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The Birth of Document Control
by Richard Grime

nce upon a time, there was a little company in the hinterlands that made widgets. The factory workers were proud of their widgets and tried to make them without a single defect.

One morning, one of the widget makers, Mr. X, thought of a way to make the widgets even better. He wrote up a new assembly procedure, proudly posted it and went to the lunchroom to reward himself with some chocolate covered pretzels. The factory workers were impressed. They said, “Ooooh” and “Aaaaah” and immediately began making widgets the new and better way.

Later that morning, a second widget maker, Ms. Y, came along and saw the new procedure. After reading it, she determined it was an improvement but decided it wasn’t quite right. She scribbled out a sentence or two and added her own version.

“That’s better,” she said to herself and went to the lunchroom to reward herself with a chocolate candy bar. The factory workers were even more impressed and began making widgets the newer and even better way.

Early that afternoon, a third widget maker, Mr. Z, walked by the factory and saw the document. He noticed at least two people had tried to make an improvement in the way to make widgets. Because the second person had scribbled over the first person’s writing, he couldn’t tell what the original author had intended but thought of yet another change to the procedure. He crossed out Ms. Y’s writing and some of the original writing and added his own version.

Feeling quite smug, Mr. Z went to the lunchroom to reward himself with a couple of peanut butter cups. The folks in the factory were astounded at Mr. Z’s intelligence and started making widgets the way he wanted them to.

Later that afternoon, Mr. X, Ms. Y and Mr. Z sat in the lunchroom eating their candy bars, feeling secretly smart—they didn’t know all three had changed the procedure—and eagerly anticipating the big raises Mr. Widget would undoubtedly bestow upon them.

Something Went Terribly Wrong

At first it was barely audible but gradually got louder—a heated argument was going on in the factory. Evidently, the wonderful new widgets didn’t work at the final test. The testers were blaming the factory workers for poor workmanship, and the factory workers swore they were making widgets better than ever according to the new procedure written and improved by three smart folks.

Mr. X, Ms. Y and Mr. Z all ran to the factory to sort out the problem. Mr. X looked at the procedure aghast. No wonder the widgets didn’t work, he thought. Two different people had scribbled out important sentences and added their own. Ms. Y was equally aghast, and Mr. Z was puzzled.

The three adjourned to the lunchroom and tried to sort out what had happened. After much reconstruction, they decided each change by itself might have been OK, but the three changes together had eliminated an important step in the process.

“I have an idea!” exclaimed Mr. X. “The next time I write a new procedure, I will circulate a copy to everyone involved with widget making. That way, everyone can make suggestions for improvement. Once the new procedure has been approved, we will all sign it, name it and hang a copy in the factory.

“What do you think of that?” he asked.

“That’s a good start, but I have an even better idea,” said Ms. Y. “Let’s add something to the name that will indicate the new procedure has been changed. Let’s call it a revision. We could use A for the first version, B for the first revision, C for the second revision …”

“I just thought of something else,” said Mr. Z. “We should keep the original versions of the revisions so we will have a history of what we changed and why.

“After all,” he added wisely, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”

“What are we going to call this new system of controlling our documents?” asked Mr. X.

They all thought for a few minutes, and then Ms. Y’s eyes lit up and she shouted, “Let’s call it document control!”

“Do you think we should patent it?” asked Mr. Z.

“Absolutely not,” said Ms. Y. “This is too good to let it fall into the hands of other widget companies, even under licensing agreements. This secret cannot leave this lunchroom.”

Whereupon they all pledged themselves to secrecy, quietly left the building and drove home in thoughtful but enlightened silence.

 


RICHARD GRIME is ISO 9000 coordinator and quality manager at Scott Instruments in Exton, PA. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Pennsylvania State University in State College and is a member of ASQ.

104 I JULY 2004 I www.asq.org

Three employees learn the hard way they must work together to make improvements.

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