For food and beverage processors, documenting procedures is often a struggle. In addition to the time commitment, the writer’s scope can often be broad and unfocused. Support for the writer’s efforts may be lacking, and the overall task can seem daunting.  

So how can the documentation process be more manageable?

First, a writing team should be established. And, the process should be designed as a collaborative effort between the author (technical writer), the subject matter expert (one who understands the procedure best) and the approving authority (usually a department manager or higher). Here are some tips to simplify the writing process itself:

Scope: Start with determining the scope of all the procedures you wish to document. Are you documenting all the tasks for a certain position? For a certain production line? For an entire department? Compile a list of each procedure you want to document. This will become your master index.

Outline: Sum up each procedure’s basic steps. At this point, these should not be very detailed. Observe: If possible, watch the subject matter expert demonstrate the steps. Flesh out additional obvious steps you may have missed. You may also want to observe others who regularly perform the same task to get an idea of which steps make the overall best practice.

Refine: Ask the subject matter expert to go over the written procedure with you. This will give you an opportunity to ask each other questions to make the steps as clear as possible. The steps should be written in such a way that a new trainee with little experience will be able to understand and execute them. Do not assume the reader will understand the implied sub-tasks. If there is any question, write out everything. Test: Have the subject matter expert oversee a trainee or someone else with little experience as he or she attempts to follow the steps. This is where you can work out and annotate the practical details of the procedure. If the trainee is struggling to follow the procedure as written, further refine the text. Until trainees get the consistent results you expect out of the procedure, keep refining. 

Approve: Submit the procedure to the approving authority for review and publication. The approving authority will also want to periodically review your procedures. Subtle changes or major overhauls in a process can occur over time, even if the resulting product remains unchanged. With periodic maintenance, documenting these changes can be more easily managed. An annual review should be sufficient for most purposes.

Considering the benefits, it seems obvious that it’s in everyone’s best interest to make an organization’s written procedures as robust as possible. Documentation is not its own end. With so many resources invested in these documents, they should be functional and dynamic.