10 golden rules when writing business manuals
1. Remember the point – and the users
Operations manuals are prepared for two reasons – one great and one not so great.
Not so great is when manuals are written because they must be by law (in a new franchise for instance) and no care is taken to ensure they will ever be used thereafter. What happens then is a document is produced which covers some of the main procedures and then it is left, never to be touched by anyone again – not the intended users or the business owners. What a waste of time, emotional energy and money.
GREAT is when the manuals are prepared so tasks can be reliably and responsibly delegated to enthusiastic staff who then get on with the job, doing it well themselves with minimum supervision, freeing everyone up, including themselves, from wasted interference. I love this approach.
So, when preparing operations manuals remember the point – successful delegation. Remember your target audience and make sure the finished product suits their style, their needs, and likely questions. Do remember you will be one of the users in this scenario as you will be using your ‘ops’ for training and performance review otherwise they won’t be used at all by anyone.
What all this means is, keep everything as simple and focused as you can. Obviously, some tasks are complex and generally the people doing those tasks will be used to dealing with complexity ,so complex is required in this situation. For instance, on a production line those using the equipment will just need which buttons to click and how to stay safe. But an engineer maintaining the equipment will need detailed instruction on how to dissemble and resemble the equipment as required through complex steps.
The thing is, keep in mind that complexity does not mean a loss of clarity. Make sure that you absolutely do record each step, in order in the shortest action statement possible. Use plain language – not stuffy legalese, academic language or unnecessary technical jargon.
3. One style protocol
So, think about your target audience and what they need. Some sections of your manuals might need to include more detail than others (but still in plain English using engaging formats).
You should also consider using one ‘voice’ throughout your manuals. A manual is easier to follow if it’s written in the same style (and often by one author) throughout.
Your most knowledgeable staff are NOT always the best people to write your operations manuals!
Knowing your business doesn’t necessarily make a person good at writing about it. Your most experienced operational staff will naturally be less practised at writing if they’re doers and not pencil pushers. They may also add too much detail when they write, which complicates procedures and confuses readers.
A skilled writer (whether you find one in-house or use a professional like us) will better convey complex processes in simple steps and plain English. They will also observe your practices more objectively than those who ‘live’ them every day, so will spot inefficiencies and opportunities to improve procedures before writing them up.
4. Start with one area of your business – the one bringing in the money
When you first start to write your operations manuals, the task appears overwhelming. This is the reason so many just don’t start. No time to work out where to start.
This is why we recommend you start with the areas causing you the most pain now. Almost always we find this is in the areas where staff interact with customers – the areas bringing in the money through sales and delivery of your product or service. This is also the area you probably know best, and it is the area you are most concerned to bring in consistency of service.
So, start here. In the process you will probably find you need to bring in other areas – invoicing, use of apps, brand policy – the list goes on. What this does is help you start to structure your manuals, so they make sense.
5. Work out the main steps
So first, decide where to start – in the franchise arena this is a no brainer – it’s the franchisee manual focused on helping your franchisees to deliver your service or product consistently.
Then, work out the main headings for the areas you want to cover. This is a business specific, but common list will look something like this…
6. Add subheadings for each procedure
Once you are happy with the list, it then really pays to add each step as a subheading something like this…
Doing this will get you closer to seeing the big picture of the processes you need. And you will be in the best place to start to capture and document each process.
Just remember to keep an open mind – things will change as you start and that’s the fun.
7. One point of truth
Each one of those sales headings for instance might also be associated with steps to enter information into a database.
Which takes me to the next point – there must only ever be one point of truth for every instruction, or everything will become very confusing. So, to keep it simple, just enter the instruction to add the information into the database in the sales area – then use a link to the IT Section to the relevant app and add the detailed instructions there on how to use the app for database entry.
It will fall out as you start to build the steps…
8. Use mixed media
We learn differently and take in information in different ways. If you have staff from different cultures and of different generations these differences will be accentuated.
If used correctly, your operations manuals will also perform different functions,
So, we recommend you use mixed media. Video is great for training but not so much for on-the-job reminders where a mix of concise text and notated images are better. Always remembering that everything must be simple and clear.
9. Up to date
Keep your operations up to date and review and revise them often.
A good manual is an incontrovertible blueprint for the success of your business and will only remain so if it’s kept up to date.
Put a staff member in charge as your systems controller and give them the time, respect and acknowledgement to do this job well. This means your systems staff absolutely must have your backing and leadership to help them ensure everyone is on board.
10. Cloud-based VS paper manuals
Modern cloud-based systems are our preferred option. Why?
Paper-based manuals can’t do this.