Writing good procedures is an iterative process. The basic steps include developing a process map, drafting the procedure, drafting supporting documents (e.g. forms, job descriptions), testing the documented procedure with the real users, and then continuously updating your process map, procedure, and supporting documents in a PDCA cycle of continual improvement.
Are your people consistently following your procedures? Each year, organizations lose thousands of dollars through common mistakes and lapses in usability. But what does that mean for business owners and executives? How do you improve usage of management procedures?
What is an example of a procedure?
- Are your required actions described thoroughly and accurately, or are the details left open to interpretation?
- Is your content consistent and complete, or are your writers leaving gaps no one has noticed?
- Are revisions controlled, or are different people using different versions?
- Are your procedures compliant with regulations? Are you sure?
- Are all documents written to produce clear, measurable results?
If you’re unsure about any of the answers to these questions, there is good news: you can make your procedures clear and complete without combing through all of them yourself, line by line. You have invested in your procedures; now ensure you are communicating clear expectations, and your professionalism, with the best tools possible.
A lot of procedures don’t work. Making a good procedure is about overcoming the top ten reasons why policies and procedures don’t work in the first place. How do you make good procedures good? Good procedures have ten important characteristics.
1. Good Procedures are designed well with a solid structure. A good procedure has a PDCA flow that addresses planning and effectiveness criteria or metrics required for proper operation, the doing or execution and data collection elements of each procedure step, followed by clear check steps against the planned targets, and references to taking action.
2. They define who does what when and where with criteria for success (KPI’s, effectiveness criteria or metrics). Use SIPOC, which is a simple acronym that stands for Supplier, Inputs, Process, Outputs, Customer to account for all of the who, what, when, and where elements. Save the whys for training, footnotes or an appendix.
3. Good Procedure are part of a business system of core business processes. A good procedure does not work in isolation. Other processes may be suppliers of inputs or customers of the procedure’s outputs.
4. They are clear, specific, and to the point. Do not include statements such as “as necessary”, “as applicable”, or “may include”. Too much extra information can confuse your readers. Stick to critical information.
5. Good Procedure use the Seven C’s to avoid procedure writing errors (see below). We developed the Seven C’s as a handy checklist for procedure writing reviews. When reviewing your procedure, keep in mind the Context, be Consistent, Complete, Identify Controls, think about Compliance, be Correct, and ensure Clarity.
6. They have a solid business case or reason for existence. Every procedure has an operational purpose so make sure the operation being described addresses the business reason for the procedure.
7. Good Procedure are direct and use active voice construction. Subject -> verb -> noun. e.g. The Operator must lock the control panel. If you use a passive voice then your sentences are longer and readers get confused. Notice the passive voice in the last sentence? Readers get confused by long passive voice sentences. Notice the active voice in the last sentence? Which do you think is better?
8. They include clear references to supporting documents, procedures, records, forms, manuals, work instructions, job aids, job descriptions, or compliance information. Clear references may include title, publication date, document ID, or storage location. Procedures work with these other documents. Leaving out references makes the reader work harder to figure out what reference you are talking about in the procedure.
9. Good Procedure separate the step-by-step instructions that make up the core of the procedure from the meta-data that typically makes up the header or the beginning of the procedure. Meta-data includes things like: title, policy, purpose, scope, responsibilities, or definitions that may go in the front of the procedure.
10. They are used and updated regularly. If you are not using a procedure then why do you have one? The only way to ensure effective procedures is to use them regularly. How does anybody know if a procedure is used? Check the revision number. If your procedures are 10 years old and they are still on revision one then you are probably not using them. Unless, nothing has changed in your business in the last ten years…must be nice to not have competitors or change.
Seven C’s of Good Procedures
To be effective, procedures must be action oriented, grammatically correct, and written in a consistent style and format to ensure usability. These guidelines, along with industry “best practices” that are documented in auditable criteria, can be used .
- Context. Actions must properly describe the activity to be performed.
- Consistency. All references and terms are used the same way every time, and the procedure must ensure consistent results.
- Completeness. There must be no information, logic, or design gaps.
- Control. The document and its described actions demonstrate feedback and control.
- Compliance. All actions are sufficient for their intended compliance.
- Correctness. The document must be grammatically correct without spelling errors.
- Clarity. Documents must be easy to read and understandable.
Good Procedure Documents
With a technical writing review, professional technical writers can review and edit your documents. Methodologies have been developed and used by experienced technical writers to strengthen policies and procedures, so you can put efficiency and expertise to work saving you time and hassle. You can eliminate the costly professional headache of poorly written management procedures.
Without knowing it, employees at a local auto parts company were having a costly problem determining when to accept customer credit. The company actually had a detailed credit application procedure, including an exhaustive error correction routine, but the procedure had one fatal flaw: it was not properly indexed.
Without a way to readily locate and reference the applicable procedure in the operations manual, employees could not find it and were simply not using it at all, leading to an inconsistent process and wildly varying output. Potentially valuable customers were regularly turned away by some staff members, while others accepted bad credit risks because they were unsure of which ones to reject.
A small omission like this can add up to thousands of dollars in lost sales and good will. Even the most thorough procedures inevitably have gaps that come from being “too close” to the process or not following the basic rules of effective procedure writing.
If your policies and procedures are incomplete, outdated or inconsistent, then you are probably not driving the performance improvement you intended. Likewise, your management procedures are not getting used as much as they should be. But no matter what your worst procedure headache is, you can eliminate your lapses in usability now and improve to “best practices” standards using a procedure review.
So, what makes good procedures good? Ensure your procedures work by using an iterative procedure writing process. Start with a process map, draft your procedure and your procedure’s supporting documents, test your procedure with your users, and then repeat the process with continuous updates.