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What is process documentation: complete guide with examples

By: Jill Huettich

Business process documentation is becoming increasingly popular as more companies discover its benefits. Take, Taco Bell, for instance.

Today, the Mexican chain is a fast food juggernaut, generating approximately $2 billion in revenue in 2019 while experiencing 7 straight years of growth. However, in the early 80s, Taco Bell was in trouble.

At the time, its annual revenue growth had dropped to -16%, while the industry averaged 6% growth. Clearly, something needed to change or Taco Bell was going to have to close its doors.

Process Documentation 101

Process documentation is a detailed description of how to execute a given process. There are several ways to document a process, including:

  • Process maps
  • Procedures
  • Work instructions

Fortunately, CEO James Martin realized that Taco Bell’s business model wasn’t focused on what consumers actually wanted. Rather than delivering them an affordable, fast food experience—which is what they craved— Taco Bell was operating more like a Mexican restaurant, handing off food to customers in a slower fashion than they expected from a  chain.

In an effort to resolve this issue, the company analyzed the ordering process.  Where, for example, were the delays in ordering a taco? Was there any part of the ordering process that could be expedited?

By reviewing the ordering process documentation, the management team discovered that frying taco shells, dicing vegetables, and cooking meat were causing significant delays.

So, to speed up service, Taco Bell opted to outsource the meal preparation process. Rather than prepping ingredients in-house, many food items were instead prepared at a central commissary, then delivered to Taco Bell.

By making this process improvement (among others), Taco Bell experienced $2.5 billion growth in less than a decade and doubled its number of franchise restaurants between 1983 and 1993.

Mind you, none of this could have been done without process documentation. Being able to examine the ordering process in detail—so bottlenecks could be discovered—was critical to Taco Bell’s reengineering initiative and ultimate success.

That’s just one reason process documentation is so important. In this introductory guide, we’ll discuss some of the other reasons businesses can benefit from process documentation, go into more depth about what process documentation actually is, and provide an overview of some of the different types of process documentation you might encounter.


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What is process documentation?

To best define process documentation, it’s useful to first understand what a process is.

As Wikipedia defines it, a process is a “collection of related, structured activities or tasks by people or equipment in which a specific sequence produces a service or product (serves a particular business goal) for a particular customer or customers.”

Process documentation then is a description of how to execute a given process. There are several different ways to document a business process, depending on a business’ specific needs. Here are the main types of process documentation:

1. Process maps

A process map is a visual representation of a business process, usually in the form of a flowchart. This workflow diagram clearly depicts activities and interdependencies, so company stakeholders can see at-a-glance how a specific process is performed.

Frequently, businesses will use a swim lane diagram for process mapping. A swim lane diagram breaks each step of a process down in detail, illustrating what tasks need to be done, who needs to get involved, and how goals will be met.

2. Procedures

Procedures are documents that describe in detail how a process should be performed, step-by-step. Usually, these are written in a word document.

While a procedure can be helpful for more complex processes, this type of documentation tends to run long. As such, team members might be more inclined to skim it rather than to read through it thoroughly—which is why process maps can be so useful.

3. Work instructions

Although similar to procedures, work instructions offer even more detail. They’re used to help workers fulfill job requirements by clearly specifying how a task within a process should be performed.

Businesses can benefit from using each of these types of process documents, depending on their specific needs. Really, what’s most important is that process flow documentation is created in the first place. We’ll cover why that is in the next section …

Why is process documentation important?

There are tons of great reasons that businesses should document their processes and procedures. Here are some of the main reason why process documentation is important:

1. Process improvement

As the saying goes, you can’t fix what you don’t understand. That’s why process documentation is so critical. Process documents make it easy to discover—in detail—where improvements can or should be made.

Taco Bell is a perfect example of this. It wasn’t until after Taco Bell executives analyzed the current ordering process and discovered its limitations, that they were able to meet the expectations of their customers.

2. Cost savings

As you might imagine, process improvements result in significant financial savings. After all, it stands to reason that any time you can eliminate redundancies, speed up operations, use less labor, or improve overall efficiency, your business will experience greater profitability.

3. Training

Your key employees have a lot of important information rattling around in their brains. While that’s fine—as long as they remain employed at your organization—you’ve got a situation on your hands should one of them win the lottery.

By documenting how things are done, you have insurance that should critical employees resign, your business will still be able to run without a hitch. Perhaps just as importantly, you also have a valuable training document you can use for onboarding new employees.

4. Error reduction

Interestingly enough, approximately 50% (!) of organizational problems are caused by undefined business processes. That’s rather shocking when you think about it … but it definitely drives home the point that process documentation can reduce errors.

After all, when businesses understand what tasks need to be done, when they should be performed, and who needs to do them, it’s far easier to foresee potential problems and act proactively to resolve them.

5. Consistency

Consistency is important in the business world. So much so that according to Inc., “Consistency is the difference between failure and success.”

By documenting your processes and procedures, you’re far more likely to deliver the same quality of service to your customers, time and time again. Naturally, this enhances your brand’s reputation, benefitting your business.

As you can see, process documentation is extremely important. It can be used to streamline operations, cut costs, reduce errors, and improve customer satisfaction—which is why process documentation is well-worth considering, if you haven’t already implemented it at your business.

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