Creating and Documenting Workflows for Consistency and Quality

As a small business owner, much of what you are doing at any given moment may be entirely new, pushing into uncharted territory. However, over time, you will see that some familiar processes arise, especially as you hire employees and begin to assign out work that comes in batches or requires multiple people to look at it. Whether you are creating a retail shop, producing creative products like designs, or selling products and services online, you’ll eventually need to document the workflows of your company in order to grow and retain your competitive advantage and consistency.

Workflows are simply a delineation of who does what work, in what order, and with what cues to the next person. Many times, the delays in projects and responsibilities around a business are entirely due to someone not remembering that they are holding up a process. Once you have even one employee, set up a meeting to create a set of workflows for your business. Here are the steps that will help you get there.

Narrow Down What Process You’d Like to Document First

In most businesses, there are a variety of workflows you could potentially document. However, select somewhere to start: is there one task that is done the most? What about one task that always seems to be neglected until the last minute? What about a very disliked task that no one wants to take charge of and see through to completion? Whatever you choose, make sure you and your employees agree on a start point and an endpoint – what sets this workflow running and when is it satisfactorily concluded? 

As you run through this documentation process over and over, you’ll find that some processes may overlap, combine, or depend on each other. In a flow-chart design program, you can interlink your processes as needed, and if you create workflows in project management software, a single step can trigger the next step in two or more workflows. For instance, when you have a new client sign on for your service, it may trigger an employee to reach out with a welcome, another to begin inputting their accounting information, and a third to analyze how you can market to get more clients like them. 

List Out the Tasks That Must Be Accomplished

With the single process you are currently considering, make a long list of all the things that must happen after the start point and before the end point. Employees may have conflicting ideas about what must be done, which indicates that somewhere along the way, communication was lost. Try to encourage people to voice what they see as the process, even if you will ultimately need to decide on a correct way or on an acceptable level of flexibility in the process. Remember, the goal of a workflow isn’t to be rigid, but instead to give people very clear guidance. For instance, if sending out follow-up emails after a purchase is one of your employee’s responsibilities, delineating who should do it, what the time frame is, and how they will inform someone that the emails are complete are all essential parts of accurately documenting the many tasks in a single workflow.

Order and Assign the Steps of the Process

There may be some spirited discussion of what must be done, but there will be even more discussion when you start putting the order and assignments into practice. At this point, you’ll be discovering at least two things: one is how things are happening now, and another is how you want them to happen in the future. Perhaps emails to clients are low on the priority list and are being done anywhere from 4 days to 2 weeks after the fact, when the real priority is to get them out within 48 hours. Discuss whether moving a step to a different part of the workflow would save a step, make someone’s work easier, or clarify a confusing step. Expect employees to have an opinion on this, and you’ll want to keep in mind the bottom line: what elements of this workflow make for the best relationship with customers, the best overall service to them, and thus the best long-term revenue? 

At this point, you’ll also discuss who will do what task. Some roles are very obvious, such as having an accountant manage the books, but other tasks can technically be done by many individuals. Try to evenly disburse tasks that aren’t glamorous among individuals with the same job title and standing in the company. If someone has been doing the lion’s share of a process that technically “belongs” to two people, this is a great time to quickly and painlessly implement clear instructions for the other person to start pulling their weight.

Use Project Management Software or Other Triggers for Each Step

The finishing touch on a workflow are triggers: this is how someone knows that a prior step is completed and that their own “time clock” has begun for completing their part of the process. It is very helpful to consider a project management software, if you don’t have one already, where each step in the process can be assigned to the right person. When someone completes step 4, for instance, and marks it as complete in the software, an automatic notification tells the next person that they are up to bat on this process. Everything moves forward more seamlessly this way.

Of course, if you don’t have that many workflows, this can be much less formal. An email to the right person that says, “the drafts are ready for your review; please send them to Stan for publication when you are finished” might be enough to keep the process moving. Again, writing the process out may also help you realize that there is a “preferred” trigger for your office’s unique culture. 

“Publish” the Workflow Such that New Employees Can Also See It

 This is a simple step, but not to be forgotten! Find a shared cloud drive or email thread or somewhere else that all employees can access these workflows once they are agreed upon. New employees will come on board eventually, and sending them straight to the workflows will allow them to know what their responsibilities are in a very detailed way, helping them to ask the right questions to the right people. When there are no documented workflows and an employee leaves, much of this work has to be done again, so documentation is worth the time to get it done!

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