August 10, 2022

5 Tips for Building a Great Operations Manual

An operations manual may come in various names (operations manual, operating procedures manual, standard operating procedures, etc.) but they all have the same intention. They should make your business better. A great operations manual can be considered the backbone of a company and, yet, not every company has one, or uses it effectively.

Does this sound familiar:

“We have an operations manual, but it’s out of date.”
“We have an operations manual, but nobody ever uses it.”
“I started building out some documentation for me to use because there wasn’t anything when I got here.”

Is this because people can’t stand documentation? Is it because documentation becomes outdated so quickly? Is it because the skills and qualifications needed to create and use documentation are so complex and rare that we can’t do it?

More often than not, the company and its staff are simply too busy delivering and supporting their product or service.

The operations teams do not have the time or ability to create a good operations manual. So, how do you get around this? You’re either going to need to free up someone’s time to work on this initiative or bring a consultant in.

A good operations manual is worth its weight in gold. It can facilitate company efficiency, consistency in service quality and employee success. It can reduce liability and risk for the company while improving scalability and market value.

Once a company has boarded the “operations manual train”, it’s almost time to get to work. But first, the company’s leaders must ensure engagement and alignment with their team members. There will be many questions:

-why are we building a manual?
-how are we going to find the time?
-am I going to be replaced?
-we’ve never had a manual before, why do we need one now?
-what’s in it for me?

Building an operations manual does not mean sudden consistency in the company’s operations. And, just because the company has an operations manual, it doesn’t mean it will get used.

The most important element to unleashing the benefits of an operations manual is leadership.

Leaders need to create and encourage a culture that depends on good documentation (and process). Encourage team members to use and refer to the documentation and reward team members for identifying inaccuracies and process improvement opportunities.

Make no mistake. There is absolutely a leadership component to this initiative. There are organizational change and culture considerations.

Now that your leaders have taken the time to work with their team members to build support for a company operations manual, you’re finally ready to get started.

Here are your 5 tips for building a better operations manual:

1. Accuracy is key.

The documentation is supposed to improve efficiency, productivity and quality and accuracy is key here.

A critical component of success lies with creating a culture that supports and rewards its team members for good documentation and for identifying inaccuracies in it. If the documentation is inaccurate, we want to correct it as soon as possible because we know errors cost us time and money.

Do your best to ensure the details are as accurate as possible. That does not mean mistakes will never be made within the document, but have a plan in place to vet out any errors on a regular basis and correct them as soon as possible.

2. Plan out a logical structure for it.

Create a logical structure for your operations manual before diving into it. Each company may be slightly different but the general outline will be similar. It needs to have a good structure and it needs to flow.

Download a free copy of our Operations Manual Template.

Download a free copy of our Operations Manual Checklist.

Remember to update the template and styles with your company’s logo, colours and font.

3. Know your target audience.

Who’s going to be using the operations manual? Will it be everyone? Is it a specific department? Is it in the event of an emergency? All of the above?

In most cases, the audience tends to be the personnel who are running daily operations for the business and new hires. It may also be used by temporary staff covering for others while they are out of the office.

Spend a little bit of time to identify the full user audience before you begin and keep the target audience in mind as you’re building it.

4. Get a good writer.

You don’t need an English major to write your manual (if you’re planning to write it in English) but you do need it to be fairly well put-together. Verbiage should be simple, but professional and as timeless as possible. The easier it is to follow and read, the more you encourage its use.

Pick your best writer(s) for the task or hire someone with good writing skills to put the final document together for you (Process Primer offers this service – hint, hint).

5. Have a plan to keep it updated.

You spent time and money on your company’s operational bible and you need a plan in place to keep it updated. Do you have someone in-house in mind for this and are they able spend the time on updates each month?

Your update plan should include the following:

  1. Provide a consistent practice for personnel to notify someone when an inaccuracy is identified.
  2. Outline the process for performing documentation updates (this includes who will perform the updates and who needs to review/approve them).
  3. Schedule an annual review of the documentation.

Plan your updates to either be timely or time-bound, meaning you could either use an approach of, “update discrepancies as they are identified” or “queue all discrepancies to be mass-updated monthly or quarterly.”

An annual document check-up is an excellent approach to keeping your documents up-to-date (Process Primer offers this service – hint, hint).

Whichever timing plan you decide, ensure you stick to it and update the documentation when you say you will. It doesn’t take long for documentation to become stale and for personnel to lose interest in it if they feel their feedback is not taken seriously.

Finally, schedule an annual review of the documentation, a year in advance! This is an excellent practice and will help reconcile any outstanding discrepancies. You can have someone review it and make updates internally. You could have someone review it and send the updates off to be updated externally. You can hire someone to review it with you and your team annually and make the updates for you.

Process Primer can help you schedule and conduct a documentation review so you don’t have to try to remember to coordinate it yourself.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail. Think long-term. Identify how you will keep your operations manual updated for the next 18 months and stick to that plan for 18 months and you won’t regret it.

We’re always available for questions and opinions. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Comprehend. Reimagine. Outperform.

Alwin Kwan
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Process Consultant

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