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How to Write an Operations Manual

Digital Library > Operations and Technology > Procedures and practices “How to Write an Operations Manual”

A procedures manual for your company protects you from trusting too much in particular employees to operate your business, serves as a guide for new trainees, and provides an emergency recovery plan.

OVERVIEW [top]

Think of an employee who plays a crucial role in your company. What would happen if that employee quit without providing notice? Key individuals can be found in any company, but it is vital that you not become dependent on a particular person to operate your business.

Not only does an operations manual save you from relying too much on individual employees, it also serves to guide and reinforce the training of new employees and allows for the self-taught, cross training of existing employees. What’s more, if you are considering selling your business, an operations manual can reinforce — or even increase — your asking price, as it will foster a smooth transition to new management.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Tips on a functional layout for your operations manual.
  • What elements to include.
  • How to manage the project.

SOLUTION [top]

An operations manual is a comprehensive documentation of how your company functions. If written correctly, it should guide someone unfamiliar with your company through the day-to-day procedures for operating your business. This should not be confused with an employee handbook, a much smaller document addressing conditions of employment, corporate culture and acceptable behavior policies. Employee handbook guidelines can be found in the Quick-Read, "Creating Your Employee Policy Handbook."

Layout

Before you start writing, plan the physical layout of the manual. You’ll find that the layout tends to dictate the manual’s usability.

  1. Divide your manual into sections that coincide with the departmental organization of your company. This will facilitate employee contributions during the writing process and allow easy access to information once the manual is in circulation. Include a table of contents that lists subsections.
  2. Have authors create the document using the same word-processing software. Common software will not only make it easier to construct the manual now but it should also ensure the document can be easily modified in the future. Always have a hard copy of all the versions at a safe location.
  3. Number the sections and then the pages within sections. For example, page 4 of section 10 would be numbered "10.4." This will save you from having to reprint the entire document each time you make a change. The popular word-processing programs provide this page numbering option.
  4. On each page, add a footer indicating when the page was last modified. Photocopied pages frequently lie around, and an outdated one could do much damage.
  5. You can also include an appendix for interim additions or changes, so that you will not have to edit and reprint the manual to include periodic alterations.

Content

Operations manuals typically include four types of information:

  1. How-to procedures, e.g., how to enter a new account into your billing system, how to perform computer file back-ups.
  2. Locations of items, e.g., keys.
  3. Contacts, e.g., insurance company.
  4. Business-related policies, e.g., not accepting personal checks.

Descriptions of department-specific tasks will make up the bulk of your manual, but you’ll also want to include:

  • Job descriptions. Formal job descriptions help individuals understand their roles within your company and also allow new and existing staff to identify each other’s responsibilities.
  • Emergency procedures. In most cases, you can obtain detailed emergency procedures from your landlord or from community groups. You will have to personalize some of the text, such as a gathering point in the event of a fire, but most of the information will already be prepared for you. Make two additional copies of your emergency procedures section to keep at reception and in the staff room for easy access.
  • Disaster recovery plan. Document how to re-establish your business following a fire, theft or earthquake. Having a plan prepared in advance will help you restore normal operations quickly and thus prevent significant revenue loss. It’s also good for public relations because customers will see that you are dedicated to providing uninterrupted service.

Don’t go overboard! The manual needs to state just what a substitute or replacement worker might need — not the obvious procedural details. A sure way to devalue the manual is to trivialize it with too much detail.

Don’t rewrite manuals that already exist! Your phone system, for example, probably already comes with a user guide. Reference the phone system guide in your operations manual, including the title and the version number, for replacement purposes only.

If any departments have procedure guides that are too extensive to include in the company manual, be sure the department guides are referenced in the company manual so that they will be found when they are needed and so that there’s a reminder to treat them the same as other procedures when they are checked or changed.

Project Manager

The office manager, operations manager, or communications manager is typically responsible for writing the operations manual. Regardless of who is assigned the task, be sure the writer has good writing skills, is organized and is attentive to details. The writer must be able to present the processes in a manner that allows someone unfamiliar with your business to perform the task. If you do not already employ such a person, consider outsourcing the project. If you outsource, there is no need to hire a professional: a communications student or entry-level technical writer can do the job. You’ll simply need to assign a project manager from within your office.

Regardless of who writes the manual, understand that it is not a one-person project. You are creating a company-wide document and will need input from all departments. The project manager should create a list of general how-to questions. Then, whichever employee is currently responsible for a given task should record how to do it. Then the project manager or writer can formalize it.

Testing

Once your operations manual is complete, try it out. Have an employee or the project manager follow the steps for a particular activity in another department. Testing will help you ascertain the accuracy and ease of use of the manual before you need it.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

When Sherle Hathaway, office manager for Rolynx Technologies, approached her boss about preparing an operations manual for the company, his initial reaction was to dismiss the idea, claiming the company was too small to warrant an operations manual.

"I tried to explain the importance of an ops manual to a company," Hathaway recalls. "It is a valuable resource tool, saving aggravation and lost time in an employee’s short- or long-term absence. Its value has little to do with the size of the company."

By the end of their discussion, Hathaway’s boss gave his approval to start the project. It took eight months to complete the manual, including drafting and testing the written procedures.

"The manual should have taken only six months to prepare," says Hathaway, "but I ran into some difficult ies getting staff to participate when I started. It wasn’t a priority for some staff. They saw it as extra work."

Hathaway communicated her concerns to her boss and fellow managers. She realized that, because the project had not been adequately explained to the other managers, they had not relayed its importance to their department staffs. To address this, Hathaway’s boss distributed a memo to all staff, carefully highlighting the benefits of an operations manual to both the employees and to the organization as a whole.

"Once the staff understood that it was a company-wide effort — not just my project — the cooperation level doubled. I would definitely recommend that any company taking on an operations manual project make it known to the staff how important the document is, and ask for their full cooperation."

DO IT [top]

  1. Appoint an internal project manager.
  2. Discuss with your staff the importance of an operations manual. Staff may feel threatened if asked to document everything they do. Explain the benefits of an operations manual:
    • It’s easier to take holidays if others can perform your duties.
    • One employee’s work will not be hindered by the absence of another.
    • New staff will become productive more quickly.
    • Staff can learn how to do the work required of other positions if interested.
  3. Begin by writing job descriptions. Ideally, have the employees write the descriptions and then review them with their respective managers.
  4. For each department, list a series of tasks to be documented and assign them to individuals based on the job descriptions. Tell staff to add to the list if a procedure has been overlooked.
  5. Have the project manager perform the task according to the written procedures. It is better to test the documentation immediately, rather than wait until it is needed.
  6. Update the operations manual every two months or so, depending on how quickly job activities change in your company. Interim additions can be placed in an appendix.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Midnight Networks, Inc., by H. Kent Bowen and Marilyn E. Matis (Harvard Business School Publishing, 1998). This case describes how the five founders built their business from operations earnings and how they established "best practices" operational processes to run their firm successfully.

Design and Maintenance of Accounting Manuals, third edition, by Harry L. Brown (Wiley, 1998). Useful ideas for accounting and auditing department procedure manuals. Consider starting the procedure-manual project with accounting procedures to get a good complete model in place for other departments to follow.

Writing Effective Policies and Procedures: A Step-by-Step Resource for Clear Communication by Nancy J. Campbell (AMACOM, 1998). Pretty basic, but a good checklist of steps for getting the manual written and used.

How To Write An Effective Policies And Procedures Manual And Employee Handbook (Gene Levine Associates, 2000).

Internet Sites

Writing Revisable Manuals: Print & Online Technical Communicators, Duncan, Kent & Associates, Ltd.

Use search engines, such as Google.com to find examples of operations manual entries by searching for the word procedure and a desired function, e.g., type procedure "petty cash."

Article Contributors

Writer: Tracy MacNicoll

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