The Biggest Reason Why Companies Fail at Writing Policies and Procedures–It's Not What You Think

Exhausted female office worker resting on stacks of manila foldersWe need written policies and procedures! If you’ve been in business  more than a couple years, you’ve probably heard that statement. If you’re a business owner or manager, you’ve probably made that statement.

But the sad fact is that the effort seldom succeeds. If the work of writing policies and procedures (P&P) is ever begun, that work almost always fails to produce effective documentation. Why? Because business management almost always underestimates the resources needed to write P&P.

systematizing a Business

Systematizing a business means writing the P&P that form the systems within the business. There are dozens of systems within a small business and far more in larger businesses. There are

  • Sales and marketing systems to get customers and revenue
  • Operations and customer service systems to provide products and services to those customers
  • Administration and finance systems to run the company itself
  • Strategy and management systems to lead the company

In Five Situations that Mean You Need to Document Your Business Systems, I wrote the most common reasons for business owners and managers to want written P&P for their company or department. A key element of all five reasons is time. Time is the scarcest resource within a business and the major reason why systematization efforts fail.

Business owners and managers usually fail to set aside enough time to write the P&P for the systems within their business. When owners and managers undertake the task themselves, they expect to be able to do the work after or before their normal working hours. When they assign the task to employees, they often add that work onto existing workloads.

Whether management or staff are assigned the work, within a few weeks or months the systematization effort stumbles to a halt. Momentum is lost and attention is turned toward perceived higher priority work.

What happened? Management didn’t recognize two characteristics of systematization:

  • Policy and procedure writing is technical writing
  • Systematization is a project

Let’s look more closely at each characteristic.

Policy and Procedure Writing is Technical Writing

Writing P&P is not the same as writing business reports, proposals, or correspondence. Writing P&P is a subset of technical writing. Even those skilled with business writing in general rarely have the technical writing knowledge and techniques needed to write effective P&P.

Writing P&P is not simple. There are several components to it. Some of those components include identifying

  • Who are primary and secondary audiences for the P&P
  • Policies in measurable ways
  • Costs and risks associated with policies
  • Step by step tasks involved in work flows

Writing this information in a readable, interesting way is a challenge. Most non-technical writers tasked with this kind of writing find it tedious because they are ignorant of its requirements and skills. They often inadvertently omit important information.

For example, if the P&P writer doesn’t consider the primary audience and its qualifications the resulting procedure might skip over important information needed for someone new to the task. Or writers might go to the opposite extreme and provide so much information the reader quits reading.

Primary AudienceInstruction
Familiar with steps, needs a quick referenceUse the Purchase Order template to request items that are about to run out in storage.
Unfamiliar with steps, needs detailed informationWhen there is less than five instances of any item in storage, use the Purchase Order template located in P://documentation/finance/supplies/templates/ to order the item(s).

Systematization is a Project

Systematization generates a library of P&P with supporting documentation such as templates and forms. Often this library is printed in one or more business operations manuals or stored online in a database or folder structure. The library holds the P&P needed to complete the myriad tasks involved in providing services and products to a company’s customers. Creating this library of information is as much a project as opening a new store location or changing a back office computer system.

Simply telling employees to write out their business processes dooms the effort failure and lessens management’s credibility in the eyes of those employees. Like other projects, creating written policies and procedures requires a commitment of time and effort and the same kind of interactive management as any other project.

Piling on systematization responsibilities to existing workloads is unfair to those responsible for creating, testing, and reviewing the P&P. When management prioritizes and readjusts existing workloads to accommodate systematization efforts, it underscores its support for those efforts. Failing to do so, tells employees that management doesn’t really value the systematization work and lessens employees’ confidence in management’s understanding, competence, and priorities.

Achieving Systematization success

Systematizing a business is a critical milestone in a start-up or small company’s growth to a medium size company. Without written P&P to refer to, new employees fail to understand the company’s systems and so the employees create their own, individual systems. Confusion breeds dysfunction and costs slowly increase and sometimes eclipse revenues.

When management understands that systematization is a major project and requires specialized writing skills, owners and managers are better able to shepherd the company’s growth from small to medium size business.

For more information, see

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit for more information.


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