Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Document Dilemmas Part 2: The Ultimate Document Smack Down!!!

For years, I have been telling folks that when it comes to system documentation, less is better. The standard requires the creation of documentation to communicate ideas to the organization in a way that will enhance their understanding of what they need to do to meet the policy commitments. In English, that means that you use documents to tell people what they need to do to comply, improve and prevent pollution.

Naturally these documents need to be tailored to the audience who needs to read them. Unfortunately, to many folks with document creation power focus is on quantity rather than quality - and if it confuses the reader, that's all to the good, especially if the reader is an auditor! I guess the hope is they will go "snowblind" from the blizzard of paperwork and be unable to spot any flaws. BTW, this never works: Tomes do not intimidate auditors: curling up with a nice 1000-page manual and a couple of red pens is considered a good "beach blanket read."

Multi-volume manuals and 25-page SOPs do, however, tend to incite plenty of ire from busy co-workers who must, at best, sign a sheet saying they read them, and, at worst, actually slog through all the material. In case you are missing the point, this is not a good way to convince others to "buy into" the system. You end up with a massive failure to accomplish a key requirement in element 4.4.3 - internal communication. After all, what good is all your documentation if it is more confusing than the poorly translated instructions on your set of chopsticks?

Another inherent problem is that, just like fuzzy, little bunnies, documents have the nasty habit of begetting even more documents, so that eventually, you end up with a red tape nightmare; a labyrinth of paperwork so arcane that even the creators can't find what they need.

Once they have reached this point, most folks throw up their hands, and say that their system is a worthless exercise in bureaucratic BS, which is really unfair because they have created their own monster. The standard very purposefully does not prescribe the format or content of system documentation. This means you are free to improvise to your heart's content.

But as old Billy S. once penned, "Ay, there's the rub." In our quest to find perfection, we often blindly grope for a path forward, and once we find it, we put too much faith in what has already been done, rather than trust in our own ability to innovate. Thus, tradition is born, which is regrettable, since continual improvement and tradition have very little in common.

I know it’s a radical concept, but what if documents could explain everything in one page? What if simple symbols and colors could be used to communicate complex concepts across language and cultural barriers? Well, I'd like to introduce you to some excellent pretenders to the throne so long held by manuals and procedure: signs and forms.

Since it seems like everywhere I go North America, wrestling matches are always available on TV, especially when I only have 6 channels to choose from, I thought I'd use it as a backdrop for my efforts to convince you to give the idea of nontraditional documents a chance. Plus, I had a lot of fun writing it this way. So grab a six-pack and enjoy!

…Hooked On Phonics ad ends...

ANNOUNCER #1: Welcome to the Ultimate Document Smack Down. Tonight, we are here in fabulous "Sin City" to witness what is being called the greatest matchup in Smack Down history. Who will take the coveted prize title of "Most Useful Documents," and who will walk away in shame? In a never-before-seen contest, the lightweight underdogs are challenging the undisputed heavyweight champions in this unprecedented tag-team event.

ANNOUNCER #2: Pinch me, Ted, 'cause I must be dreamin'. The crowd here is incredible!! Fans have been waiting for this contest for years.

TED: That's right, Bob! So far, Manual and his teammate S.O.P. have been unbeatable in their weight division. This match gives them a chance to prove what has been assumed for so long: that they are invincible. With the huge size and weight differences, it's hard to believe the challengers have a chance.

BOB: Too true, Ted, but don't underestimate their opponents, Form and Sign. Tonight, the underdogs look lean, mean and ready to steal the scene. The fans certainly love them and they are hungry for that title - Manual and SOP better watch out.

TED: Careful, Bob - don't let the big boys hear you say that. Tonight isn't just about winning - it's about settling a personal score, and Manual and S.O.P. are out for blood. We needed 2 hours just to cover their pre-battle shield banging. They literally filled a tome with trash talk - and we STILL couldn’t understand them!

BOB: Holy Talking Heads, Ted!! It was waaaay to much to repeat here in our pre-match program - I guess to sum it up… well, you would need a Sign or a Form! Now, these two have taken trash talk to a new level.

TED: Ha! Ha! Ha! You betcha, Bob! Sign just held up photos showing him knocking out previous opponents while Form held up a huge likeness of himself with a big check in the box next to the word "Winner."

BOB: Talk about terse, Ted, it doesn't get much clearer than that, does it?

TED: No sir-ee Bob! Their combined message was easy to read: "You're going down!" Speaking of which, the champions have taken the ring to their theme song: "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" while we've been talking. In fact, it's been playing since I got here. As you probably noticed, we could easily talk over their welcome, but the contenders are coming in now ...

Music playing ("A little less talk, a lot more action")

and the crowd is -----

…………...Crowd cheering extremely loudly:" RAAAAAUUUUUUGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!".............

DING!!! DING!!!! DING!!!!

REFEREE: In the corner to my left: weighing in at a comprehension-defying 338 pages…. He's got something for everyone (whether they need it or not), he's the current, undisputed heavyweight "champeen": Manual the Miiiinnnnnddd Mannnggglerrrrrr!!!!!

And beside him in the clear plastic page protector, stands his loyal comrade. A monster with a brain-numbing 25 competition-weight card-stock pages, all properly stamped, signed and notarized. The scourge of efficiency, the captor of reason: His name is known and feared around the world... S...O...P... the S...O...B!!!

CROWD: Mixed boos and weak cheers

Referee: AAAANNNDDDD… In the corner to my right, barely tipping the wordsmith's scales with only a few letters and symbols, he's a lean, mean communication machine! He's in your face and everywhere he needs to be: Heeeeere's ... Your... Sign!!!

And next to him, his bold brother-in-arms. He may be only a few ounces, but he's locked, loaded and ready to go - instructions and data all rolled up in one! No one can escape his grasp of subject matter. Devilishly precise and accurate as hell: It's Form-Y-Diablo!!!!!



BOB: We're starting off with Manual and Sign - opposite ends of the spectrum and a tough matchup by anyone's standards...

TED: Oooh!!!! Nice opening move by the Mangler!

BOB: Holy Controlled Documents, Ted!!! It doesn't look good for Sign. Only a few seconds in, and his eyes are glazing over. That's a classic Manual move: He crushes them with mind-numbing detail, and paralyzes them with irrelevant information. "The Mangler" has been an unstoppable force, but I'm not sure if it's skill or just overwhelming bulk. And his methods are so confusing, his opponents can't seem to figure him out before it's too late!

TED: Looks like Sign is shaking it off now - he is unbelievably quick. Notice how he strategically locates himself for maximum impact and perfect communication of his intentions. His flexibility is a serious advantage; Manual looks like he's bound in comparison…

BOB: You ain't kidding, Ted. You really have to wonder how long Manual can stay in active circulation, especially if his handlers start weighing the cost of maintaining his bulk against the value he brings. Notice how we are seeing Manual's complexity and size really work against him here…

TED: It's only been a few minutes and Sign is still fresh as a daisy, but Manual looks like he hasn't been taken off the shelf in years… The trend in this sport seems to be tipping toward the Yoga Master over the weight lifter, but are folks ready for the new standard of power to be lightweight and flexible?

BOB: Well Sign's fans seem to think so: they are holding up... well, "signs"... with the great Ali's motto: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Holy quick change artist, Ted!!!! Looks like Manual is ready toss his binder rings to his lighter-weight companion, S.O.P. Now we'll see how Sign fares against someone closer to his size.

TED: S.O.P. is much more flexible than Manual, but he is still weighted down by all his pages. And that plastic protector sheet may keep him looking pretty, but it seriously limits his motion. Another potential disadvantage: his formal style is decades old.

BOB: Darn tootin', Ted! He is definitely old school, but the game has changed and so have the fans. Sign has all the glamour without all the accessories weighing him down. His moves are fresh and simple and his easy style has brought a lot of new fans to this sport. From the look of him, he is certainly cheaper to maintain.

TED: They must be putting the savings into marketing because I see his colorful mug posted everywhere! Look at that full body bind, Bob!! It's amazing how he can appear to be in several different places at once! But it looks like SOP's shiny plastic surface is finally starting to get to Sign - he is handing the match over to his partner.

BOB - Holy Kissin' Cousins, Ted!!! Now we're talking a real Smack Down rivalry!

TED: That’s' right. Remember when S.O.P. and Form were teamed up? S.O.P. is still pretty sore about the split. Form claims that he wised up and realized that S.O.P. was really telling everyone the same thing Form was - he was just using more pages to do it. Form said he didn’t need S.O.P., he had his own star power.

BOB: I guess Form's motto is "We don’t need no stinkin' pages." Form is definitely all access -he puts everything up front, holds nothing back and isn't afraid to be easy to read. He lets everyone know exactly what they need to, and that appears to have been the secret to his success.

TED: Bob, some people think that's a disadvantage in this sport, but check out his choke hold on S.O.P. - even though he saw it coming, he wasn't fast enough to avoid Form. Guess he's getting the message now, huh, Bob?

BOB: He sure is Ted, and I think it says "This page intentionally left blank." S.O.P. is reaching for a tag out from his partner, but once again, his weight and protective gear are against him… He can't make it!! He's closing his eyes... he's down for the count!!! It's over!!!!

TED: While we wait for the results, let's hear from our sponsors.

Ads for beer, and a program to teach you how to read 1000 words per minute

BOB: (caught in mid-conversation) …and if I didn’t think we had an upset on our hands, I'd be buying that program right now…

TED: Oh! Ahem… Hey folks!! Well, we're back and the crowd here has been eerily quiet and intense while waiting for the results…

BOB: OK Ted, looks like the judges have reviewed the tape and are ready to announce their decision...

REFEREE: Ladies and gentlemen, the results are in... Your champions this evening, by unanimous vote from our judges… The prize title of "Most Useful Documents" goes to…. FORM AND SIGN!!!!!!!!!

…………...Crowd cheering immensely:" RAAAAAUUUUUUGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!".............

Several minutes later…

TED: Well, there you have it folks - a complete upset of the old order. I guess that saves you some money, Bob - now you don't have to buy those reading programs….

BOB: (sarcastically) Ha, ha. Just proves the old saying: "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." By the way, Ted, you owe me $50!