationship with partners, vendors, and clients. This documentation gives those outside your company clear expectations and a framework for what to expect as they work with you.

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Process documentation enhances teamwork through organizational clarity and alignment

When teams have a visual representation of who is responsible for what and by when with due dates, they gain organizational clarity and alignment.

Without clear process maps, team members might disagree about who is responsible for a task or argue about when that task should be completed. They might even begin working at cross purposes of each other (intentionally or accidentally).

But when teams gain this kind of organizational clarity, they collaborate better as they work through logically organized process steps. They spend less time figuring out what to do or when to do it and are free to optimize the way they work together, finding synergy and building rapport.

Teams often follow current processes using memory or from word of mouth, which inevitably ends up creating variations. Some teams might end up using different processes that include the preferences of one manager or steps are left out unintentionally.

No matter how it happens, it eventually leads to conflict, inefficiencies, errors in deliverables, or some combination of the three. By documenting your standard operating procedures and committing to both business process management (BPM) and process improvement, you’ll change your company’s entire approach here.

Now, teams will have a single source of truth they can refer to when disagreements arise about which steps or processors are included in a process. This helps reduce the wasted time of going back and forth to find the right answer, which kills productivity.

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Provide a historical record as you update your processes

Process documentation isn’t intended to be a static, one-and-done initiative. No — technologies and teams change and so should the processes they use.

Documenting your processes now — no matter how clean or chaotic they seem — gives you a starting point, a place from which you can iterate as you engage in process improvement.

This process gets even easier when you use a process documentation template so you’re not starting from scratch every time you start documenting a new process. You can use the historical record from similar projects as a starting place.

This small amount of automation will greatly enhance your efficiency and accuracy — and save you plenty of time.

Process documentation ensures efficiency when onboarding internal staff and clients

If you’re responsible for onboarding staff or clients (whether to the company in the case of new hires or just to the current project), you know it can be a time-intensive process.

It’s also something that many professionals struggle to do consistently well. Often, it seems like the quality of onboarding depends on how busy the onboard-er is — or even how that person is feeling on a given day!

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

When processes are clearly and effectively documented in a central location, then onboarding quality doesn’t rise or fall based on who’s doing it and how distracted they are. The documentation itself is a key component for onboarding staff and clients, giving them clear instructions they can refer back to as often as they need.

Additionally, some believe if you leave employees free to do whatever, it creates autonomy without the need for strict guidelines.

But in complex processes, the result is chaos, not freedom. This approach also instills plenty of frustration among employees who want to do well but don’t know what’s being asked of them.

Clearly defining processes actually reinforces boundaries or guardrails in which autonomy can thrive. By defining the edges, you create a clearly marked “safe space” in which you can let loose your high-performance teams.

The result is a boost in job satisfaction: When you give employees the freedom to exercise their skills — within a framework that will lead to positive outcomes — you create happy, satisfied employees.

Scale-up and understand hiring needs

When you document processes and expectations clearly, teams can scale up faster and leaders can better understand their hiring needs. New team members can get up to speed quickly because they can internalize job and process expectations through your documentation.

That documentation will also make it clear when teams need more resources: You’ll know when the delay is due to bottlenecks or other resource constraints and when it’s due to other factors, like failure to follow process tasks or process order.

Reduce company costs by preventing unnecessary mistakes

Mistakes happen — that’s just a part of life, as long as humans are part of the picture. But you can limit the scale of damage from those mistakes through better process documentation.

Most of us have experienced the pain of reaching a project milestone or other major check-in point only to realize that a major component of a project deliverable simply didn’t get made.

In almost every case, process documentation (combined with proper project management oversight) will catch a problem before it gets to that stage. Whether you’re using swimlanes or optimized workflows, or a more formal process documentation tool, you’ll help your teams catch or avoid making numerous mistakes by clearing up exactly who does what and when.

An easy 8-step checklist for documenting your processes

By now, we hope we’ve convinced you just how important process documentation is. And if you’re still reading, it’s safe to assume you’re with us on that point.

But how exactly do you do it and do it well?

We’ll make it easier for you: Get started with this eight-step checklist:

1. Define key objectives and scope the initial process

Before you can document all the ins and outs of a process, you need to start with the basics: What’s the rough outline of the process, what are the project requirements, and what are its objectives?

This is crucial because as a project manager or other leader, you may not be an expert on the processes you’re documenting. Using a tool like Spaces in could help keep your entire team on the same page with single-source-of-truth documentation.

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Start by scoping the information you have and collecting additional details from team members and SMEs as needed. Your initial draft should include a brief description that includes the goals, timeline, and priority.

You’ll also need to figure out the KPIs or business objectives your process is trying to achieve.

Sample questions to ask at this stage:

  • Who might be involved in this process?

  • How long will this process take?

  • What's the priority within this process?

  • What are the deliverables of this process?

2. Clearly detail process boundaries

Next, you need to define the boundaries. Once you establish where the edges of the box are, you can start fleshing out what goes in the box.

So what counts as process boundaries?

You’ll want to establish start and finish times for the process as a whole (but not for individual steps yet — that comes later). Determine inputs and outputs on the macro level, and note what outside variables might affect those inputs.

For example, if this process is dependent on the completion of a Phase One deliverable, any delay in that phase affects the boundaries for the process you’re currently documenting.

Sample questions to ask at this stage:

  • When does the process begin and end?

  • What causes it to start?

  • How do you know when the process is done?

  • What related activities or tasks are not within the process boundaries?

3. Establish the process inputs and outputs

Now it’s time to get a bit more granular on the inputs and outputs for your process.

It’s usually easiest to start with outputs and work backward. Every functional process in a business will have one or more outputs.

Define them here, giving as much detail as is feasible. You’ll also want to note where those outputs are delivered. And you may even identify a definition of success for each one.

From there, work backward and review the inputs you need to accomplish your process. Who delivers them? What attributes do they need so this process can succeed?

When you have a complete set of inputs and outputs for your process, you’re ready to move to step 4.

Sample questions to ask at this stage:

  • What will be produced by the process?

  • What result will be achieved once it’s complete?

  • What resources or inputs are needed to carry out the process steps?

  • Who is the process owner responsible for completing the inputs needed for this process?

  • What are the implications if we don’t get the required inputs on time?

4. Brainstorm steps for each major task

Now you’re ready for the meat-and-potatoes work, or the stuff that most people think of as process documentation. It’s time to document the steps involved in each major task within the process.

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First, outline (in order) all major tasks for the process. This is where you’ll start using workflows or swimlanes or other visual tools, most likely.

Next, break each of those tasks down into smaller steps that can be assigned to individual team members. Then build process flows for those smaller steps, remembering to build in any dependencies or subtasks that may exist.

5. Collaborate with all project stakeholders

Once you’ve broken down the steps and subtasks for each major task, it’s time to take your work out to the team (and any stakeholders not on the team but who want input on process documentation).

Again, no one expects project managers to be experts in every single process within a business. Your process documentation will be far from perfect at this stage, and it’s OK to do some level-setting so your audience doesn’t expect perfection.

This is the point where you get that crucial feedback from your team and project stakeholders. It can be a bit of a grind, but the outcome is worth the effort. Find out what is and isn’t right about your documentation thus far, and iterate until you have something workable.

Once you have the steps and tasks ironed out, assign them to resources and send your documentation out once more for another round of feedback.

6. Use your project management software to build a process flowchart or map

If you haven’t started one by this point, now is the time to build a fully fleshed-out process flowchart or process map. Process documentation is most helpful when it’s easy to understand at a glance, and that’s the purpose of creating a detailed visual representation of the process.

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You can do basic work like this in a spreadsheet or an office tool like Visio, but you’ll get much more flexibility and power (not to mention integrations with the rest of your project management workflow) by using a better project management tool for it.

See how supercharges your process documentation, leading to better project collaboration and efficiency.

7. Note any possible exceptions to your usual process

Next, it’s time to list possible exceptions to your usual process.

Most business workflows are cyclical, where teams repeat certain tasks many times over the course of a project. There will inevitably be exceptions and bits of weirdness that crop up.

This doesn't mean your process documentation is automatically broken, though. As long as they remain the exception, they’re just that: exceptions. Document the ones you anticipate, and iterate when you encounter new ones.

In some cases, you simply need to acknowledge that an exception could happen. In others, you’ll need a little more documentation for what to do when that type of exception occurs.

8. Review your new process and iterate when necessary

Last, but crucially, you need to review your new process (ideally with the team), giving it one last look before publishing.

But the work doesn’t stop there. Processes evolve, and your documentation will never be perfect when you launch it. Iterate as you need to, keeping your documentation up to date over the course of the project. makes project management a click away

Process documentation can be time-consuming, but the benefits are immense.

With strong process documentation, teams work better and keep focused on the right tasks at the right time, and you stay focused on your most important work.

The right tools can make all the difference when it comes to process documentation. is an ideal project management platform that makes it easy to collaborate on process documentation and everything else you do to keep projects running.

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