How to Write an Operations Manual (And Stay Sane)

operations manual for your business

The Operations Manual is a very valuable, but often forgotten document for entrepreneurs. Here's what you need to know, plus the easiest way to go about it.


Many entrepreneurs created a business plan when they got started, but—let's be honest—most of you probably filed it away in some deep, dark place and never looked at it again. But that’s OK; the business plan was needed to get started. The Operations Manual, however, is what you should refer to in order to keep things running smoothly as your businesses grow.


A good Operations Manual can be broken down into two sections: first, a brief passage that describes your company’s values and mission, followed by a comprehensive guide that lays out how the core business functions should be handled.


The core of the Operations Manual, is you’re going to want to document step-by-step instructions for handling all of your firm’s mission-critical tasks. While this can seem like an overwhelming task, and one that stops a lot of entrepreneurs before they get started, if you take things one step at a time, you’ll see that in reality it’s quite doable.


Start with the really easy stuff, like putting together a list of contact information for all of your employees, clients, and vendors. Be sure to include after-hours or emergency contact info where applicable.


Then move on to compiling a list of the tasks that must be performed each day in order for your business to operate. Start with your own responsibilities and give detailed instructions on how to complete each one. Once you’ve done this, ask each of your employees (or department heads if you’ve got a big enough company) to do the same, following the template that you created. Now you or someone you designate can review these mini how-to guides and combine them into a comprehensive set of operating procedures.


In addition to the procedures, it’s also a really good idea to include a policies section in your operations manual. These can include everything from how to interact with customers to what constitutes appropriate workplace attire to procedures for handling employee grievances. The key here is to create consistency and avoid ambiguity.


An operations manual is incomplete without a set of emergency procedures, because the time when employees are most likely to refer to the manual is when things are not running the way that they should be. What do you need to do if any of your systems crash, your vendors become unavailable, or your office becomes inaccessible? Figure it out, write it down, and include it in the manual..


When you’re finished, you’ll have a well-written operations manual that should provide you with the peace of mind that all of your employees know what is expected of them and know how to keep your business running even in your absence or the absence of other senior personnel.


And you’ll also have a blueprint to do a lot more than that. If you are hoping to build a scalable business, then having a rock-solid operation manual is one of the keys to realizing your growth ambitions. Take a look at any large multinational brand like Starbucks and you’ll see that no matter which location you are in around the world, the customer experience is the same. That’s because all of the employees are operating from the same playbook—the operations manual.

*Disclaimer*: Harvard Business Services, Inc. is neither a law firm nor an accounting firm and, even in cases where the author is an attorney, or a tax professional, nothing in this article constitutes legal or tax advice. This article provides general commentary on, and analysis of, the subject addressed. We strongly advise that you consult an attorney or tax professional to receive legal or tax guidance tailored to your specific circumstances. Any action taken or not taken based on this article is at your own risk. If an article cites or provides a link to third-party sources or websites, Harvard Business Services, Inc. is not responsible for and makes no representations regarding such source’s content or accuracy. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Business Services, Inc.

More By Gregg Schoenberg, Michael Bell
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