Having an operations manual may not be glamorous, but preventing the disasters caused by human error and bad processes can save your business and even (in extreme circumstances) millions of lives.
“A perfect storm of 6 human errors — culminating with staff thinking it was ok to turn off the emergency cooling system — caused the Chernobyl disaster, costing an inflation-adjusted $720 billion, 30 deaths and an extreme amount of unsafe radiation.” – Ben Brandall, How Processes Protect Your Business From Crashing and Burning
The truth is, the only way to prevent such errors is to document workflows and processes, and the only way to make sure your employees know what they have to do, how to do it, and have the resources to do it is to create your own operations manual.
What is an operations manual?
An operations manual is the backbone of your company – the encyclopedia for your business. Your employee handbook may introduce your team to your mission, various policies (benefits, holiday leave, security), and culture, but the operations manual will show them how to do their job and give them everything they need to do it.
Typically the manual is either a book or folder of printed documents containing all of your standard operating procedures (SOPs), your hierarchy, contact details and emergency procedures. Whenever an employee wants to know how to do something or needs to know how to contact someone, they can look it up in the manual.
Imagine a manual for a car. In it, you’ll be told what the model is, what the tire pressures need to be, and a myriad of other useful facts which are important to know, but not necessarily off by heart. An operations manual is exactly that, but for your company.
It’s a way of making sure that your team can reliably and efficiently carry out their tasks with consistent results. Human error is reduced to a minimum and everyone knows precisely what they need to do, who they might be waiting on, and who might be waiting on them to deliver results.
Why is having one important?
Think of the last time you or a team member had to complete a task, but they had no idea how to do it. In all likelihood, the task was completed only after either researching how to complete it (and wasting time in doing so) or by disrupting someone else to get them to explain.
With an operations manual, you avoid all that hassle and just get down to what you need to do, letting you make the most of your time rather than working at half-pace. Think of it as an employee knowledge base – a place that anyone can go to when they have a question or need something explaining, rather than bothering somebody else.
Processes are documented clearly
One of the biggest advantages of having an operations manual is that it forces you to have fully documented processes for every task you do more than once. This might sound like a pain to set up, but the long-term benefits for having them are massive.
Aside from increasing your efficiency and highlighting problems in your current processes, the consistency your business achieves is at the core of why processes are important. By having a method which can be executed perfectly time after time you’re standardizing your business model, making it easy to find problems and dealt with them.
It allows you to scale
Without a consistent and reliable business model, it’s next to impossible to scale your business. By having an operations manual to store your SOPs and important internal data, you can easily onboard new employees and identify the factors limiting your ability to scale.
Not only that, but having documented processes in the first place will mean that your operation runs with less wasted time and money, making it able to rapidly expand
Everyone is accountable
A major part of reducing human error is to make everyone accountable for their actions. By detailing the company hierarchy, job descriptions, and parties involved in a given task, you’re effectively keeping everyone accountable for what they need to do, and who they need to talk to if there’s a problem.
In other words, nobody can argue (with someone else or themselves) that a task or duty isn’t their responsibility, and the fact that anyone can access the operations manual means that everyone else will know it too. The knowledge that everyone else knows what you’re responsible for is a brilliant motivator, so your team’s output should also increase.
Important resources and processes are centralized
You could document your processes, hierarchy, job descriptions, emergency procedures, and more all without creating an operations manual. After all, it’s only once they’re collected in a single location that they turn from random files into a coherent document.
However, by centralizing all of this information you’re making sure that everything is available for anyone who needs access at any time. There’s no question about whether the process you’re following is the most recent version because everything is always up-to-date and stored in the manual.
Admittedly, this will depend on the format of your manual. A physical file (a book or folder) will need to have items reprinted with corrections or potentially even a complete re-issue to avoid lengthy and confusing appendixes. Digital operations manuals do not suffer the same problem, giving them an advantage over physical copies.
What to include in your operations manual
Much like with an employee handbook, the challenge here is to include enough detail in your operations manual to serve as a comprehensive knowledge base for your team, but not so much as to bore them into complacency.
If you go into unnecessary detail, you’ll either make them want to skip the instructions or leave them more confused than when they started, making the entire thing pointless. Not enough detail, however, and your team won’t have enough information to correctly and consistently perform the task.
To this end, you’ll need to include sections for your:
To give you a better idea I’ll tackle each of these sections in turn
Here you need to explain the layout of your company, kind of like stating the “family tree” of who reports to who. There’s not much to explain here in terms of content (since it will greatly vary depending on your size and layout), but you do have a couple of options for how to present it.
For example, you could create a text document and use subheaders to separate the various teams, with a brief description of who reports to who. I’d recommend using a visual flowchart to do this instead though, as all you really need to show here is the order of things, and a single chart is much easier to follow than a long-winded document.
Try to focus more on the job titles than specific people (eg, managing director), as then you won’t have to go back and make changes whenever your hire someone new or someone changes position.
If the company hierarchy is a scannable chart, your job descriptions list is the information to back it up. While not necessarily job descriptions (although fee free to use them), here you should be going through each role in your business and laying out their responsibilities, skills, who they answer to, and who answers to them.
In other words, give an overview of what the position is in more detail, but keep it in context of the hierarchy. That way if someone isn’t sure as to who to contact about a particular issue (or wants to collaborate over a specific task), they can skim the hierarchy to get an idea of who to contact, then confirm it through the job description.
Here you need to provide contact details for everyone in your company, and those outside who are in close contact. Easy.
You could combine this part of the operations manual with the job description section if you want to have a more compact document, but having a separate list of contacts can make it easier to skim through and immediately get the correct information.
Your documented processes will be the largest section of your operations manual, especially as your company grows. The trick is recording them in a way that’s comprehensive, but easy to follow.
Whether you’re using a word processor or a better piece of process documentation software, you’ll ideally have a set of checklist templates which give basic instructions to complete various common tasks. These are best separated into categories (such as “accounting processes” or “editing checklist“) since you should be documenting anything that you need to do more than once to make sure you have a consistent approach to it.
Finally, any emergency procedures should also be stored in the operations manual. “Emergency” could mean anything from a server security breach to an onsite fire – if it’s possible and could result in damage to your company, product, and/or staff, at least take note of it and draft out a procedure for dealing with it.
You don’t have to cover every situation under the sun, just the most likely ones to occur, and give the best way to limit the damage.
Don’t let your operations manual bore your team to death
The cardinal sin I’ve seen by scouring Google for useful operations manuals is that everything is dull to the point of being useless. Doing this is a one-way ticket to invite disaster once more, as your employees will be more likely to ignore your processes in favor of relying on memory.
So, rather than invite a Third World War, make your operations manual detailed enough to be useful, but simple enough to follow without sending the reader to sleep. Your company (and the general population) will thank you for it.
Originally published in Process Street.