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Procedure manuals are worth the effort

About sixty minutes into a recent ten-hour trans-Atlantic flight, our plane encountered an unexpected mechanical problem and the pilot announced that we were going to make an emergency landing at a nearby airport.  He went to some length to reassure us that it was not a crisis situation, but more a prudent precautionary measure given that the majority of our journey was over water.  We landed safely, the problem was fixed, and within another three hours we were on our way.  End of story.  What caught my attention though was what happened earlier in the plane, immediately after the captain’s announcement.  While passengers remained calm and composed, almost three-quarters of my fellow travelers leaned forward, pulled out the emergency procedures card from the seat pocket in front of them, and proceeded to carefully read the instructions.  It was interesting to me that merely an hour ago during the safety demonstration, the flight attendants had asked them to do exactly that, and almost nobody had complied.  But now, because of a potential crisis, everyone was concentrating closely on this very same information.

It got me thinking about the procedures manuals and check-lists that exist in the various departments in so many organizations.  Many managers and supervisors I work with advocate eliminating these documents.  They’re outdated most of the time, no one ever looks at them, it takes effort to keep them current – these are just some of the reasons I hear from those who would do away with them.  But the real worth in such documents comes during times of crisis.  It’s when things start to go wrong that people seek out the manuals and check-lists.  It’s when the unexpected happens that people turn to the security of what has been documented in writing.  All of which suggests that perhaps there IS value in job handbooks and process guides, even if it takes work to keep them current and even if they get outdated the moment they are completed.   What do you think?  Waste of time, or worthwhile effort?

11 thoughts on “Procedure manuals are worth the effort

  1. Merge, I agree, there is incredible value in written procedures. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone back to my own procedure articles written for Intuit ProAdvisors to remember how I figured out to do something unique.

    A couple of years ago, I recorded a video that sells on my website about how to use a variety of tools including a formula about what questions to ask to get you started, and how to organize using SmartArt, SnagIt and Word to create procedure manuals. It’s sold to some really interesting organizational people all over the world.

    Recently I discovered a very cool way to collaborate on procedure manuals while working on my presentation for IPBC about how to create Working Papers. My husband suggested a great way to share procedure manuals and working paper files in the cloud using Microsoft OneNote. I found it was easy to set up to work collaboratively with your team to create procedures and make them accessible to your group using OneNote. What’s cool is that most of us already own the software. It’s a matter of making a half an hour to set it up to use it.

    My journey through the land of procedure manuals started with my first accounting job in 1978 and every job since then, I’ve always been responsible for the procedures. Goes with being the systems designer and organization person I guess.

  2. I agree with you completely Merge. Documenting processes and procedures is so important and, at the end of the day, is well worth the time invested in maintaining the documentation. Some of the most obvious benefits I have seen in my work from documenting processes are:
    – improves consistency of operations and reduces expensive mistakes
    – makes knowledge capture/transfer easier
    – developing new processes or updating existing can help identify best practices
    – helps with training
    – improves efficiency (one place to look for information rather than asking 4 or 5 coworkers how to do things)
    – can help in “trouble shooting” where things went wrong

    Always enjoy reading your Mega Minute!

  3. I work for a publicly traded company, so keeping our procedure manual up to date is mandatory. We also test that the procedures are being followed as part of our Internal Controls Over Financial Reporting. This is a very detailed oriented process and time consuming. However, there are benefits that go beyond the obvious one of complying with securities regulations. Updating and testing procedures on a regular basis sends the message that compliance is important. It provides an opportunity for employee involvement and process improvement. It catches problems before they get out of hand and sends the message that management is paying attention.

  4. I was reading through your article and had to laugh, I was on an Air Canada flight just recently and agree that most people don’t take out the brochure and follow through. But what I found more disturbing was that the flight attendants were busy chatting away about some unrealated topic while the rest of us were busy ignoring the french instructions on what to do during an emergency.

  5. So far I’m reading that everyone is supportive of the value that comes from procedure manuals and checklists. And obviously, I agree with all of you Eileen, Kate and Leslie. But I want to know: so where are all the nay-sayers? C’mon have your say!

  6. Kate, thanks for so succinctly laying out the benefits of documenting processes. I’ll be sure to point people to this list when I next hear from those who advocate eliminating this activity!

  7. Leslie, I really like your point about how updating procedures manuals regularly sends a message about how management is paying attention. It’s so important that as leaders we never forget that we are role models, and that employees observe what we do and how we behave, and it sets a standard for what is acceptable and right.

  8. Cathy, your point is well taken. If the flight attendants (in this case, the defacto leaders) don’t demonstrate the needed behaviour (i.e. the importance of those safety instructions), then there is no way that you can expect others to do so either. As leaders, we are role models — we have to demonstrate the behaviour that we expect from others.

  9. I wanted to comment on the article about procedure manuals. I’ve always been a big fan of them. In fact, I just retired and had updated my procedures manual so that my replacement would have the instructions she needed to do the job. I only had one day of training with her so it was even more important that she had instructions to fall back on if she couldn’t remember all of the information I tried to impart in that one 8-hour training segment. I have followed up with her and she confirmed that the procedures manual has been helpful as a resource to go back and clarify or confirm what she was told.

    Prior to my replacement arriving, I took the time to update the manual, including adding updated samples. Then I had another staff member review it to be sure it was understandable to someone who wasn’t trained in my position. She took the time to try the links that I had included and made sure that she could find the information referenced in the procedures. Then we reviewed her questions/comments and made some last-minute changes to complete the manual.

    I think it is disrespectful to leave someone hanging in a position without the tools to competently do a job. At any rate, I wanted to add my “two cents” in favor of procedures manuals.

  10. Deborah, as you can see, most of our commenters agree with you. I’m beginning to wonder if I am the only one who comes across people who think procedure manuals are a waste of time … clearly none of them are lurking here!

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