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Organizing Documents To Make Sense For Your Business

This article is part four in a series on documentation. To start from the beginning, click here.

Now that we’ve looked at Why Documentation is Important, What Types of Documents there are, and Documentation Hierarchy, we’ll look at the fourth major step in the documentation process: How to organize your documents to best serve your business. While this post doesn’t cover document management systems or where you should be keeping documents (e.g. stored in a file cabinet or in digital format on your computer), we will illustrate the importance of how different types of documents relate to one another, and how make sure your team can easily find what they’re looking for.

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

The two most common complaints about company documentation:

  1. “I wrote it down but I can’t keep it organized.”

  2. “I can never find what I need when I need it.”

These complaints originate in companies of all sizes. Both questions can be addressed with a document schema, or illustrated relationship diagram representing the different functions or processes in your business. Also known as a relationship diagram, a document schema illustrates the relationship between different processes in all aspects of the business. Using a schema can optimize process flows, making it easy for anyone to understand how the different processes in your business support each other or what major work functions exist in the business.

Once you have a schema, you can then organize your documents following the design it lays out. As a result, your employees can quickly find the document they need based on the process they are performing. By coupling the schema with a file folder structure, hard copy or digital, your team can use it to quickly find what they need, when they need it.

In our experience, a document schema works best when it’s organized around the core work the company does in a logical flow:

  1. Describe how does the company captures customer requirements.

  2. Highlight the essential resources (equipment, knowledge, materials) which add value and contribute to the process of creating the final product.

  3. Outline the delivery process of the final product.

Schemas vary in style and appearance but should reflect something meaningful to the company. As a starting point, the most basic schema, based on the Transformation Model, might look like this:

"ISO 9001:2015 Quality management systems - Requirements," published by the ASQ/ANSI collaboration, uses a schema to organize requirements that integrate the concepts of the Transformation Model with the Shewhart Plan/Do/Check/Act (PDCA) cycle.

The above chart is owned by ASQ/ANSI and reproduced here by Archimedes C&C

In this image, ASQ/ANSI uses numbers to correlate directly with a requirement in the standard. The schema represented by the figure makes it quick and easy to find what you need. If you are going to assign numbers to documents, this approach can be very effective for your team!

In the example below, a slightly different approach was taken to capture a company’s unique approach to integrating leadership among its staff:

Applying a Schema

Building on our discussion in the second post of this series What Types of Documents there are, policies, procedures, instructions, specifications, forms, and records are then organized around each of the key processes represented by the schema. Using the last illustration, the following shows how documents could be organized using this schema.

Marketing & Sales Documents

Marketing and sales policies, procedures, instructions, and other types of documents define how we come to identify who our customers are and how we get to know them. These documents describe how you come to understand your customers' needs and requirements as part of establishing a formal commitment with them. Sales procedures might provide instructions on how to write up an order or how to enter order data into a database.

Resource & Infrastructure Documents

Resource and Infrastructure documents define how the company provides the resources needed to get the revenue-generating work done. Often, this creates a large group of documents you may need to break down further to be helpful. A common way to do this is to think about the different functions and organize the documents by those specific functions. Examples of Resource and Infrastructure functions that might each require segregated documents include Finance/Accounting procedures, Knowledge Management, Information Technology (IT) resources, etc. Whereas the IT team or department might have information security procedures and instructions for logging onto the internet, Finance and Accounting folks might write a procedure defining the use of different accounts or an instruction on how to complete a petty cash slip.

We intentionally separate traditional “Human Resources” activity out of this section as we believe people/employees require their own section of processes, especially since some of these are more sensitive and may require specific language guided by law.

People Documents

These documents focus on everything “people” oriented from recruitment, hiring, on-boarding, and training assessments to how to handle that most difficult transaction, termination. Staffing professionals (the traditional “HR” folks) most likely maintain policies (supported by management) that cover anti-discrimination and anti-bullying and instructions that detail how to write a Job Description. And we all know there are a lot of different forms we must fill out when starting a new job. All of these types of people-related documents would be found in this grouping.

Operations Documents

Operations documents define how revenue-generating work is actually done. Like the Resources group, Operations documents can span a broad group of functions from receiving (if you are handling incoming goods), how to prepare a consultant report (if your business provides consulting services), how to write up a listing (if you happen to own a real estate company) to how you package and deliver that widget you just built for your customer. This is the work you originally created your business to do. Operations documents describe how your company adds value to your customers' lives to ensure their needs and requirements are being met. Often, you can organize them by different services or products, or by different departments that each contribute to a part of the total flow. Detailed specifications that define characteristics of a product you are selling fall into this arena. In a fun example, a bakery might organize its operations into Catering, Retail, and Wholesale. A bakery specification is otherwise known as a recipe. Organizing by function can help prevent creating multiple similar procedures that may lead to confusion.

Measurement & Evaluation Documents

These documents describe how your company measures its performance in any way you think is important. In almost all cases, measurement & evaluation processes (and the documents that define those) are linked to processes (and documents) in other areas such as marketing, operations, or leadership. A key measurement or evaluation activity is the feedback loop from the customer, which is a key measurement of how your business is performing. In a future discussion on Strategic Planning for the Small Business, we’ll dig in on how important it is to establish metrics and targets that are meaningful to your business. In the meantime, at a minimum, think about writing a procedure on how often you actively evaluate your customers' satisfaction with your business.

Improvement & Change Management Documents

Okay, we have to say it: things change…all the time. We advise companies regularly that it is far better to drive improvement and change than to be run over by the urgent need for either. The best practice is to document how improvements to your business will be made proactively, and how you will manage change. In many cases, these areas are addressed by policies, however, there are many areas where adding a specific improvement procedure may be beneficial. An essential strategy we promote to all business owners is that when possible, engage your employees in helping you identify what things need to improve, or what events might be triggering the need for change.

Leadership & Planning Documents

It’s at the heart of the business. It’s who you are. It’s the core of every successful organization. Unfortunately, new businesses often take leadership and planning activities for granted after the initial business plan (if there was one) is filed away. We’ll address the need for and use of Business Plans in a future discussion of Strategic Planning for the Small Business but in the meantime, it’s important to capture information and knowledge, let alone processes that can help Leaders plan and manage their business. These essential documents detail how leadership will guide the business and provide instruction for everything from risk is identified and managed to how the leadership team communicates and makes decisions. Typically, only a few key documents comprise the full scope of this area. However, it is an essential area to be considered when planning your document schema and it can make or break your organization.

And there you have it. We covered just a few of the thoughts a new business may want to consider when figuring out how to organize documents to make them easy to find. Now that you’ve developed a schema for the types of documents you want, it’s time to start writing documents! We’ll look at document format in our next post: How to Format Documents.

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