A Hunting Widow’s Guide to Process Documentation
There are differences, though, in how organizations document these processes and whether or not the employees or managers ever review the processes to see if they can be improved to benefit the employee doing the work or the customer getting the product or service.
For a number of years, I worked in a division of an organization of about 23 employees that tackled this task by registering to ISO (International Organization for Standardization). Many manufacturing companies, service organizations and even educational institutions have used ISO to document and improve their processes.
For those not familiar with ISO, it is basically a set of quality management system standards that an organization develops. It includes documenting the processes of your organization using checks or audits to make sure that employees follow the documented processes; and instituting tools and methodology to continually improve those processes.
Although my experience with ISO taught me a great deal about documenting and improving processes, it did not prepare me for my biggest challenge—documenting the processes of my husband Steve’s one-person online store, www.snowcountypets.com.
ISO never suggested anything about working with a spouse.
Last fall, Steve was preparing to head north for deer hunting, and I was unemployed at the time. We both thought it would be a great idea for me to learn the processes that he used to take orders, create packing lists, send purchase orders and all the other many steps he performs for each order. It would be the beginning of documenting those processes to make it easier for someone like me to take over, or to add value to the company for the future. This documentation would also enable us to look for improvements to the processes for us or for customers.
I am sure that it would have been much easier for me to just let the phone ring, and also ignore all his e-mail orders, but that was not to be. For parts of four days prior to Steve’s leaving, he sat beside me instructing me on his step-by-step methods, which were entirely in his head.
I wished his brain had a USB port so I could have just downloaded it all. It took all of Steve’s patience to watch me flinging my mouse around to fill in the forms. (He is a keyboard shortcut guy and frowns upon those who prefer to wield a mouse for editing.)
As time for my training quickly ran out, I found I had 17 pages of handwritten notes, which included steps like, “format the billing address in Arial 12 point.”
Since snowcountrypets.com is a homegrown business created by Steve, his processes were built by him from the ground up. No custom software to complete the packing list or purchase order, but about ten different spreadsheets to document sales, inventory, credit cards, vendor lists, and at times I was sure there was one for the kitchen sink.
Took all day to completely process, order and document two sales. Since we didn’t have the products in inventory, I just had to order them shipped from the manufacturer and didn’t have to locate and box them.
I was learning. I processed one order completely in an hour and a half—Steve does one in about ten minutes, not including boxing the product if we have it in inventory.
It took me about half an hour just to process the shipping notices and e-mail the UPS tracking number to two customers. Then I realized that I was in real trouble as four new orders had arrived while I was out running some errands. I got one started.
I couldn’t wait till Steve came home—with or without a deer. The question was: could I process these four orders before he arrived? I knew I wouldn’t be fired, since he wasn’t paying me anyway; it was partly my idea for this project after all.
The answer was a resounding “no,” but Steve didn’t mind, as he appreciated all the efforts I had made by the time he returned (without a deer).
Fast forward two months:
I spent parts of the next two months working on typing the documentation for the processes into a Web editor. It was Steve’s idea to do this instead of just in Microsoft Word. The Web editor provided links and cross references to definitions or other processes in the documentation.
The project was completed; but with thoughts of continual improvement, it will never be “finished.” With Steve’s help, we streamlined some steps and permitted some steps to be up to the worker’s discretion—so he can still use his keyboard shortcuts to format the documents and I can still use the mouse.
What I learned from documenting the processes of this one-person company was just as important as the lessons I learned from working on ISO. Documenting your processes is one of the very first steps to understanding how your business works, a requirement for any customer improvements, and absolutely essential if you want to identify opportunities for reducing wasted time, materials and money. Everyone should do it.
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Adrian Bass is a quality consultant and lifelong learner, who believes that learning is a prerequisite for quality improvement.