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The Importance of Documentation: Document Types and their Functions




In part one of our series on documentation, we covered the basics of what documentation entails and why the practice is a vital cornerstone of keeping your business running smoothly. In this post, we’ll take a look at the different types of documents and why they are needed. Most companies need several different types of documents to set clear expectations and define business practices appropriately. The relationship between those documents is important to help employees get the information and instructions they need when they need it. Figuring out what documents to write, why to write different types of documents, and how many documents you really need can be challenging. We’ll address these questions here.

Exploring The Documentation Of Different Processes

To set clear expectations and define business practices appropriately, your business will likely need several different types of documents. Let’s take a look at the five most common and answer two important questions about each one:


  • What is this type of document?

  • Why do you need this document?




Company Policy




What is it?

Company policy cements the expectations and commitments typically established by the owners or leaders and passed to the employees, customers, and suppliers. It defines high-level statements of what will or will not be done and reflects the core values that drive your decisions. Company policy can set expectations for how business is conducted while also establishing limits of exactly how the company will respond in different situations. Typically, company policy is compiled into a policy manual. While there may be many company policies based on the size of the company, best practice is to keep policies organized around key functions.


Why is it needed?

Writing your company’s policy down on paper gives everyone, employees and customers alike, a clear vision of where your business stands in the world. It generates a sense of clarity that guides decision-making and outlines the path to achieving the company’s vision and goals. Owners, leaders and employees need access to company policies for different reasons. Whereas employees might need to know what your company’s return policy is, you might want to post the company’s quality policy on the company website.



Company Procedures



What is it?

Your business generates revenue by doing something that your customers love to pay you to do. By doing this “something”, you and your employees are adding value to your customers' lives. You’ve defined a process or series of tasks internal to your company that ensure that this “something” is done exactly how you want it to - exactly how your customers are expecting you to. Company procedures document that process.


Why is it needed?

Documenting a procedure ensures that the task is performed correctly every time. This is especially important when training a new employee or learning a new process yourself. It can also be used as a rubric for evaluation, and provides a baseline from which process improvements can be made. When procedures are created around a plan or schema and become readily available to everyone in your company, a lot of time and effort is saved because employees - or you - won’t have to ask, “gosh, how did we decide to do that?”



Working Instructions



What is it?

Sometimes you need to get into specifics and break down a process into more finite steps. For example, your team might use a specialized piece of software with unique or non-intuitive steps that must be followed in a certain order. Outlining detailed working instructions can simplify the process, acting as a supplement to the procedural documentation.


Additionally, working instructions may be useful when a single procedure affects more than one functional area. In this instance, documenting working instructions to represent how a single, specific, function performs its part of the procedure can offer clarity.


Why is it needed?

Like procedural documentation, working instructions can be used for training, evaluation, reference, and operational audits.



Specification



What is it?

Specification documents provide highly-detailed descriptions about the products or services a company offers to its customers. This documentation typically encompasses the intellectual property of the company, the unique offerings that differentiates the company’s products and services from its competitors, and the exact performance characteristics for products and services.


Why is it needed?

Specification documentation is frequently used in marketing materials and other customer-facing publications, and during the creation of a warranty program. The documentation can also be utilized during the on-boarding and training process for new employees, or as a reference when developing a new product or service. Finally, specifications form the basis of work instructions on how to build or repair a product.



Forms



What is it?

Forms are pre-formatted documents used to capture data and information. They are essential tools that help employees follow a procedure or work instruction and may complement, or replace, a procedure or working instructions. Well-built forms consider how the user will actually provide the information. Introductory messages, word choice and even how the form is presented to the employee or customer or supplier all make a difference on whether the form works.


Why is it needed?

If built with empathy to how the user will respond to requests for information, forms are an amazingly quick and easy way to collect data and information. Forms can and should provide clear and specific instruction and guidance, and be maintained as things change.


What about Records?

You may have noticed that we’ve left records off of this list, and for good reason. Records provide objective evidence of something that was done. Regulatory agencies, your customers and your accounts may require that you identify what records will be kept and for how long. Typically, these requirements are documented in your company procedures. Auditors love records! But so do company decision-makers as records contain the facts of a situation that may be analyzed to help solve problems. Typically records are created when a form is filled out and submitted however may also be auto-generated from computer programs or even email. We’ll cover records and analysis of data in a later article, and add a link here when it’s available.


Coming Up: The Hierarchy of Documentation

Looking at the above you may get the feeling that there is a certain order of hierarchy when it comes to documents, and you would be correct. When we have policies, procedures, and forms that all contain useful information and relate to each other, a little bit of overlap is to be expected. What we want to avoid is unintentional overlap or conflicting expectations that may lead to undesirable results. To help avoid that, part three of our documentation series will cover the steps to implementing an illustration that shows the relationships between different documents. It's available here.


And if all this is enough to make your head spin, give us a call! Archimedes' experts have decades of combined experience writing, reviewing, and revising documentation for companies of all shapes and sizes. Contact us for a free consultation and to learn more about how we can help you get back to business.

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