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Writing Procedures: Tips on How to Create Effective Documents

by AIMM MAITD

Efficient organizations create and maintain documents that explain the how and why of the many activities performed by its employees. In this article, I have used the blanket term "procedures". However, the tips contained here are equally applicable to the other kinds of procedure related documents found in today's organizations. The typical hierarchy of documents regulating the actions of employees can be summarized as:

Policy:
high level directive from management applying usually to the entire organization
Procedure:
specifies how a policy is to be implemented, with a high level description of activities and responsibilities
Process Map:
graphical representation of a flow of activities undertaken to achieve a specific outcome
Work Instruction:
detailed step-by-step instruction for performing a work activity

This hierarchy cascades from the most general and non-prescriptive policies down to the most specific and prescriptive work instructions. These document types may be named differently in your organization. However they are called, understanding their purpose and importance will help you, the writer, to create documents of value for the entire employee base.

What are the reasons for wanting to create such documents and what worth do they add to an organization? I see these three key purposes in writing procedures and related documents:

  1. They are an important communication device, signaling an organization's requirements to employees. Committing the requirements to writing ensures that the message is consistent each time it is communicated. The information transmitted is less likely to suffer from the memory lapses and personal biases of the communicator.
  2. They document agreements reached about the way things are to be done and why. The best policies and practices are the result of healthy debate amongst the various stakeholders and some trail and error. Documenting the result of these discussions and experiences validates these valuable agreements.
  3. They set an agreed starting point or baseline from which future proposed improvements to the policy or practice might be discussed, compared and measured. By standardizing the policy or practice, variations are avoided, and people discussing how the process could be improved are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

To get the most from your procedure writing efforts, here are some key tips for writing useful and effective documents.

  1. Use a standard format for each of your document types. Each type of document will sport its own specific fields; however, some common fields I recommend are these:

    Purpose:
    the objective or reason for the policy or practice
    Scope:
    the departments, functions, areas or employees to which the policy or practice applies
    References:
    other documents that need to be read for a full understanding of the policy or practice
    Definitions:
    an explanation of any technical terms, abbreviations, acronyms and jargon used
    Change History:
    a brief description of changes from previous versions
  2. Use language that your audience will understand. If the native language is not the readers' first language, keep the language simple. Test the readability of the document on a sample of employees before release. Explain any technical terms or acronyms used in the document.
  3. Write procedural documents using active verbs. Readability studies reveal that the active tense is easier to understand and injects text with a sense of action. Including plenty of white space (the space between text, graphics and page borders) also aids readability.
  4. Leave out the verbiage. Use bullet points and numbered lists wherever possible. Include only as much as is needed to explain the policy or prescribe the procedure.
  5. Mark the version of each revision of the document so that people don't get them mixed up. Keep a list of the details about the most current versions of each document and post the list in an easily accessible place, such as on your company's intranet.
  6. Include a cross-section of the people impacted by the policy or practice in the writing of the document. Getting people who do the work to participate in the writing leads to a more comprehensive and accurate document and a greater commitment from the people who matter most.

Procedures and related documents serve a central purpose in the harmonious and efficient workings of any organization. Get maximum value from your procedure writing efforts by being clear about their purpose, standardizing their formats, checking their readability and involving employees impacted by the document.

© Copyright Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, process consultant and trainer for organizations large and small. Leslie has been responsible for major documentation efforts and led and trained many documentation teams.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). If you require assistance with your writing project, contact Leslie at office@businessperform.com

Leslie Recommends
From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

Find out more about using procedural documents to boost employee performance. Check out Leslie Allan's highly practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for improving employee skills and productivity. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive employee performance guide and toolkit today.

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