It’s Just Paperwork?

by Carol Mahoney

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a diary and a bit of advice: “Say what you think, but be careful what you write.”

She was referring to the permanence of written words and the harm we can cause by careless writing. I was reminded of this incident the other day when I overheard a comment that stopped me in my tracks: “It’s just paperwork.”

Just paperwork? Then why do we bother to put things in writing? Why does ISO 9001 require a procedure to control documentation and data? Why, for that matter, did mankind develop written languages?

Understanding the need for document control begins with understanding the need for documents. We put things into writing for many reasons.

Here are some of them:

To inform: Some of the earliest “documents” weren’t written on paper but on stone, and pictographs formed early written languages. “Buffalo pass through canyon in that direction,” marked in graphic symbols, told other hunters where to find food.

In medieval Europe, as trade in village marketplaces grew, signs depicting food or beverages informed travelers where they could eat and rest. During the Renaissance, when commoners began learning to read and write, town criers were replaced with posters and eventually newspapers. From the beginning, documents have been used to impart information.

To formalize: Kings and popes issued proclamations in writing, giving them greater credence. Religious rites were standardized when they were documented. Contracts and peace agreements were put into writing, making them official. Today, regulations, standards, governmental policies and procedures are documented in print.

To certify: Along these lines, documents are used to grant authenticity and truth to specific events or to provide assurance that certain standards have been met. Letters of introduction serving as references once accompanied callers and jobseekers. Marriage certificates signify new legal relationships. Food sanitation certificates show that restaurants have passed inspection. Diplomas certify the attainment of certain educational levels.

To remember: The development of writing allowed mankind to record its oral history. The Bible, for instance, contains a lengthy genealogy of Jesus, establishing that he came from the house of David. Every culture has oral traditions, myths, folklore and songs that were put into writing to be passed on to future generations.

Today, doctors and hospitals keep medical records to preserve important patient information. Project managers write reports on what they did and learned, providing a future reference that becomes part of their organization’s history. Meeting minutes, lists, tables, experiment and test results, and lecture notes are written for the purpose of remembering.

To prove: We record titles to document ownership of property, such as real estate and cars. We keep receipts and other financial records to prove purchases, warrantees, tax deductions, annual reports and regulatory compliance. We carry passports and drivers’ licenses to prove our identity. We carry cards that prove we have insurance, membership in organizations, voter registration or CPR training. At work we complete checklists and other forms that become records, providing evidence that we did what was required.

To plan: Military battles, emergency preparedness, business strategies and itineraries are just a few of the things we document in advance. Writing as we plan helps us think. Writing our plans helps make them real and motivates us to take action to reach our goals. Whole occupational fields, such as financial planning, wedding planning and even funeral planning, have arisen to help us document what it is we want to achieve and how we hope to accomplish it.

To instruct: With the invention of the printing press came catechisms large and small for the purpose of providing religious indoctrination to laypeople and their children. Before public education was available in this country, in the absence of textbooks and primers, children often learned to read using Bibles, Torahs, hymnals or prayer books. Borrowing from the military, business managers today often write standard operating procedures, or work instructions, to train their employees on the preferred methods for completing their assigned tasks.

Understanding how we use documents—and why—helps us view them as information, not just paperwork. Documents provide information that builds knowledge if they are managed well. Documents can also lead to misunderstanding and sometimes costly mistakes if they aren’t managed well. The knowledge base of an organization is a valuable asset, but its worth depends on the quality of the information contained in its documents.

Controlling documents throughout their life cycle, as required by ISO 9001, creates accountability and responsibility for maintaining the accuracy of that information.

“Just paperwork?” Say what you think. But the next time you’re waiting in the airport check-in line to receive your boarding pass, remember it might be more than just paperwork standing between you and that airplane. And be glad you’ve got it in writing.

CAROL MAHONEY is an ISO 9001 management representative and certified Six Sigma Green Belt at a Midwest manufacturing facility; she is also a member of ASQ. She holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota and taught in a large suburban district for several years. She currently coordinates her company’s ISO 9001 quality management system and conducts Six Sigma improvement projects.

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