Andrew Ward CQP MCQI explains why a strong written business procedure should be front and centre for all organisations, helping to maintain the company image.
Written procedures are the backbone of any business. ISO 9001:2015 no longer requires specific procedures but procedures have been proven over the past few decades to be an effective way of setting out and communicating requirements to ensure the business achieves its aim.
A key problem is that to communicate effectively, the format must suit the reader. The procedure is the mechanism for communication from a process owner to those implementing the required action.
Ensuring good business procedure
So what makes a good business procedure? First, it must present a process or task in a systematic order and show who is to do what to achieve successful results. Second, it has to communicate that to those implementing it, in an unambiguous way. Third, it must be formatted in such a way that if the user needs to find information quickly, they can do so, even when under pressure to source the required information as soon as possible.
Running in parallel to this is the need for the business to demonstrate a style – an image of cohesiveness in its approach to everything. This is represented by presenting procedures in a common format, leading to a conflict –, namely style versus communication. The solution? Compromise!
The art of compromise
That cohesive image, presented through the style of documents, is important, but should not restrict the author of a document – usually the process owner – in putting what they need in the document. Similarly, the author should recognise their need to reflect the business image requirements.
The phrase ‘one size fits all’ was developed in the 1970s to reflect a new approach to clothing sizing. It failed; only a limited number of items are now still classed as this. Similarly, the same term applied to procedures also fails, as the same approach cannot apply to tasks and processes.
“The key point to remember is that the procedure is the mechanism for communication, from a process owner to those implementing the required action”
Tasks can be described quite simply as having a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. They identify who implements each stage and the output of the task. For example, the administration of incoming documents would be a task for a document controller, the procedure showing their interfaces with others. These focus on the individuals involved and are often represented by a ‘swimming lane’ flowchart, which details individuals’ actions in the tasks.
Processes, on the other hand, go through a lot more stages – sometimes a number of tasks – and often have a much longer timeline of implementation. The focus is on managing a much more complex input and output, represented by a flowchart that details the order of stages, rather than a focus on people and their roles.
It is critical to set boundaries so the corporate image is exhibited, but not such that it stifles innovation and creativity. Sufficient flexibility is required to enable the process owner to set out in a procedure what is required, in such a way that the reader understands what they need to do.
The key aspects of a document that represent a corporate image are logo, title format, and header and footer format, as well as content, font and indentation for levels 1, 2 and 3. It should also include table format and font size. These factors then allow flexibility in the content for the author to be effective in the communication of the activities. Style may also include columns, for instance, should the document be in one or more columns? It is the principal newspapers use to attract readership so should it also be applied to procedures?
The author must be aware of the constraints imposed by style but, provided they are aware of the users’ work environment, should recognise the reader for whom the document is intended and write accordingly. Clarity to the reader is paramount, achievable when the format delivers the requirements in digestible chunks that can be absorbed and understood.
The key point to remember is that the procedure is the mechanism for communication from a process owner to those implementing the required action. When a business imposes too much restriction on the format, the message gets lost. Too much restriction removes critical items in the development and growth of a company. Alternatively, too much flexibility dilutes the corporate image. The line is an intangible one that each company must determine for itself.
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