Think back to your last vacation. Did you ask the middle-schooler down the road to help out while you were away?
Perhaps your plants needed watering.
Or the dog needed daily walks, fresh food, and some (all important) cuddle time.
Maybe you needed someone to collect your mail and wheel your trash bins to the curb.
Part of preparing for a well-deserved getaway requires documentation. You note the important details, so that everything runs smoothly despite your absence.
What day of the week does the trash need to go out?
When does your pet eat breakfast?
How frequently should your plants be watered?
Some people may note these on a scrap of paper, running through a mental list of tasks as they rush out the door before catching their flight. Others have fine-tuned the process, organizing everything in a Google doc. Their pre-vacation action steps? Press ‘print’ and head to the airport.
Documentation plays an immense role in the running of our daily lives—at home and at work.
It’s an essential part of efficiency, but it can often feel daunting when getting started.
Running a business without documentation is painful (and problematic)
Life without documentation is frustrating.
You could benefit from documentation:
If you find yourself repeating the same answers to the same questions over and over.
If you find yourself needing to delegate, but unable to hand-off tasks.
If you find yourself baffled by the inconsistent practices of new hires.
If you find yourself ready to transition to retirement, but every time you take an extended vacation you come back to chaos.
Much of our stress and busyness at work is the result of a lack of non-existent or vague documentation.
But documentation takes time and those who don’t document fall into a perpetual cycle of inefficiency:
Firm leaders that don’t document their processes spend unnecessary time fixing mistakes and answering redundant questions.
As a result, they lack the time to formalize their practices. Because operating systems aren’t clearly outlined for team members to follow, employees are left guessing about how to do their jobs. Left to their own devices, they make an educated guess. When they guess wrong, it creates a small fire that needs to be put out by leadership.
The cycle continues.
To break the cycle, leaders must invest their time by setting up proper processes and procedures. And that’s exactly how documentation should be viewed—an investment.
Make time to take time
There’s no easy way around it: to properly document your company’s practices, you have to prioritize the task.
Bite the bullet and block out your calendar, protecting yourself from meetings and other tasks that can easily take over your day.
Documentation doesn’t have to (nor can it) be done all at once. Set aside one or two hours per week and start chipping away, working in small pieces and prioritizing your efforts.
Know where to start: tips for prioritization
Especially if your business has never documented practices before (or if those documents are wildly outdated) this can feel like a daunting project.
But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what I recommend when getting started:
1. Brain dump: Get it all down on a piece of paper, in a spreadsheet, or a document. Don’t worry about prioritization or even accuracy. Just let it all out as a stream of consciousness.
2. Review and categorize: Re-read your notes and eliminate and add items as needed. Group your needs by theme.
3. Prioritize: There is no right or wrong answer here. Ask the following questions to help you identify how to best help yourself.
What questions do I keep getting asked over and over again?
What mistakes repeatedly occur?
What don’t I like doing?
What can I delegate?
4. Start: Pick one of your priorities and just get to it—there’s no time like the present.
Recommended reading: A guide to documenting your accounting firm's processes
Small firms: overcome perfection paralysis
Many small firm owners who avoid documentation do so because of a desire to do things well from the get-go.
But perfection paralyzes potential. Instead of letting the daunting scope of the project stop you from pressing forward, approach documentation as a learning process. You’ll never learn until you try.
It’s unlikely that the processes you outline will be perfect from day one. But developing a record of how you handle essential tasks is an important first step. As your team relies on your documentation of processes, they (and you) will naturally identify areas that need refinement.
If you don’t already have a workflow solution, start with a Word or an Excel document, ideally an online file, which allows for easy sharing.
If you do have a workflow solution (like Karbon) look to see if the software provider has a template library and use that as a starting point. Many templates already exist to provide a framework, guiding you through the documentation process, and Karbon’s templates don’t require that you actually use Karbon (just download the template as a .xls file and use however you want).
Mid-to-large firms: delegate and approve
The documentation of processes and firm-growth go hand-in-hand. Without careful record keeping, growth is going to be intense—even catastrophic.
For a company to scale successfully, it must streamline onboarding processes in a way that ensures all team members are completing tasks the same way and within the predetermined systems that allow the organization to run efficiently and optimally.
If you’re the leader of a mid-to-large accounting firm, don’t try to tackle this on your own. Rely on your team and be the approver.
At Karbon, we use the DACI model, a decision-making framework that clarifies the process and roles of key players involved in a project.
The DACI model relies on four categories of players: drivers, approvers, contributors, and informed.
Drivers manage the process, ensuring that all required tasks are completed. The driver asks questions and keeps all the involved parties properly engaged in the process.
Approvers are usually executive-level leaders. They sign off on the final product.
Contributors are the team members who are actively responsible for collecting, organizing, and recording the needed information. They’re the doers of the DACI model.
Informed references the members of your company that will be affected by the documentation project, but aren’t involved in creating the documentation. Identify who needs to see your end product and make sure the information is passed to them after your documentation has been approved. After all, if you document processes, but don’t share that information with those it affects, your efforts were all for naught.
Iterate, iterate, iterate!
Finally, and most importantly: never stop improving. Your processes are a constant work in progress, which means that your documentation is never truly done.
For example, consider new-hire onboarding: After an employee has finished the onboarding process, ask them what could’ve been better. Where were the gaps? What are their remaining questions? Did anything feel redundant? Vague? What did they value most?
Take the learnings, consult the relevant parties, and iterate, updating relevant documents along the way.
If you’re not going back to the drawing board from time-to-time, it’s indicative that you may be stuck in your ways or undervaluing the investment of having careful, ever-evolving records.
By integrating regular opportunities for documentation into your workflow, firms of all shapes and sizes engage in an activity that supports growth, learning, continuous improvement, and workplace efficiency.