The ability to quickly find the answer to whatever question your employees may have is essential to making your manual a functional part of your department's training program.


When I assumed the role of manager of Mail Services at Lake Forest College, one of the first things I felt necessary was to develop a plan to modernize the department. An increased use of technology, better floor design and improvements and upgrades in equipment were all necessary, but still there was more. The staff was under trained, and we relied on part-time student workers to perform all aspects of the college's mail production. With an annual turnover rate of at least 25%, too much time was being spent on face-to-face training. We decided that one of the focus areas of modernization would be the creation and implementation of a written operation procedure manual. My opinion was that I could sit down and write it all out in a week or two. Wow, was I wrong. The first versions of my Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) guidelines were miserable failures. A better working title for any of my first versions could have been, "How I Wasted an Entire Summer of My Life Writing This."


Why Do I Need SOP Guides?

One of the greatest time-wasting exercises I have encountered in my seven years of supervising employees is repeating the same instructions over and over again. There are many aspects of our jobs, so properly documenting what we do, as a department or as individuals, can be a nearly insurmountable task. Nevertheless, if we as supervisors do not take the time to write the day-to-day, operational procedures our employees must follow, we run the risk of repeated downtime, excessive training time and misinterpretation of policy and/or procedures. The result could make your operation appear more like a mailroom and less like a mail center. Professionalism is a key in our industry and a well-trained, confident staff is one of the most important steps in shaking away the mailroom stereotype.


How Do I Write It?

After just a few years in this industry, you will have trained dozens of people. By now, you have noticed that different people have different ways of learning. The first thing to consider is the overall presentation of the design of your manual. There are a few important components to keep in mind. Be wary of writing in language that is either too complicated, as people are generally too proud to ask what a word means or too lazy to look it up. Writing too simply, on the other hand, will probably not hold the attention of the intended audience. The material should be written economically, since the wordier your manual is, the more the reader will begin to accustom herself to skimming for the important parts.


Step-by-step instruction has its place but can quickly become lost in the mind of the reader. Lists tend to loose components. Readers will frequently do a poor job mentally processing lists when presented without accompanying texts. They will start to skip steps, primarily because they cannot visualize how they would perform them or because they assume that they already know how to. To combat this, include a picture with each step. Use color if you can afford the copy costs. That way, you are triggering more than one level of learning. What I found to be helpful was to import PowerPoint slides into my document. That way, I ended up with preformatted frames that fit nicely, two frames on a page with a simple yet professional appearance.


Beware of grammatical problems such as passive voice; your SOP should be clear, concise and employ proper grammar. Have someone else proofread it for you. Undoubtedly, there are a number of people in your organization that you can count on to provide you with the constructive criticism needed to get this job done. Perhaps even the people your manual is written for can help you write your manual. Like the old saying goes: the way to learn is to see one, do one and then teach one.


Technical Tips and Ideas

I found Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel necessary to complete my manual. MS PowerPoint is a very powerful tool for the layperson to use to create distinct-looking graphic images. It is possible to make PowerPoint slides into images by pressing Alt+Print Screen, then pasting the image into MS Word using Ctrl+V. Graphs are helpful, but only if they do not distract the reader from the text. Use Microsoft Excel to create sharp- looking graphs very easily. Most organizations have people employed to assist you in learning and managing some of the more intricate aspects of your computer software. Utilize these resources!


The ability to quickly find the answer to whatever question your employees may have is essential to making your manual a functional part of your department's training program. A manual is not just for the first few days or weeks of an employee's tenure; it should be referred back to for as long as the employee may have questions. To that end, it must not only be complete but easily searched. Word allows you to define formatting and style for given sections of text. This will make the creation of a table of contents and an index much easier. Without a table of contents or an index, employees will find the manual too cumbersome to quickly answer their questions.


Final Thoughts

Our industry is an ever-changing, constantly evolving trade. Unless your department is stagnate, your manuals and guides will be a work in progress. Once you feel your manual is complete enough to use, do so. I have placed mine into a three-ring binder with sheet protectors. It is located at the service window, right next to the cash register. Send one to your boss. This is not only to let him know how things work but also to toot your own horn remember, no one will blow it for you.


How long will a project of this magnitude take? The answer will be different for everybody. Some mail centers do more than others, some people are better at putting thoughts down on paper than others. It is my hope you can take some of the advice I have offered here and use it to assist you in preparing a useful manual.


Derek Lambert is manager of Mail Services at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois. He has spoken at the National Postal Forums as well as the Annual College & University NACUMS Conferences.