Minimizing Chaos

Tips for managing your documents

by Tony Gojanovic

This article was featured in January 2016’s Best Of Back to Basics edition.

"Catastrophic document failure" is what the auditor said when he saw the cardboard box on the table with papers flowering out of the top.

How many times have we audited a process and been met with an explosion of paper and documents with no rhyme or reason to their organization? How often have we found ourselves looking at myriad electronic spreadsheets or documents, each containing a mysterious fragment of information?

Much has been written about document control and management. But applying these basic principles can help transform a nightmare into a well-managed system.

1. Classification. Organization of a document system begins with creating "buckets" for information. The fundamental tool for managing complexity is breaking a complex system down into smaller logical pieces that can be managed.

What are the current document pieces that compose your system? Standards, test methods, policies, work instructions and procedures are some "bucket" labels that come to mind.

2. Think trees. The most effective way to arrange the buckets is based on a tree-like hierarchical structure. For example, Figure 1 shows a hierarchical classification scheme for classifying a work instruction.

This system of branching and forking is a highly effective and flexible method of classification. Using ideas of pruning and splicing, smaller trees can be joined to larger trees or larger trees thinned into simpler processes.

Figure 1

3. Centralization. The least value-added activity is to have documents or information in different locations, whether it is file cabinets, shoe boxes or on someone’s hard drive.

One of the biggest failures related to document systems is being unable to find what you need in a timely and accessible manner. Today’s electronic collaboration platforms, with their ease of configuration and array of development tools, make it possible to have a centralized documentation system that is reliable and readily accessible.

4. Clarity. Clarity of delivered content will help create manageable and effective user-oriented documents. Simple, short, grammatically correct and to-the-point language arranged in a graphically pleasing manner using bullets and tables goes a long way.

Long paragraphs, poor grammar, undefined acronyms, tiny fonts, overuse of color and poor use of white space sabotage an individual’s cognitive ability to process information efficiently and effectively, and is unlikely to keep a reader interested past the title. Keep in mind: It’s not just about conveying information, but also its meaning.

5. Document management. In a large organization, there may be many levels of document or information use and development. Authorship of documents may fall on many individuals’ shoulders rather than a few technical document developers.

A small group or an individual must be responsible for managing document classifications, numbering, archiving, revision control, document consistency, author education and overseeing information access. Without centralized control and group oversight, junk will be created and stored haphazardly, and will eventually destroy the credibility of the best document systems.

The true test of a document system is how well documents enable an organization to function efficiently and thrive. Just as your household must be organized and clean, so must a document management system.


  • Booch, Grady, Object Oriented Designs With Applications, Benjamin/Cummings Publication Company, 1991.
  • Pink, Daniel H., A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, The Berkley Publishing Group, 2006.
  • Tucker, Alan, Applied Combinatorics, fifth edition, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 2007.

Tony Gojanovic is a statistician at MillerCoors in Golden, CO. He has a master’s degree in statistics from the University of Colorado in Denver and is a member of ASQ.

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