An Admin’s Guide to Documenting Systems

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Documented systems save time, keep you on track, and allow you to delegate to others when necessary explains Julie Perrine

Organization is a pain point for many administrative professionals. With tasks coming at you from every direction, it’s crucial to be able to handle them quickly, consistently, and efficiently. To do this, you need systems.

Whether you realize it or not, you probably already have systems in place, both personally and professionally. You use systems every day – often without even thinking about them – to perform tasks both simple (booting up your computer each morning) and complicated (planning meetings and events).

However, because systems are so automatic, many people don’t have them documented. So why should you document something you already know how to do?

Documented systems:

  • Allow someone else to fill in for you. Sure, you may have the perfect system for filing. But if you don’t share that system with the person filling in for you, you’ll waste plenty of time struggling to get everything back in order when you return.
  • Help you course-correct quicker. Interruptions are par for the course for most admins, and when you’re called away in the middle of a complicated task, it can be difficult to jump back in when you return. A documented system allows you to mark your place so you know exactly where to begin when you return to it.
  • Demonstrate value. Taking the time to develop effective systems shows your executive and colleagues that you take your job seriously, and are willing to go above and beyond to ensure things run smoothly.
  • Create consistency. Systems ensure a task is done the same way every time no matter who performs it. This cuts down on errors and builds trust with the internal and external customers you support.
  • Identify inefficiencies. If something isn’t working with your system, having the process documented allows you to see where the breakdown occurred. It’s easier to tweak a single step in the system than to start over from scratch!

Having systems is good. Having documented systems is even better. And systems are the key to getting and staying organized!

The Anatomy of a System

While every system has a different number of parts to it, the structure and function of each remains the same.

  • Systems helps you find, do, and complete things consistently.
  • Systems are ordered and proven processes that save you time, effort, and stress.
  • Systems are a set of instructions that create structure and govern actions.
  • Systems make behaviors automatic so you don’t have to think about them.
  • Systems are documentable, sharable, and repeatable – so they help you deliver the same results over and over again.

You can create systems for everything you do, but I recommend starting with these five key areas:

  • Time and task management
  • Filing (paper and digital)
  • Travel planning
  • Meeting and event planning
  • Project management

Remember, these are just a starting point. Once you have the process down, look at the other areas of your work and identify where systems can help you add structure and keep you better organized.

The System for Creating a System

Are you ready to begin developing effective systems? Getting started is easier than you think. Here’s the process.

  1. Brain Dump. Write down how you perform the tasks involved in the system, step-by-step. Don’t leave anything out – remember other people, who may not have the same skill set or knowledge base as you, will potentially use this system. For example, if you’re writing a system for mailing out invoices, don’t assume someone performing the duty knows how to use the automated postage machine.
  2. Think Batching. Look for logical breaks in the process. What “chunks” can you create to allow the system to be performed more efficiently? Travel planning is a great example of this. Collecting traveler profile details is one chunk of the process. Other chunks include researching the travel options, assembling the final travel itinerary, preparing materials for your executive’s travel, and following up when he or she returns. The complete system can be broken down into five separate chunks which makes it easier to reference and follow once it’s documented.
  3. Make It Visual. Is there an important, must-do step in the process? Highlight it. Are there steps that should be done together? Color-code them. Would a screenshot or diagram help? Do whatever you need to do to draw attention to crucial parts of the system.
  4. Make It Easy to Read or Scan. When possible, use commands rather than full sentences. And use numbers for ordered lists and bullet points for information that isn’t order specific. The less people have to read when referring to a documented procedure, the better. People are more likely to use your documented system correctly if they don’t have as many words to read through in the first place.
  5. Test It Out! Try to complete the task using only the documented information you have created. Continue to update as you go. Once you believe you have the perfect system, ask a co-worker try it out and give you feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

You can use these steps to create any system you need, so memorize them or keep this list close by. Before long, you’ll be doing this for all of your processes, without even thinking about it!

Example of a System

Now that you have the basic idea behind creating a system, let’s see it in action. For this system, we’ll use travel planning as the example.

Step 1: Think Brain Dump

Write down how you currently do it step-by-step.

  • Who are your travelers?
  • What are their travel preferences and frequent flier numbers?
  • When are they traveling and for what purpose?
  • Where are they traveling to?
  • How are they traveling? Air (private or commercial) / Ground transportation (taxi or rental)
  • What hotel will they stay at?
  • What meetings or conferences will they attend?

Every trip you plan will have variations, but the basic steps will remain the same. Think about everything you could possibly need to consider while planning a trip, and put it on your brain dump list.

Step 2: Think Batching

Look for logical breaks in the process. Every trip you plan has natural phases to it. What are those phases, and how can you save time in your process?

  • Create traveler profiles as soon as you start working with a new traveler.
  • Create a travel-planning checklist for researching all the information you need to create the travel arrangements.
  • Make the travel arrangements.
  • Create a travel itinerary to summarize the details for each traveler.
  • Follow up after the trip regarding what went well or didn’t so you can update your notes and templates, submit expense reports, etc.

Step 3: Make It Visual

Color-code, highlight, and draw lines and boxes.

  • Use forms and checklists to organize the travel planning data you need to collect.
  • Consider using a different color of paper for the travel planning forms you create for each traveler.

Step 4: Make It Easy to Read or Scan

Format your forms and checklists using boxes, lines, bullets, and numbers so key information is easy to find.

Step 5: Test It Out!

As you use your documented systems, continue updating it until it’s just right.

Use this outline to make creating systems as automatic as the systems themselves.

Great Admins Need Great Systems!

Systems save time, keep you on track, and allow you to delegate to others when necessary. They make your job, and the jobs of those you support and work with, straightforward. When thoroughly documented and tested, systems can make even the most complicated task easier.

Systems and organization go hand in hand. When you know what you’re supposed to be doing and how to do it, you become more productive, efficient, and valuable to your organization. Systems aren’t just nice to have – they’re a must for organized administrative professionals.

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About Author

Julie Perrine

Julie Perrine is an administrative expert, author, speaker, and all-around procedures pro. She is the founder and CEO of All Things Admin, a company dedicated to developing innovative products, training, and resources for administrative professionals worldwide. Learn more about Julie’s latest book, Become A Procedures Pro: The Admin’s Guide to Developing Effective Systems and Procedures and download free templates at ProceduresPro.com and AllThingsAdmin.com.

2 Comments

  1. Georgia Alvarez on

    This is a great article full of tips that are basic, but helpful. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

  2. Amazing. I just shared with my team at church. You made it simple. When we hear the word systems, people tense up. Not anymore. Thanks for this.

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