5 Steps for Documenting Your Systems

2011 | Dec 14 in Home Page News , Management

By Bobby Burns, E-Myth Business Coach

Great systems without documentation are only rumors about the way you do things in your business.

A procedure without clear directions is little more than an assumption about the way things should be done.

Without documentation, all your tasks, functions, processes, and procedures – the way that you and your staff habitually do everything – are nothing more than good intentions.  

In other words, you need to write it down.

You may want to resist this notion.

But how many times have you found yourself telling your employees how to do something? Again, and again, and again?

Have a Plan

My client, Ron, is a great boss and a true visionary.  He might be seen as the embodiment of the Entrepreneur. He has a great team and a thriving business.  But it wasn’t always such. There was a time when he would come to our coaching meetings exasperated and highly agitated.

“Why can’t people just get it?” he would ask.

“Get what?” I would respond.

“How to do things right? I’ve told them I don’t know how many times… and they still manage to screw it up.”

It turns out that Ron had three account managers who had the same tasks and responsibilities, but managed to find at least three different ways of carrying them out!

It was a rare day when there were no problems resulting from this lack of consistency.

“I hired these guys for their experience.” He said, “They should be able to figure it out. Lord knows I did!”

Sadly, Ron was completely correct in his assumption.  They had “figured it out” – by doing it in whatever way they had in their previous jobs!

Ron had his way of doing things, knew how he wanted them done, but he had not followed through beyond trusting that repeated verbal warnings and “showing them” would suffice.

It became apparent that, while Ron had a large number of systems in his head for his managers to follow, very few were actually captured.  

And this was true throughout his business.

The System for Systems

The work of developing effective systems isn’t truly complete until they are captured, written down, and made readily accessible in an effective and systemic fashion.

It shouldn’t surprise you that at E-Myth we have a system for that called the System Action Plan.

You should be using something similar as you develop and build your business and your business functions.

We work with our clients to help them develop a system to effectively identify the documentation work they should be doing – and how to best structure and prioritize that work. 

5 Steps for Documenting Your Systems:

You need to have a plan for effectively documenting all the key routines you have in your business.  

And you need to find a balance that works for you.  

Since the work of systems documentation will be taking place concurrently with all of the regular daily tasks and operations of your business, it is vital to have a well thought-out strategy.  Allowing sufficient time and resources from the start will prevent many missteps down the road.

Here is an example of an approach that has worked well for many of my clients:

  1. Identify your key systems. One approach that our clients use is to review their business functions by separating the operations into categories we call the Seven Centers of Management Attention. You can approach this by considering one department, or operational unit, of your business at a time. List all of the key tasks, functions, and procedures you can think of.  Enlist the help of your employees. The goal is to be as complete and comprehensive as possible.

  2. Draw up a “systems diagram.” Create a diagram of all the systems in your business: existing systems and those that need to be created. Remember to identify all the systems that comprise your business, including systems you don’t have yet, but will need in order to achieve your vision for your business. Typically, most of your systems will be in these three essential business processes: client fulfillment, lead conversion, and lead generation. You’ll also need to identify your administrative, human resources, finance, and even information technology systems.

  3. Make a prioritized business systems listing. Based on your systems diagram, simply list all the systems on a spreadsheet that will become a working document for planning and controlling business development efforts companywide. This will serve as the basis of your “Master To Do List” for systems documentation. Prioritization is often determined by the impact of a given system: how great is its impact on your customers and how great is the impact on your business, your bottom line?

  4. Assign accountabilities for documenting the systems. It is quite unlikely that you will have the time, inclination, or even the ability to thoroughly document every system yourself! A significant part of the strategy in this plan is in delegating some or most of this function to your manager and/or staff.  And keep in mind that they, too, will have to complete this work while continuing to perform their other daily functions.  So establishing clear target dates and benchmarks is a critical part of the success of this strategy.  This won’t happen overnight.  Focus on the key systems that, once implemented, might themselves have the greatest impact on improved workflow.  Do that and you’ll gain even more system-development time in the bargain!

  5. Develop and use a standard approach for documentation. At E-Myth we provide our clients with a System Action Plan. It is important that you provide your staff with a standard method for documentation in order to ensure the highest degree of consistency. So, starting them off with some samples, supported by training and timely feedback is essential to avoid wasted time and unnecessary frustration.

Not the Holy Grail

Now that you have an idea for how to document your systems, there’s a very important caveat.

Good systems – effective, dynamic systems – are utterly essential to building and sustaining a great business; but merely having those systems is not the solution for a dysfunctional business.  

We’ve said it before but it bears repeating:  People are the power behind the systems.

The systems are their levers, not their replacements!

Your business has enormous potential because you and your people have enormous potential! And when your people have the freedom to find the most effective way to complete their job, not only will they take pride in their work, they’ll never stop making the systems better.

If you’re interested in getting an example of the E-Myth Action Plan and learning how to actually implement systems in your business, click here.


  1. .Paul W. says:

    Brilliant as usual Mr Burns Sir,

    what i do remember is how important it was to have a plan first in terms of how we would get the maximum benefit and also employee uptake of our new way of doing things. getting the right layout and structure wasnt easy but Simplicity seems to be the key for us.

    We found the process a bit of a challenge but the payback is absolutely huge, we're not finished though and a whole new emphasis on systems is planned very soon 

    Submitted Dec 15, 2011 6:41 AM

  2. .Geri M. says:

    Great article - love seeing the importance of documentation discussed. I do have one suggestion though. Even before I became a technical writer I could see the problems that arise when asking employees to document their procedures. People are afraid to write, they also tend to leave out important bits of information because they take certain tasks for granted and describe the process in broad strokes when detail is essential. It is the job of a technical writer to coax out the details from people and determine the best way to structure the document. The other advantage of having a third party do the documentation is that flaws in the systems or contradictions between various groups become more apparent to someone not vested in the process. The documentation process actually then serves as a process audit as well.  While it is an expense, there are benefits to hiring a professional technical writer, and your staff will appreciate being relieved of the burden.

    Submitted Dec 28, 2011 6:08 AM

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