process documentation

If you need your new-hire training to actually work, start with this...

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As a teacher, instructional designer, and all-around process nerd, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to business owners about the challenges of new-hire training. We all know it’s important and we definitely need to do it, but somehow it often misses the mark. Perhaps we attempt to “fix” it by gathering our team and writing down everything a new-hire needs to know in painstaking detail. Then we file it all away inside the world’s most comprehensive and amazingly-organized shared folder entitled, “New Hire Training.”

So why are they still not learning?

Sadly, the act of writing down the step-by-step process for everything you do and then expecting your new-hires to read it all and “be trained” just ain’t a thing. (I wish it were).

Now please don’t take that as me hating on process documentation. If you’ve read any of my recent posts about the importance of writing down your processes, you know I believe in it, whole-heartedly. Taking the time to figure out the “best way” to get things done and then writing those things down is a practice that brings unbelievable clarity and value to your business. Simple. Straightforward. I love it so much.

So should write down your processes, but process documentation is not training.

I think about writing down your processes as the type of storytelling where the narrator tells the story. They tell the story of everything that happens along the way from the initial “input” to the final “output”: They explain how each person interacts with the story, they outline the hand-offs from one person to the next, they identify all of the resources and templates that are used along the way. The “narrator” explains everything from an all-knowing, comprehensive point-of view. A simply-written, yet comprehensive process document is a great tool for someone to get an overarching understanding of how a process works from beginning to end.

Soooo...isn’t that training?

Giving an overview of a critical process in your business may, in fact, be a key part of your training, but only a part. It may be helpful to think of your training as a magical and intentionally-curated first-person journey designed just for that learner’s role. No narrator required.

Ideally, such journeys have pre-determined end-points, maps for how to get there, and some checkpoints along the way to tell you if you’re making progress. Better still, the learner who is on the journey understands where they are going and wants to go there too.

Then how do you plan a training that works?

I’ll get right to it: The key to designing a training that works is to start with the end in mind. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe call this “Backwards Design” and following it has never led me astray. In the context of a training, I can simplify it down to 3 simple steps:

Step 1 - Define the OUTCOME

Start by identifying what change or result you want to see in the learner’s on-the-job behavior.

Not what you want them to “understand.”

Not the test you want them to be able to pass.

The actual, real-life, valuable thing you want them to be able to do in their everyday role in your company. Write that thing down clearly in terms of something you can observe with your own two eyes. So, instead of “The learner will understand the importance of filing their TPS reports properly,” try, “The learner will file their TPS reports with the proper cover sheet each and every time.” (You’ll understand why this distinction is important in a minute.)

Step 2 - Develop the ASSESSMENT

Next, figure out how you’ll know when they’ve mastered it. It’s all fine and dandy that you know what you want them to do on-the-job, but what good is that if you can’t tell if they’ve changed their behavior? Instead, you need to devise what we instructional designers call an “assessment.” And I have good news…asessments don’t have to be tests. In fact, they definitely shouldn’t all be tests! In our TPS example, the desired outcome is for the learner to file their TPS report with the proper cover sheet each and every time. Well, the only way you’ll really be able to assess that would be to assess the behavior of the learner in the weeks (and maybe even months) that follow the training event once they’ve had a chance to put their learning into action.

I might decide that after 3 correct TPS submissions in a row, I could feel confident about a learner’s mastery of that particular outcome, but it’s unlikely that I could assess it through a couple of test questions at the end of the training.

And how in the world would I ever assess whether they “understand the importance of filing their TPS reports properly?” That’s right, can’t observe whether someone understands something. Not yet, anyway. (Although I think Alexa is chipping away at this feature.)

Step 3 - Build the LEARNING

Finally, design the lessons to drive the learner to the desired outcomes and ONLY those outcomes. To create a training that causes the real on-the-job changes you seek in your learners, every lesson, case study, and activity must be carefully selected to guide the learner in that role to reach that pre-defined outcome, as assessed by that pre-defined assessment.

It’s so tempting to start with a bunch of related topics, write down all the details, and call it a training, but remember, those would be a series of process documents. Instead, we are in charge of guiding our learners to the most important and relevant things they need to know and do.

I’ve created a handy guide for you so you can follow this three-step process when you design your next training…here it is:

Was all my process documentation a waste?

Oh heck no! The very process of writing down what you do and how you do it brings efficiency to the way you run your business and clarity to your team members. It’s essential.

Also, you can’t possibly create awesome trainings if you don’t actually know how things are supposed to work. So I would say that process documentation is a prerequisite to designing any good training or, at the very least, needs to be done concurrently as you’re building your training.

So the next time you need to put together a new-hire training (or any training), try first figuring out the most important things you need the new-hires to be able to do on the job, day in and day out. This makes it way more likely that you’ll be able to map out a learning path that leads them to that outcome. And that’s just better for everyone.

Want to build a different (better) kind of training this time? Click here to download my free Training Design Plan.

Why Project Management Alone isn't Enough

Often, when I tell people how I help small businesses, they say, "Oh, I get it! You're a project manager!" And while I do love a good project, that's not quite it. I live in the processes.

Processes and projects. They even start with the same 3 letters. They’re practically identical, right? Not so much.

Let’s unpack how projects and processes fit together...



Getting Things Done author, David Allen says, "Projects are defined as outcomes that will require more than one action step to complete and that you can mark off as finished in the next 12 months."

Really, David Allen? Everything with more than one action step is a project? That seems a bit dramatic.

But it turns out, it’s not.  You might be tempted to consider something as simple as “writing this week’s blog post” as a task, rather than a project. But think of all those little steps that go into it: You pick a topic, you write a draft, someone on your team proofreads, you post it, you share it. You have to complete each and every step in the right order.

It’s a project.

And even if you still disagree, just go with me on this for now, for the sake of having clear definitions.


Comparing a project to a process isn’t like comparing apples and oranges. It’s more like comparing apples and ... fruit. Projects are completed as part of a process (and hopefully a repeatable and scalable one!).

If we take our “writing this week’s blog post” project above as an example, we would ideally be following a standardized process for how the team creates weekly blog posts. We would have already defined each of the steps that are done every time, the order in which they need to happen, and the approximate number of days needed for each step. Following the set process takes away any worry of forgetting a step or getting off-track on deadlines. You know you’ve already figured out the most efficient way to do it, and there’s no need for lots of team communication to figure out handoffs and what comes next because we’ve already decided ahead of time.


A process is a framework for doing repeatable, multi-step work.

Every time you run through the steps of that process to achieve a particular outcome, you’ve completed a project.

Let’s play with this idea in a few commonplace examples:

  • You have a process for using your journal and cookbooks to do your weekly meal-planning and grocery shopping. This Sunday, you will use that process to complete a project called, “This week’s meal-plan and groceries.”

  • Your business has a process for onboarding new employees. Tomorrow, you will use that process to start a project called, “Onboard Andrea Baker.”

  • You have a process for packing for camping trips. Last weekend, you used that process to complete a project called, “Pack for camping in Flagstaff.”

What’s wrong with running a project without a process?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing a project without an overarching process. But if it’s a project you frequently do that is a core aspect of your business, you’re probably wasting precious time re-figuring-out how to do that thing each and every time. I’m willing to bet there are a lot of important things in your business you’re treating like unique projects when they really should be turned into processes. “Processified,” if you will.

So, no, you don’t always need to standardize the process. Sometimes you just do the project. But this one question will help shed some light on whether to standardize or not…

Will we need to do a project like this again in the future?

  • If so, you’ll want to work towards standardizing the process so you can do it awesomely (and efficiently!) in the future. You don’t have to get crazy about it, but jot down some notes about the steps you took. And then keep updating it as you and your team repeat it and get smarter. The future version of yourself will thank you.

  • If not, skip standardizing your process. There’s no need for you to document your small business’s process for setting up an LLC, because you’ll only need to do that once.

But even when you’re doing a one-time project, there are processes that can help:

  • If lots of other people have done this thing before, follow their process. You might as well use a tried and true method instead of re-inventing the wheel.

  • If your project is truly a unicorn, use a project-planning process like Seth Godin’s ShipIt Journal to walk you through all of the steps and considerations for your project. It’s like having a coach alongside you, asking you key questions as you create your project plan.

And don’t forget, processes are meant to evolve - don’t be afraid to edit them regularly. As Trainual Founder and CEO, Chris Ronzio says in his recent Inc article (follow him on Twitter):

“Think of your policies and procedures like the leaderboard on an arcade game. As soon as someone comes up with a better way to do something, it should rise to the top as the clear and obvious winner, and everyone should recognize it.”

The really cool thing is that after you complete a few of the same type of project and begin to standardize the process, it gets easier and easier. And that’s how you turn pro.

If you need help standardizing your processes to scale your business, Process Mentors would love to chat! Click here to set up a free initial call. 

Why You Shouldn’t Automate Your Business (Yet)

As a small business owner, you're constantly inundated with articles and updates in your feed about the wonder and glory of automating your business. With all the tools and experts out there, it's easy to start feeling like you're behind the eight ball on all this business automation stuff. Maybe you’re even starting to feel some anxiety about what seems to be a huge undertaking. Well, if you're like most of the small businesses I work with, it's probably not time to start automating just yet.

You Can't Automate What You Can't Write Down

"If you can't write it down, it's not a thing."

That’s an annoying thing I like to say. There are so many aspects of our jobs that have evolved over the years so organically that they become second nature to us. So we think we are clear on the process. But if we were to ask three different people on the team to write down how it works, we'd likely get three different answers. And we never quite seem to get around to asking those three people. And don’t even get me started on what happens when those three people quit.

So let's say you really wanted to automate your business. How do you automate a process that you can't even write down? How do you decide what parts to automate? The answer to both questions is...You can’t.

Before you can make things work better, there needs to be a shared clarity for your team in the reality of how those things work today. And that takes time and focus. Documenting your processes may not be as flashy as that software tool that zaps data from here to there, but it's a foundation that's worth the investment.

Aside from being a necessary first step to jumping into the process automation game, documenting your processes has some pretty sweet side-effects too, including:

  • Identifying problems and inefficiencies that can be quickly resolved

  • Increasing teamwork and collaboration

  • Helping team members understand the impact of their actions in the greater process

  • Improving the training experience for new team members through better documentation

It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Getting Started With Process Documentation

If you're wondering how to get the ball rolling with writing down what your business does, look no further. Just follow the steps below...

Step 1 - Pick a Department

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your entire business won’t get documented in one either. When you try to examine the business as a whole, it can feel overwhelming. Instead, start with one functional group or department. If it’s not obvious where to start, choose the department that has the most flexible and easygoing team members who will be willing to participate fully. Their good juju will get the project started off on a positive note and propel you forward into documenting the next department.

Step 2 – Figure Out Who Does What

Process Mentors client, John Waters, defining his team’s roles.

Process Mentors client, John Waters, defining his team’s roles.

Businesses are run by people so it’s always best to start out by defining roles. No one ever has trouble coming up with a laundry list of things they do every day/week/month, so it gets everyone feeling productive and focused right from the start. My favorite way to begin is through a brain-writing exercise where I give everyone 10 minutes on their own to write down every single task they are responsible for on individual sticky notes and put them up on the walls. Then, we work together as a group to define the roles in the department, and assign those sticky-note tasks to each of the roles. There are disagreements sometimes, but that’s the point...we’re looking for a shared understanding of what we do. It’s engaging for the whole team and, dare I say, fun!

Step 3 - Name the Processes

When you look up on those fabulous sticky-note-covered walls, you’ll not only see a list of the tasks for each role. You’ll also begin to see that you can group those tasks into categories of interrelated steps. Guide your team to name those categories you discover. Those named categories will become the key processes you’ll write down. This important step will allow your team to be laser-focused on the boundaries of the specific process they’re working on, since (most of) the steps have already been identified.

Step 4 – Start Simply

Once you’ve identified they key processes you’ll focus on, it’s time to get to work documenting. You can either assign that to an individual or do it together as a group. (I recommend doing at least one together as a group first.) But there’s no reason to get all fancy about it. Often, a simple 2-column table or a spreadsheet is an un-intimidating way to begin writing down all the steps needed to complete a process.

The first step in any process is its “input.” To figure out what it is, ask yourself, “What thing happens that makes this whole process get kicked off in the first place?” After that, just braindump what your team does step by step by step. Finally, end with the “output” or the finished product that is the result of the process. Here’s a simple example of how that might look:

Process: Selling Lemonade

Step Who
INPUT: Customer requests lemonade       Customer
Collect payment and give change Cashier
Pour ice into cup Lemonade Artist
Pour lemonade into cup Lemonade Artist
Insert straw into cup Lemonade Artist
Hand lemonade to Cashier Lemonade Artist
OUTPUT: Hand lemonade to customer       Cashier

This isn’t about capturing every last detail and contingency, necessarily. But it is about coming to agreement about the order and ownership of each of the steps along the way. If you focus on those two things, you and your team will learn a lot about the assumptions each of you had about what really happens.

OK, Nowwwwww You Can Automate

With your as-is processes clearly documented (Which will have made your processes better and your team more efficient), now is a great time to start automating.

  • You know where your handoffs are.

  • You know what data needs to move from point A to point B.

  • You know which tasks are the most cumbersome and/or repeated.

In short, you have a clarity about how your business works that you could’ve never had before you wrote all this stuff down. With that clarity comes confidence and efficiency as you improve how you do things. So whether you decide to tackle the automation journey on your own or outsource it to an expert, you now have a map of exactly what needs to happen every step of the way. And journeys just work better with maps.

If you want to start documenting your processes, reach out to Process Mentors. I can help!

Are You Paying Too Much for Your Processes?

Business processes are funny; they are the backbone of how you run your business, yet small teams rarely give them any attention at all. Sure, you'll make incremental changes as time goes on and you'll fix what's broken, but when was the last time you specifically focused on evaluating your business processes to see how much time (and money) they're costing you?

When I start working with a new client, I do a cost evaluation of their key process(es) to make sure I truly can bring them measurable value before diving into their project. It's amazing how I can trim a few minutes here and there from a process and end up reclaiming hours over the course of a week and year. This time-savings can translate to tens of thousands of dollars!