By: jdevore on April 24th, 2013

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Are You Waiting to Get Burned Before You Document?

Succession Planning | ScreenSteps Software | Turnkey Business


Somebody approached me the other day asking for some assistance with creating documentation for internal procedures and processes. I asked why they wanted to start documenting, and the answer was very interesting.

"I've already been burned twice - I don't want to get burned again."

After some explanation, I learned that on two occasions, key employees had left somewhat hastily - along with them went all of the operational knowledge for doing their job.

Hiring a replacement was almost impossible because nobody knew what the replacement would do - so before anybody could be hired, the individual I was speaking with had to figure it out from scratch... twice.

I often think about the pain points ScreenSteps Live is addressing when it comes to internal documentation. For some, it's a matter of leveraging resources (typically folks who use VAs and remote teams), for others it's a matter of being more efficient and not having to sit over somebody's shoulder pointing through screens.

But until recently, I haven't really heard anybody articulate that they'd like to create documentation as sort of an insurance policy against employee turnover - a point that is incredibly undervalued, and really deserves more attention. Because the fact is, your team is going to evolve over time and people are going to come and go. If you're left getting burned each time a key employee leaves, you're not going to last long.

What would you do if _____ left?

We all like to think that we're invincible and that everybody else is replaceable - no matter what happens, you'll get through it and everything will work out.

And to some degree, that's true - everybody is replaceable. But it usually comes at a cost:

  • Lost time in productivity
  • Lost opportunities
  • Inefficient training costs
  • Doing the procedure incorrectly and inconsistently

And I'm sure you can think of some others. So yes, when somebody leaves you will survive and your heart will go on (one song reference deserved another) - but don't pretend like it's easy and that it doesn't cause you some pain.

So ask yourself what would happen if _____ left? Would a key process be a complete mystery? Would you be starting from scratch? Would it cause you some late nights as you tried to figure out what was going on?

Getting burned is okay if it's infrequent... Wrong!

When you get burned by employees leaving, what you're left with are a bunch of unknowns - a bunch of questions. And your operations really won't be humming until these questions are answered.

From customer feedback, I've learned that having a knowledge base full of clear documentation is most valued when these two variables exist:

  • Questions are high in volume
  • Questions are high in frequency

If you are getting a lot of questions all the time, you love being able to send somebody a URL from your knowledge base. A detailed answer that has pictures, descriptions, pointing arrows, and maybe even a screencast is an awesome resource to have on hand - just document it once and reuse it dozens/hundreds of times.

But if you just have a lot of questions every once in a while (high volume, low frequency), then you probably feel comfortable just "putting out the fire" when it happens. You're okay getting burned because it doesn't happen that often and there's plenty of time for the wounds to heal.

This is how a lot of businesses operate - but it's dangerous. Managers and business owners really ought to throw in a third variable to the list above - Questions that are difficult to answer.

Key personnel leaving, and taking all of their knowledge with them, can leave you with questions that are very difficult to answer, which results in feeling some serious pain.

Don't wait to get burned

I spoke to several managers the other day at a conference, and learned that most small to medium sized businesses don't have a plan for training employees who have to fill new roles (either through promotions or turnover) - they just "deal with it."

If that's your plan, you're just waiting to get burned.

Don't wait for somebody to leave and then try to figure out what they did. Document everything today so that you don't have to panic when somebody has to permanently leave. Have a plan so that once you find a capable worker, you can just plug them in and they can take over where the other left off.

Putting together a documentation "insurance policy" won't stop the fires from happening, but they can certainly minimize the damage and the tears that come with turnover.

If you want to see how ScreenSteps Live can help you document your processes, sign up for a free demo and I'll walk you through the steps of building an internal knowledge base so that you don't have to get burned next time somebody leaves.

About jdevore

Jonathan (Jay) DeVore is the Director of Marketing at Blue Mango Learning Systems, developers of ScreenSteps. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a BS in Accounting, and is a licensed CPA in the state of Virginia. Right after graduation, he worked for his dad's private medical practice in Pasadena, CA auditing the efficiency of billing and collections. After 9 months of living in the golden state, he moved his family to Virginia to begin working at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). As an accountant at PwC, he actually did very little number crunching (which surprised him), and instead audited government information systems for compliance with government requirements (e.g. NIST 800-53). During his time with the Big 4 Accounting Firm, he helped large organizations improve their documentation both from a compliance perspective and instructional perspective. His favorite aspect of work was training/teaching, so when Greg and Trevor approached him with an opportunity to create educational content for ScreenSteps, he jumped at the chance. Jonathan lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and children, and enjoys the beautiful weather the D.C. area offers 9 months out of the year.