Swimlane Diagram

Small Business Process Management Systems

This week I’m going to cover another subset of Knowledge Management: Process Management Systems.

Process management is about setting up the right system or systems to manage the information about your processes. This includes documentation of how processes work (or should work), the development of new processes, tracking of process instances “in flight”, and business intelligence (BI) elements.

The process is the core of any system. It includes the steps to go from inputs to outputs in the system. Every system has an accompanying process. The word “process” is often also used as a synonym for “system.”

Documentation of How Processes Work in Your Business

If you’re already in business, even if you’re not earning much today, you already have systems (and therefore processes) in your business. They might not be very good or consistent processes, but they are there.

Part of having a process management system includes having a way to document the processes that are in your business.

If you’re not already doing this, today is the best time to start! I personally have participated in 100s of exercises to document processes in corporate environments as well as with entrepreneurs and small businesses. There is one thing that happened in every single exercise that I’ve participated in or led. Just by going through the exercise of documenting a process, improvements that you can make to the process will surface immediately.

Documenting processes will not only help you improve them, it will make any future adjustments to the process easier to manage. If you want different Outcomes from a system, you must change it. The two pieces you can change are the inputs and the process. By having good documentation on what is actually happening in your business today, you will be more easily able to identify what you can do differently that might lead to different results.

Another benefit to having documented processes comes when you add new people to your business. Whether it’s a full time or part time employee, a contractor, or a vendor being brought in, having documentation about how your business works will make things easier and faster. They will be able to learn from the documentation and get a better context of the things happening in your business without you having to spend hours with them explaining the processes and how they should work.

Development of New Processes

One thing I see business owners regularly struggle with is starting something new in their business. Whether it’s trying a new social media platform, hiring its first employee, figuring out how to build a new product, or 100 other “firsts,” it can be challenging to know where to begin and what needs to get done to integrate new activity into your business.

This is an area where a good process management system can help.

Anytime you want your business to start doing anything new, starting off by documenting how you want the process to work is a great step. First, take a step back and think about the system. What outcomes do you want and need from the system? How does it fit in relation to the other systems in your business? How does this align to the Ultimate Outcomes you want from your business?

Once you’ve answered the system related questions, dive into documenting how the process will work. Identify the starting step or trigger as well as the final step (when is the process “over?”). Once that’s done, start filling in the pieces… how do you get from the start to the finish?

Process Management by Tracking of Process Instances

Processes are meant to be repeated over and over again. If I was going to only write one article ever in the history of my business, I wouldn’t define a process for how I do it. But, I’m writing an article or two every week.

A good process management system will allow you to track individual instances (individual occurrences) so you get a history of each time the process is run.

Tracking each instance of a process will give you greater perspective into what’s really happening in your business and where problems or opportunities for improvement exist.

It also gives you historical data that is very useful for understanding your processes and systems. This data can be informational in process and system improvement exercises as well as helping you understand staffing needs. This data will also help you see problems and areas of opportunity.

Business Intelligence and Process Management

Because of the data element related to process management, there is a business intelligence component here as well.

If you need a refresher on business intelligence, I wrote about it recently here.

The data generated by your process management systems will need to be presented in a way that will give you insights into what’s going on. Looking at raw data in a database format isn’t very helpful in teaching you things about your business.

Like most systems, this doesn’t need to be a complicated system. Many software apps that will track data also have some ability to display the data in a useful manner.

Other Considerations for a Process Management System

When planning out how you want to manage processes in your business, it’s important to understand what types of documentation you want to use.

You have several options here, but they fall into a few general categories. Common formats include Word/Google Docs, Flowchart diagrams (Visio / Google Drawings), and video.

Different formats are used for different purposes, making it possible to have multiple documents for one process. A Google Doc would be used to create a process narrative, which is a step by step listing of each task in the process. The same process could be documented with a flowchart diagram which is used to show the flow of work and different handoffs in the process. Video could also be used to provide additional details to the process.

Once you have the formats that you’ll use identified, you’ll also want to think through how to store the information. This could include cloud based services, local storage (your computer’s hard drive) or a combination of the two.

Another component you’ll want to make sure your process management system has is a process for updating documentation. Keeping documentation up to date can be somewhat tedious, but having incorrect documentation can be worse than having no documentation at all.

There’s no one answer to when to update documentation. Every business is going to have a slightly different need. Whatever you decide here, you’ll want to make sure to have some “minimums” in place.

Update your documentation…

before starting any kind of process improvement initiative.
before making any major changes to a system or process.
if you’re bringing in a new employee.
when you’re starting a new process.

When I say update your documentation, I don’t mean that you need to go and update all of the process documentation in your whole business when you’re adding a single new process; update what’s important to the work that you’re doing.

Ultimately, you’ll have to weigh the value of spending time on a certain documentation task compared to the amount of time it will take to perform the documentation work.

It might be easy to skip process management today, but as your business grows, this will become more and more important and you’ll be further and further behind.

What to do next?

  • If you haven’t started, go through and identify the 4-12 core systems that make up your business.
  • Start documenting them using a simple process narrative. A process narrative is a word doc that talks through the steps of the process.
  • Define the key elements of your process management system
    • What formats does your business need to manage processes?
    • Where are you going to store the process artifacts created?
    • When will you update process documentation?

Reach out to me if you have any questions or get stuck!


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