DNA contains instructions that tell cells how to multiply and specialize. It is what enables us to grow from a single cell to a remarkably complex adult human being. For small business owners, this biological metaphor is very appropriate. Many small businesses begin with a single person, like that cell, but aspire to grow into larger and more complex business entities. Think of an operations manual as the DNA for growing the structure of your business.
An operations manual provides instructions for running your company — from how to handle customer complaints to whom to call when the copier or coffee machine breaks. It includes job descriptions for each role (not each employee) in the office and standard operating procedures (SOPs). An operations manual is not the same thing as an employee handbook, which discusses benefits, rules, etc. Without an operations manual, your business’s operating platform — the people, computers and policies that keep your business alive — does not have a defined method for growing to support the additional orders and revenue that come along with a growing business.
An operations manual will help you focus on new opportunities because your business will not rely on your constant direction to function effectively. Instead, the correct methods will be clearly outlined and the appropriate actions will be taken without your or your managers’ intervention. In effect, it frees you to focus on making executive decisions that will grow your business, instead of administrative decisions that do nothing more than keep the business afloat. Creating an operations manual is a complex and time-consuming process. But once you have the bones of your company documented, it will save you time in the future.
Decode Your DNA
The following process will help you and your team quickly and effectively create an operations manual.
Step 1 Establish a template. Create your own template or click here for a sample template.
Step 2 Explain to your team (or team leaders) why you are creating an operations manual. Make sure your employees understand that you are looking for their input and that they will benefit directly from this project. The project should be presented as an exciting opportunity to improve business conditions. Also, select someone from your team to help you coordinate this effort.
Step 3 Discuss job descriptions during your first meeting. Most employees in a small business — especially the owner — have several jobs or “roles.” Focus on one role per job description. As the owner, you might be performing the roles of director of sales, procurement (i.e., purchasing office equipment) and human resources (hiring new employees) along with CEO responsibilities, but each of these roles needs to be defined separately. Bring your team into a room with a whiteboard and record all of their major responsibilities. This effort should take only 30 to 60 minutes. To save time, ask employees to come to the meeting prepared with a bullet list of the responsibilities they perform.
Step 4 Delegate job descriptions. When it’s finished, you should have a list of job titles and the names of people performing those duties. Have employees write job descriptions for their jobs. You will have many cases of a single employee being assigned to many jobs, and it is not uncommon for a single role to be spread across more than one employee. Encourage employees who share roles to collaborate on documenting shared roles. After you collect the job descriptions, you and the operations manual coordinator should review descriptions for clarity, correctness, etc.
Step 5 Compile a job description catalog. To ensure consistency, work with your operations manual coordinator to transfer the information from each job description into a template. If your team defined 26 distinct jobs or “roles,” you should end up with 26 distinct documents or pages, for example. To download a job description template, click here.
Reviewing and compiling the job descriptions often reveals opportunities for improvement. You may find that a certain activity is missing from a job role or that a responsibility belongs under a different title. If one of your employees prefers to focus on one area over another, talk over how the team might be able to shift around responsibilities.
Aaron Zwas is the president and lead consultant of The Zwas Group, specializing in identifying and correcting inefficient business operations. He has worked on business start-ups, training initiatives, product launches, mergers, and technology implementations in a variety of industries and with businesses ranging in size from two-man operations to Fortune 1000 companies. Zwas can be reached at email@example.com.