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Document Management 101 and Why it's More than a Paper Exercise

When starting a Quality Management System, whether internal or external, I always ask how the team will manage all the related documents. In a recent conversation with a Food Safety & Quality Manager with several years of experience, I assumed we had a shared understanding of the importance of document management systems. We talked about this person’s transition to a new company and how to best support them during their new SQF accreditation process. Here’s a snippet of the conversation:

Them: Are you saying every time I make a change to a document, it needs a new revision number and to be approved?

Me: Yes, yes I am.

Them: Every time? What if it’s fixing a typo? Or a minor change that no one notices? Will it even matter?

Me: Yes, every single time you update the document, the document management information needs to be updated too.

And YES, it matters. Here’s why.

Imagine you’ve mapped out a process and created a fantastic step-by-step guide in an SOP just like ISO, GFSI, or other requirements states need to be done so your whole team knows exactly how to run the process.

A few weeks later, a team member comes to you because they notice if one step is slightly changed, the cut is cleaner and provides a better result. It’s only a tiny shift with only a couple of word changes on the SOP. The revision is so minor that you decide just updating the SOP and putting a copy at the workstation will ensure everyone knows about the change.

After another week, as pieces are being inspected, there’s two piles of pieces: one pile of pieces with clean cuts and another pile of pieces with a not-so-clean cut. What gives?

After asking around, you find not everyone knew about the change the previous week. Someone hands you the SOP at the workstation, and you notice the minor changes that gave the new instructions. You’re puzzled.

After asking around, you find out one team member keeps their own copy of the SOP in their locker because they like to make notes on it, so it’s even more detailed. They had no idea the SOP had even changed.

The good news is, in this scenario, the change in the process didn’t appear to render the piece unusable. However, the variation caused may impact the process downstream and eventually be apparent in the finished product going to the customer. What would be the cost of re-work, discarded products, or lost customers all because of using an outdated document to make decisions?

The good news is these types of scenarios are entirely avoidable! In fact, Document Management is one of the keys to being agile for responding to customer or business needs as it is the foundation for sharing information from person to person; thus, making products or delivering services that delight customers!

If you search online, you’ll find many great resources like ISO, GFSI, and other schemes that give the nitty-gritty details of document management practices. No matter how you “do” document management, it has to ‘work’ which often means incorporating the best practices outlined in those schemes. Typically a well-functioning document management system needs to have these key factors:

1. Accessible: Ensure people have documents when needed.

Having documents accessible applies to both electronic and paper copies. Does your organization have documents stored places like on a network, cloud apps, and/or personal computers? Or are there hard copies at workstations or in binders? How would someone know where to find documents? Are people able to access documents remotely? If the internet is unavailable?

2. Revision Control: Ensure the correct versions of documents are approved and ready for use.

Having the correct document goes back to having one version of the truth and being able to identify it. How are new documents submitted, and who can request new documents? How are change requests tracked? How are they approved? How are new versions identified? How are documents supplied by partners (often referred to as external documents) stored and tracked?

3. Secure: Ensure the people who need documents have access but limit access to those who don’t need access or obsolete documents.

Who needs access to specific documents may depend on their work function, and not everyone does the same work. How are unauthorized changes avoided? How are retired documents stored yet accessible if needed (think audits, inspections, or investigations)? With the cybersecurity risks identified recently, how are document systems secure from outside attacks?

4. Communicated and Embraced: Ensure people know when changes affect them and the work they do.

Alas, documents do nothing if they are not used. Ensuring that changes are communicated, necessary training is documented, and people follow documented procedures will help drive consistency and efficiencies to drive customer and business success. When people realize there is less re-work, fewer issues, and less waste when documented procedures are followed, they are usually keen to join in and support the document management system.

Document management can often be overlooked when the “busyness” of the business takes over, and change is needed at the snap of one’s fingers. When you can share the right information with the right people at the right time, you’ll have incredible success with your team members, your customers, and your business. Yet all of the impacts that may come from scenarios like the one shared above are avoidable when simple document management principles have been used.

Looking to make life simpler when it comes to documents? Then check out Document Compliance Network! After using document management systems for more than 20 years, both manual and automated, I can confidently say that Document Compliance Network offers everything you need for document management without the fluff. It’s easy to use, easy to implement, affordable and has all the features needed for a solid, reliable document management system.


About the Author

Jill Stuber, the Food Safety Coach

Since 2019 the Food Safety Coach has supported people who work in Food Safety & Quality live the life they want - one step at a time. After more than 20 years in FSQ, Jill believes the “crazy” in FSQ is an outdated story, and people in FSQ deserve to be set up for success. Jill brings forth personal experience, curiosity, and meddling into unrelated fields to build better systems for people to thrive in FSQ.

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