If you are like 95% of the populous you probably struggle to understand the difference between a Policy, a Process and a Procedure. Confusion is perpetuated when people around you use these terms interchangeably, and often incorrectly. In this article I share with you my simple method of defining and distinguishing between these three types of documents, and provide an example of them working together as part of an Operational System.
Whether we know it or not, everything we do in our work is governed by the Three P’s – Policies, Processes and Procedures. They may not be clearly defined; they may not be written down; they may live in someone’s head, or worse, multiple peoples heads which gives rise to differing versions and mismatched expectations.
Having unclear, undefined P’s is not so bad when it’s just you whom they affect. But when a business operation involves or has implications for more than one worker, or contractor, or client, or supplier, and you don’t have clearly defined and documented P’s, cracks are more likely to appear: errors creep in; steps are missed; people forget who’s doing what; expectations are not met. The resulting outcome is likely to fall short on quality, accuracy and efficiency, and that’s bad for any business.
Between them, the Three P’s capture the What, Who, When, Where and How of a business operation, the Rules to abide by and the Standards expected. I use these seven terms to understand what information I can expect to see in each of the three document types.
I’ve selected a common business operation to illustrate the Three P’s working together, and in doing so demonstrate how each are different and important. The activity is an oldie, but one most of us (except maybe millenials) have dealt with in our professional lives – Inward Mail.
Policies are at the top level of the Operational System. They state the principles by which your business will operate. You should aim to have a written Policy for every one of your business operations.
The Policy defines the RULES within which everyone involved in the activity will operate. It can also define minimum STANDARDS to be delivered.
Exemplar Policy: Inward Mail
A good Inward Mail Policy should define the rules for dealing with incoming mail and the standard to which the operation is to be performed.
So this Policy tells us the RULES governing how inward mail is to be handled (e.g., how confidential mail is treated), and the expected STANDARDS to be met (e.g., daily by 11:00am).
The Policy doesn’t care about who is responsible for inward mail or how they are going to get it done. These details belong in the Process and the Procedures for inward mail.
The Process sits one level down from the Policy. It outlines how the rules and standards set by the Policy will be achieved by listing the tasks to be done, who does them, and when they do them.
The Process is the WHAT, WHO and WHEN. Tables are a great way to present processes with the W’s at the head of each column.
Exemplar Process: Inward Mail
You’ll note there’s not a lot of detail in here, just the tasks involved in the Process – What is done by Who and When. The tasks should be listed in the order in which they are to be performed.
The Process is the list of tasks: WHAT is done by WHO and WHEN.
The Process should cover off everything in the Policy, so that if the Process is executed in its entirety, the rules and standards defined by the Policy will all be met.
Do we need to go further than the Process?
Now in many cases, documenting the Process might be as far as you need to go. Let’s say in our example the Receptionist and the EA both know how to do their respective tasks. We may decide no further detail is required. But what will happen when the EA takes leave? I guess the EA could brief the Receptionist on how to do their tasks; that shouldn’t take long. But the EA may have many tasks to hand over to many people before they go on holiday. And what if the EA takes unexpected leave, say, due to illness? Does the Receptionist (or anyone else) know where the Correspondence Register lives or how to fill it in?
You can see how many ways a break-down in a Process can occur. Just a little more time spent documenting the Procedure for each task will ensure your business can deal with almost any circumstance with complete efficiency and without loss of service quality.
Procedures are at the coal-face of your Operational System. They support the Process by defining exactly how you want each task to be executed.
A Procedure contains the explicit steps to execute a single task. It captures the HOW the task is done and WHERE to find the resources to do the task.
The level of detail to put into your Procedures depends on your level of comfort. If you are writing a Procedure for a close colleague to be able to follow, it may be just a few dot points. If you are expecting an agency temp or virtual assistant to be able to do the task, the instructions may need to be very detailed indeed.
In our example, there are three tasks in the Process for Inward Mail. So there are three potential Procedures to be written. However, the last task “Deliver mail” might be considered self-explanatory in a small business, so we can choose not to write a Procedure for that. But we might write Procedures for the first two tasks so that anyone can do them when the usual responsible person is absent.
Hint: It is good practice to capture in your Process which tasks have Procedures by adding another column like this:
Now let’s look at the written Procedure for the first task “Collect mail”.
A Procedure addresses a single task performed by a single person, so it should be relatively succinct, but complete enough that the person doing the task does not need to ask questions. Numbered or dot points work well for Procedures; a table can also be used. Images and screen grabs are excellent for illustrating technical steps and including them is highly recommended.
Exemplar Procedure: Collect Mail
You will note that the Procedure is strictly the set of steps, and where to find the resources needed to complete the task (the keys and the post office). There’s no When and there’s no Who, because that information is in the Process. The Procedure is designed to be picked up and carried out by anyone assigned to the task.
The Three P’s are the key components of your business’ Operational Systems. Spending time documenting your unique systems will: reward you with improved efficiency; ensure business as usual when you have expected or unexpected absences; and give you the confidence to delegate or outsource your business operations.
Policies contain statements of intent, rules to abide by, and standards that are expected.
Processes put the tasks needed to satisfy the Policies into order, and defines who will do the tasks and when they are to be done.
Procedures define how each individual task is done, and essential information to be able to complete the task without assistance.