By Keith Jackson and the Mind Tools Team
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Writing a Procedure

Making Sure Things are Done Without Mistakes and Omissions

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Would you want to go through a complicated procedure just to get an extra pen or pad of paper? Of course not!

Procedures – and their close cousins, policies – can be a real pain in the proverbial. Sometimes, they're too tight and restrictive, and at other times, they're vague and lacking in detail. But, if your colleague calls in sick, and you're suddenly responsible for getting the payroll out on time, it's good to have a well-written, detailed procedure to help guide you through. 

If done right, procedures can have an important effect on an organization. When written clearly and properly, they can help systems and people function better. If your people know what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and how not to get it wrong, you can reduce frustration and save a tremendous amount of time and effort.

Writing a procedure that is accurate, brief, and readable isn't always easy. But, with a bit of knowledge and practice, you can learn effective procedure-writing skills, and identify great opportunities to improve the quality of the things you do.

What is a Procedure?

Procedures are the workhorses of a company. While policies guide the way people make decisions, procedures show the "how to's" for completing a task or process.

Procedures are action oriented. They outline steps to take, and the order in which they need to be taken. They're often instructional, and they may be used in training and orientation. Well-written procedures are typically solid, precise, factual, short, and to the point.

Many procedures seem "black and white," with clear steps and only one way of doing things: "Complete A, then B, then C." But sometimes you need to be less exact and allow room for personal judgment. When a procedure is too tight, it can cause confusion. Since life isn't always simple and clear-cut, some procedures need to allow subjectivity and individual choices.

When Do You Need a Procedure?

Not everything needs a procedure, so don't create procedures for basic tasks – otherwise they'll be ignored. The number-one rule of procedure writing is to make sure there's a reason to create them: Perhaps people forget to take certain actions, perhaps they keep on getting things wrong, or perhaps tasks are so long and complex that people need a checklist if they're going to get things right.

A written procedure is necessary only if the issue is important or if there will be a significant benefit from clarifying a process. Before you begin, ask yourself if people really need or want to know about something.

You need a procedure when a process.

  • Is lengthy (example: year-end inventory).
  • Is complex (example: benefits administration).
  • Is routine, but it's essential that everyone strictly follows rules (example: payroll).
  • Demands consistency (example: handling a refund request).
  • Involves documentation (example: disciplining a staff member).
  • Involves significant change (example: installing a new computer system).
  • Has serious consequences if done wrong (example: safety guidelines).

In a company, it's typical for many things to get done without written procedures. There are "unwritten rules" and informal procedures. But sometimes these unwritten rules need to be set in procedure. This may need to happen when.

  • Similar questions are asked repeatedly.
  • People seem confused.
  • There are too many ways that people interpret the procedure.

How Do You Write a Procedure?

Procedures should communicate what readers NEED to know, not just what they WANT to know. They might need to know how to do the process correctly, faster, or with less waste.

They also might like to know why they have to do something a certain way, where they can go for help, and what happens if something goes wrong. Where necessary, make sure your procedures deal with technical issues as well as subjective elements.

It's also important that your procedures have the right level of detail. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do users have enough information to complete the action?
  • Is there enough information to guide users in using good professional judgment?
  • Is the level of detail appropriate for the subject?
  • Is the level of detail appropriate for readers?
  • How comfortable are readers with the subject?

Step One: Gather Information

Before you start writing, gather detailed information on the process you're making into a procedure.

Talk with content experts as well as others who hold key information – long-time staff members, stakeholders, technical staff, and people who will use the procedure.

Take lots of notes, and then sit down with the information and sort it out. As the procedure writer, you want a clear understanding of what's going on in as much detail as possible. From there, cut down the information to what the end-user really needs to best understand the process. (A great tool for organizing details is a mind map . This can help you make sure you've included and connected all the right pieces.)

Step Two: Start Writing

When you write the first draft of your procedure, don't worry about exact words and format. The main purpose is to include the information you need. Once you've done that, you can work on the words and organization.

Here are some good rules to follow:

  • Write actions out in the order in which they happen. Start with the first action, and end with the last action.
  • Avoid too many words. Just be specific enough to communicate clearly.

    Example: "Add to the Cancellations tab on the spreadsheet" rather than "Supplement the existing records on the spreadsheet with these new ones."

  • Use the active voice.

    Example: "Place the file in the administrator's inbox" rather than "The file should then be placed in the administrator's inbox."

  • Use lists and bullets.
  • Don't be too brief, or you may give up clarity.
  • Explain your assumptions, and make sure your assumptions are valid.
  • Use jargon and slang carefully.
  • Write at an appropriate reading level.

Step Three: Assess Design Elements

You may find that words alone aren't enough to explain the procedure. Sometimes other elements can help your presentation. Here are some common formats:

  • Flowchart – This shows a process as a diagram. Using a series of symbols and arrows to indicate flow and action, you can outline a process and make it easy to follow. Be sure you don't complicate your chart with too many unfamiliar symbols or too much text. If you need to, break it into a series of smaller flowcharts. Click here to learn about creating flowcharts .

    Tip:

    Where completion of a task needs actions by several people or departments, consider using Swim Lane Diagrams . These mark out the different streams of activity and clearly show where responsibility for completion of activities transfers from one person to the next.

  • Play script – This looks like a script for a play with different characters. In this case, though, you list the different staff members with different responsibilities. Scripts can be especially useful when more than one person is involved in a process.
    Person responsible Action
    Writer

    Gather information.

    Write procedure.

    Show draft to stakeholders.

    Stakeholders

    Review draft.

    Submit corrections and comments.

    Writer Create final draft.
    Department manager Approve final version.
  • Question and answer – Match common procedural questions with their correct answers. This is a useful format when procedures are confusing or when there are lots of variations. It also helps address "what if" issues.

    Example:

    Q. What if the columns don't balance?

    A. First, don't panic. Start with the simplest reasons, and work backward. Recalculate the columns. Then look for transcription errors. If this doesn't solve the problem, go back and look at how you got your figures. If you were unsure of any points, recheck those figures first. Then systematically recheck each figure until you find the error.

  • Matrix – This table connects one variable with another. Where the variables connect, the cell shows the appropriate action. Matrix tables are really good for reference purposes, because they eliminate the need for constant searching. You can use them for many applications, including knowing what tasks to carry out and when, helping users make decisions, and knowing what forms or reports to use.
    Budgeting Schedule
    Item Quarter 1 Quarter 2 Quarter 3 Quarter 4
    Budget analysis x x x x
    Budget request     x  
    Income statement x x x x
    Sales forecast   x   x
    Customer analysis   x    
    Staffing analysis     x  

Key Points

Well-written procedures help you improve the quality of work within your organization, help you reduce the number of errors and omissions, and help new people perform complex tasks quickly and effectively.

To get the most out of your procedures, follow some simple rules when developing them: Make sure the procedure is necessary. Then write it in a way that's easily understood – using simple, clear words to communicate as briefly as possible.

When it comes to how many procedures you need, sometimes the fewer the better. So make sure each procedure is absolutely necessary before you spend time creating it.

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Comments (9)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi everyone,
    I recall many years ago my job was to write procedures for a large technical department with offices right across the country (so had to be in both English and French!). I was not the subject expert which actually worked in my favor because I 'asked all the dumb questions'. As Michele suggested, the expert can make assumptions about things and forget little steps that make a big difference.

    How I approached writing procedures is that I would read any material already available and then observe someone doing the procedure. We would then discuss what they were doing and whether they had any suggestions for improvements. I then went away, wrote up the procedure, before going back and walking through things, step by step, to see if I had captured things accurately.

    Sometimes a two-page procedure would take quite some time to write to ensure clarity and simplicity! I also had standard 'headings' / structure I followed which helped.

    Midgie
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi tlynch89,

    Thank you for posting your advice and tips. You guidance is spot on.

    We recently launched a new point of sale system in all 104 of our stores and a key element of the training plan was to develop the daily procedures guide for store employees.

    As you have pointed out, it is a very exacting process to write procedures. comment about having a detailed overview of the procedure before you begin writing is spot on. Early on in the development of the procedures guide, we tested a couple of procedures with a sampling of users to ensure that instructions were clear and comprehensive. We discovered that the writer was such an expert, that he made assumptions about what people knew. Had we not tested with a sample group, the final product would not have been useful for newly hired employees.

    Another tip we learned about writing procedures, especially on a large project, is establish writing standards and have a dedicated writer assigned to the task. Too many writers introduce different writing styles. If having one writer is not possible, then make sure you have one reviewer to ensure that the tone, style and quality of the writing is consistent throughout the document.
  • Over a month ago tlynch89 wrote
    Hi Mike,

    I don't know what your work situation is, but writing procedures from scratch can be very time consuming, especially if you are not the subject matter expert. If you already have something to work with, that is a very good thing. If you can improve upon it in a meaningful way that would be good practice. As far as improving your skills further, seek out or ask for more challenging writing assignments, take software related training such as info mapping and other business writing courses. If you can find a procedure writing course that includes writing computer navigation steps that would be great.

    Look at other procedures that you would like to emulate because of their clarity, flow, etc... A good procedure writer uses analytical, communication, writing skills often and welcomes feedback from others. If you are heading a procedure writing project that has multiple smes, then leadership is another skill you will exercise and sharpen. All of these skills are sharpened by use and sometimes by trial and error.

    When practical, test your procedures out on potential users for feedback before finalizing them. This is not always possible, but is an ideal way to go.

    One last tip: It is very useful to get a somewhat detailed overview of a procedure before you start the detailed writing process. When you know the basic procedure, you will know what subject matters are not being addressed when getting the detail of the procedure from others. (Often when people are very familiar with a topic, they will skip over connecting steps or work functions without meaning too).
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