How to Create an Operations Manual for Your Business (and Avoid Nuclear War)

Having an operations manual may not be glamorous, but preventing the disasters caused by human error and bad processes can save your business and even (in extreme circumstances) millions of lives.

If you’ve ever seen Dr. Strangelove, you’ll know it’s ridiculous. You’ve got a mad scientist, a cowboy pilot riding a bomb as it falls, and a nuclear holocaust brought about by a series of overblown human (and mechanical) errors.

operations manual - dr strangelove

Yet, despite being criticized as unrealistic, at the time it was entirely possible for human error to cause a Third World War. Hell, human error has already caused the worst nuclear accident to date.

A perfect storm of 6 human errors — culminating with staff thinking it was ok to turn off the emergency cooling system — caused the Chernobyl disaster, costing an inflation-adjusted $720 billion, 30 deaths and an extreme amount of unsafe radiation.” – Ben Brandall, How Processes Protect Your Business From Crashing and Burning

The truth is, the only way to prevent such errors is to document workflows and processes, and the only way to make sure your employees know what they have to do, how to do it, and have the resources to do it is to create your own operations manual.

What is an operations manual?

An operations manual is the backbone of your company – the encyclopedia for your business. Your employee handbook may introduce your team to your mission, various policies (benefits, holiday leave, security), and culture, but the operations manual will show them how to do their job and give them everything they need to do it.

Typically the manual is either a book or folder of printed documents containing all of your standard operating procedures (SOPs), your hierarchy, contact details and emergency procedures. Whenever an employee wants to know how to do something or needs to know how to contact someone, they can look it up in the manual.

Imagine a manual for a car. In it, you’ll be told what the model is, what the tire pressures need to be, and a myriad of other useful facts which are important to know, but not necessarily off by heart. An operations manual is exactly that, but for your company.

operations manual ford manual

It’s a way of making sure that your team can reliably and efficiently carry out their tasks with consistent results. Human error is reduced to a minimum and everyone knows precisely what they need to do, who they might be waiting on, and who might be waiting on them to deliver results.

Why is having one important?

Think of the last time you or a team member had to complete a task, but they had no idea how to do it. In all likelihood, the task was completed only after either researching how to complete it (and wasting time in doing so) or by disrupting someone else to get them to explain.

With an operations manual, you avoid all that hassle and just get down to what you need to do, letting you make the most of your time rather than working at half-pace. Think of it as an employee knowledge base – a place that anyone can go to when they have a question or need something explaining, rather than bothering somebody else.

operations manual help site operations edited

Processes are documented clearly

One of the biggest advantages of having an operations manual is that it forces you to have fully documented processes for every task you do more than once. This might sound like a pain to set up, but the long-term benefits for having them are massive.

Aside from increasing your efficiency and highlighting problems in your current processes, the consistency your business achieves is at the core of why processes are important. By having a method which can be executed perfectly time after time you’re standardizing your business model, making it easy to find problems and dealt with them.

It allows you to scale

Without a consistent and reliable business model, it’s next to impossible to scale your business. By having an operations manual to store your SOPs and important internal data, you can easily onboard new employees and identify the factors limiting your ability to scale.

Not only that, but having documented processes in the first place will mean that your operation runs with less wasted time and money, making it able to rapidly expand.

Everyone is accountable

A major part of reducing human error is to making everyone accountable for their actions. By detailing the company hierarchy, job descriptions, and parties involved in a given task, you’re effectively keeping everyone accountable for what they need to do, and who they need to talk to if there’s a problem.

In other words, nobody can argue (with someone else or themselves) that a task or duty isn’t their responsibility, and the fact that anyone can access the operations manual means that everyone else will know it too. The knowledge that everyone else knows what you’re responsible for is a brilliant motivator, so your team’s output should also increase.

Important resources and processes are centralized

You could document your processes, hierarchy, job descriptions, emergency procedures, and more all without creating an operations manual. After all, it’s only once they’re collected in a single location that they turn from random files into a coherent document.

However, by centralizing all of this information you’re making sure that everything is available for anyone who needs access at any time. There’s no question about whether the process you’re following is the most recent version because everything is always up-to-date and stored in the manual.

Admittedly, this will depend on the format of your manual. A physical file (a book or folder) will need to have items reprinted with corrections or potentially even a complete re-issue to avoid lengthy and confusing appendixes. Digital operations manuals do not suffer the same problem, giving them an advantage over physical copies.
operations manual central digital vs physical

What to include in your operations manual

Much like with an employee handbook, the challenge here is to include enough detail in your operations manual to serve as a comprehensive knowledge base for your team, but not so much as to bore them into complacency.

If you go into unnecessary detail, you’ll either make them want to skip the instructions or leave them more confused than when they started, making the entire thing pointless. Not enough detail, however, and your team won’t have enough information to correctly and consistently perform the task.

To this end, you’ll need to include sections for your:

  • Company hierarchy
  • Job descriptions
  • Contact details
  • Documented processes
  • Emergency procedures

To give you a better idea I’ll tackle each of these sections in turn.

Company hierarchy

Here you need to explain the layout of your company, kind of like stating the “family tree” of who reports to who. There’s not much to explain here in terms of content (since it will greatly vary depending on your size and layout), but you do have a couple of options for how to present it.

For example, you could create a text document and use subheaders to separate the various teams, with a brief description of who reports to who. I’d recommend using a visual flowchart to do this instead though, as all you really need to show here is the order of things, and a single chart is much easier to follow than a long-winded document.

operations manual company hierarchy

Try to focus more on the job titles than specific people (eg, managing director), as then you won’t have to go back and make changes whenever your hire someone new or someone changes position.

Job descriptions

If the company hierarchy is a scannable chart, your job descriptions list is the information to back it up. While not necessarily job descriptions (although fee free to use them), here you should be going through each role in your business and laying out their responsibilities, skills, who they answer to, and who answers to them.

In other words, give an overview of what the position is in more detail, but keep it in context of the hierarchy. That way if someone isn’t sure as to who to contact about a particular issue (or wants to collaborate over a specific task), they can skim the hierarchy to get an idea of who to contact, then confirm it through the job description.

If you need some help, check out our post on how to write a job description.

Contact details

Here you need to provide contact details for everyone in your company, and those outside who are in close contact. Easy.

operations manual contact details

You could combine this part of the operations manual with the job description section if you want to have a more compact document, but having a separate list of contacts can make it easier to skim through and immediately get the correct information.

Documented processes

Your documented processes will be the largest section of your operations manual, especially as your company grows. The trick is recording them in a way that’s comprehensive, but easy to follow.

Whether you’re using a word processor or a better piece of process documentation software, you’ll ideally have a set of checklist templates which give basic instructions to complete various common tasks. These are best separated into categories (such as “accounting processes” or “editing checklist“) since you should be documenting anything that you need to do more than once to make sure you have a consistent approach to it.

Emergency procedures

Finally, any emergency procedures should also be stored in the operations manual. “Emergency” could mean anything from a server security breach to an onsite fire – if it’s possible and could result in damage to your company, product, and/or staff, at least take note of it and draft out a procedure for dealing with it.

operations manual emergency procedure

You don’t have to cover every situation under the sun, just the most likely ones to occur, and give the best way to limit the damage.

How to create an operations manual

Okay, so you know what you need to include in your operations manual, but now you need to know how to go about creating it. There isn’t a huge amount to say here, but to briefly cover it, you’ll need to:

  • Choose the platform for your manual
  • Plan a consistent layout
  • Create the manual
  • Improve any processes you can

Choose the platform for your manual

First, you need to select how you’re going to create your operations manual. You could use a word processor to create and print out physical copies and then store them in a file, but there are a couple of problems with that.

Printing out a physical operations manual means that any changes you make will need to be added in an appendix or you’ll have to completely reprint the document. Using an appendix can quickly make your manual difficult to use, because rather than being the definitive source for your employees, you’re handing them a convoluted mess of addendums to an outdated process.

Having to print out an entirely new manual (or at least a chapter of it) every time you update it is just as bad. Unless you only print one copy at a time it will be difficult to recall every existing copy and replace them, leaving plenty of room for human error to sneak back in with an outdated manual.

Instead, try using Process Street as your bpm software. By either creating your own template or using one of our premade items, you can document your processes to run as useful, actionable, trackable checklists. Plus, everything you create has variable permissions to allow access to only those who need it, protecting your sensitive information.

Not only that, but having your processes in a central location means that you can access your them whenever you have an internet connection. If you really want to have a physical copy of your processes to hand out you can also print them out from Process Street, eliminating the one advantage a program like Word may have.

Sign up for a free account today by clicking here.

Set a consistent layout

Setting up the layout for your manual will largely depend on the platform you’re using to create it, but the most important thing is that it’s consistent across the entire document.

If you’re using a word processor, the details you need to sort out are simple aspects such as the font you’ll use, how you’ll separate each section, whether you’ll include images or screenshots, a page counter, and so on.

operations manual using process street

Meanwhile, if you’re using Process Street, you can manage your operations manual by creating a folder, and then organizing your processes into subfolders. Processes can then be inter-linked, and checklist run links can be pasted wherever you want to let you easily run checklists no matter what you’re doing online.

Create your manual

Once you’ve formalized the layout of the operations manual it’s time to actually create it. Go through the items mentioned above (the hierarchy, job descriptions, processes, etc) and document each of them in turn.

Ideally, you’ll want to do this while working with the rest of your team or at least the managers of your various departments. That way everyone who will use the manual is involved in creating it, and is more likely to promote its regular use. Plus, having people more experienced than yourself to help you document your processes means that they’re far more likely to represent how the task is actually carried out.

Speaking of which, after you’ve documented your processes for the first time you’ll want to do a little process improvement and see if there’s anything you can tweak to make them better. There’s always something you can do to boost your efficiency and consistency, whether it’s by using better software or tackling a problem in a different way.

Don’t let your operations manual bore your team to death

The cardinal sin I’ve seen by scouring Google for useful operations manuals is that everything is dull to the point of being useless. Doing this is a one-way ticket to invite disaster once more, as your employees will be more likely to ignore your processes in favor of relying on memory.

So, rather than invite a Third World War, make your operations manual detailed enough to be useful, but simple enough to follow without sending the reader to sleep. Your company (and the general population) will thank you for it.

What’s the best way you’ve found to create an engaging operations manual? Have any horror stories from someone not following procedure? Let me know in the comments below.

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Ben Mulholland

Ben Mulholland is an Editor at Process Street, and winds down with a casual article or two on Mulholland Writing. Find him on Twitter here.


22 Comments

Ben –
That feels like a darn good start. What’s missing for me is a pointer (maybe I missed it) on how one creates a culture where such a manual gets used. Because that’s usually where SOPs and process documents fail — people ignore them.

Hey Thomas,

You’re entirely correct – everything’s useless if it doesn’t… well, get used.

Creating a culture like that could be the subject of its own behemoth of a post, but in general I think Michael Gerber highlights it nicely in the E-Myth. He says that the way to get your employees to used your processes and actually commit to the work you give them is to sell them on the vision and goals behind the company, and to engage them at their level.

I know that sounds super corny and buzzword-y, but I’d highly recommend the E-Myth book (or even just the E-Myth review I wrote later) to get a better sense of what I mean.

Ben…E-Myth is one of my favorite books and getting buy-in from someone’s team is always the way to go (which is also why I don’t like creating processes without BOTH leadership AND team input).

MamaRed Knight
Taming TheBeasties that suck away profits and drain your energy

Reply

Ben, this is an awwwwwwwwwesome article. I’ve spent a majority of a 40-year career writing this kind of documentation either full time or as a “side effect” deliverable for projects where I’m doing process redesign, streamlining, etc.

I well remember spending months to create the manual (regardless of its name) only to have it out of date before I could get the printed copies to the right people.

I love Process.St, Clarify-it, and ScreenSteps for precisely this reason. Edit, update, booyah. Done and ready to go for everything and everyone.

How to save, what to document, etc. is a bit of an art form, a touch of magic, and a whole lot of hard work!

@Thomas Cox…you bring up an excellent point and this is something I’ve been dealing with since I formally creating documentation in ’83. It really must start at the top levels…where they don’t answer questions, they ask if it is “in the manual” and it ripples down.

It does take time because, frankly, a very teensy tiny percentage of people want to look something up…98% want to ask someone and be done with it.

When I was running a tech support team, the rule was you always asked if they had the latest copy of the manual (my first position doing this was in the days of printed stuff). If they didn’t have it, we had made sure the latest copy was sent (usually via interoffice mail…shows you how old I am, eh?)

If they had the latest, we would direct them to the right page, talk them through the steps, and made sure they understood. Within less than 60 days, our support calls dropped by about 30%. In many cases the caller would say “oh, I got it” and hang up. I had to train the tech support team first and couldn’t have done it if the manager hadn’t been in the loop and supportive tho.

Another thing I’ve done is work with the folks who have to use these instructions. So often they’re written in a vacuum by someone who

a) doesn’t think any instructions are needed because the “thing” is so easy a monkey could do it
b) knows the “thing” so well they leave out a bunch of information or include everything but the kitchen sink
c) has no background in writing about a “thing” in terms that translate technical-ese to everyday-ese

I can’t count the number of times I’ve practically gone to war over these issues. When I had full time projects as a “technical writer” the rates were usually 40-70% less than others (‘cuz ya know these could be done by admin or tech dudes, right? Yes, that’s sarcasm. LOL)

When I moved into consulting and business analysis, it became an entirely different environment. Why? Because the focus was on the bottom line, not the upfront expense, and tech support calls, questions, mistakes (small or large), can be assessed and slashed by 20-60% (or more, depending on what was in place before the project started).

This is something I feel strongly about, can ya tell?

So, in summary, leadership has to buy in and sign off first, then it becomes and educational process.

If there is something else I can share, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask!

MamaRed Knight
Taming TheBeasties that suck away profits and drain your energy

Hello Mamred,

Your expertise is interesting. I would like to know if you could assist our company to improve our process.

Best regards,
Stephane Gal
Operation Manager

I’m looking for consultants who can design a professional business manual and policy for our real estate investment department. Could u send me a list of companies that can provide such service?

@Nicki Vincent….I would be happy to talk to you! And @Adam Henshall, thanks so very much for sharing that information. So kind of you! Now if I can figure out how to contact Nicki! Hugs&Blessings. MamaRed.

***Potential duplicate!***

Hi Nicki…I’d be happy to chat with you about what you need!
Hey there Adam…thanks very much for including my website address in your response. So very kind of you!

Rock your day!
MamaRed

I am in the process of creating manuals for my plumbing client and you have made some amazing points and really made it easy for people who have the time to do it themselves. Great article. 👍

Great article, and just what I need at the moment. Haven experienced costly errors and confusion among staff in my cassava processing business, coupled with the struggle to maintain standards and quality, I knew a need to have a document that will guide our operations. I have attempted to put one together but I was overwhelmed and discouraged because I have neither done or seen anything that looks like one. But reading this article brought so much enlightenment and relief on this project, and it is more of like an answered prayer for direction. Thanks for putting up such great an article up.

Thanks for this article. I have seen first hand how operations can be adversely impacted due to a lack of documentation. I work in IT and I see it again and again where software applications are designed and implemented however, you have a lack of continuity amongst users, or you have what I refer to as Super users that know the application inside and out but they are also potential single points of failure to the operation as a whole.

I am curious, over the last few years I have worked several different IT consulting contracts and the majority of organizations seem to be moving away from the structured training unit, has anyone seen any organizations that specialize in user guide or process flow creation?

That sounds pretty much like what we’re doing here at Process Street. Quite a lot of IT firms use us to make sure tasks are done the same way each time, and to enforce best practices. It’s a very agile tool too, so it’s easy to rapidly update the process for everyone if there’s an improvement to be made.

Hello…I am the Administrative Executive Director for a Mental Health company and I am currently attempting to create a SOP manual. It has proven to be a VERY difficult task and I am completely overwhelmed!! This article has given me a renewed sense of confidence, however, I’m still slightly overwhelmed. I am going to reach out to the young lady that says she consults for companies and I have this thread to thank. Thanks for the info…it has been very helpful.

Felicia

Thanks for the kind words, Felicia!

Here are some more resources of ours which you might find helpful:

How to Write an Actionable Policy and Procedure Template (ISO Compliant!)
20 Free SOP Templates to Make Recording Processes Quick and Painless
What is an SOP? 16 Essential Steps to Writing Standard Operating Procedures

There an SOP mini-manual template in those posts above along with a filled-in example version for a marketing company. I think that might prove really useful for you.

We also have another pack of premade templates coming out in the next week or two for diversity procedures – so if you subscribe to the blog, you should hopefully see that pop up in your inbox soon 🙂

Cheers,
Adam

Hi,

I loved the article, and think it is super helpful, thank you.

I had a question though. All these programs that make everything easier, doesn’t it all get very confusing in the end if you use a bunch of them? I feel like in order to make our workflow more seamless, we have introduced Slack, Trello, Google docs, a custom ERP solution that also has CRM. Each program has its own individual role/or way to make things easier, but it ends being a lot of different platforms to check ( even if you automate the syncing between them all, you still are always going somewhere to fix something), and lots of wasted time..

Am I wrong, or would just making a similar chart in Trello and linking the docs etc to it, not be simpler since my whole team already knows how to use Trello, and has it downloaded etc?

Hi Jack,

I largely agree with you – having too many tools can make things more complicated and even less efficient through breaking up people’s focus.

However, I think it depends on your team and your execution. I probably work with a lot more tools than my team does, as I have the responsibility to hook different tools up to create a more seamless experience.

You mentioned Trello – when we used to use Trello for our content team, we would have a column for Started Blog Posts. When we moved a card into there, it automatically ran a Process Street checklist and pasted the URL for it into the Trello card. So the team member only needed to click the link inside Trello. Then the team member would work through the checklist until it was complete and that would then trigger an automation which moved the original Trello card into a different column for Review.

So, though we had 3 different programs at work – Trello, Process Street, Zapier – the team member only ever needed to follow a simple flow; being guided to the next tasks step by step, with their activity auto-recorded across platforms.

In that sense, we didn’t focus on the number of tools as such, but how simple or complex the flow was for the end user. I think that’s the difference – and that’s what we try to do across our operations when we set up these tools. If it doesn’t fit well into the flow then people often forget to use it anyway.

But yes, for your team, it could be useful to do it in Trello if you think that fits with their existing flow. We’ve moved away from Trello now though as we’ve found it feels a bit limiting as the team grows and we have more things to track and understand.

Hi Jack…you definitely make some important points and, sadly, there is no one definitive answer that covers every situation. The old “it depends” may be frustrating (believe me, I get that!) and it’s the truth. The best solution for your company may be the approach Adam describes since no one tool handles everything…or handles everything well.

As someone who has been in the trenches, implementing systems, processes, and tools I’ve found that the claims of “all in one” tools are frequently bogus. Yes, they may have xxx feature and yyy feature and most don’t do everything well, there are trade offs that can make things really frustrating.

Knowing WHAT you need to achieve and what your team is willing and able to use is a first step for sure. Documenting that process, then testing it for reliability, usability, and accuracy is the next step.

When I work with clients to find the best way to automate what they’re up to, we start with the “must haves” and move forward from there.

When using multiple tools, Zapier is an excellent solution for keeping things in sync and on track. Adam’s description of Trello + Zapier + Process Street is a great way to have a single source of “right” without having so many tools the brain freezes at the very thought of opening one more tool.

Zapier, once set up, can manage a big chunk of that automation and Process Street is fantabulous for creating process documentation that keeps everyone on the right track.

Jerilynne (MamaRed) Knight

P.S. As someone who has written process documentation for over 3 decades, I wish that Process Street had been available a LONG time ago.


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