Online Only: Spreading The Word

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Once when I was at a client site, an employee of that client company stopped me and said that the most astonishing thing had just happened. She had been having trouble with a piece of equipment and there was no one around who was familiar with it, so she was forced to read the users’ manual. Amazingly, the manual held the answers to her questions, and she was able to fix the problem.

Often, this is how documentation is viewed – as a last resort, if it’s any resort at all. In highly regulated industries, such as organic growing, documentation is required by various regulatory or certifying bodies. But if documents are developed only to fulfill obligations, then they’re not truly serving their purpose and tremendous opportunities are being lost.

Documents should not be trotted out for inspection when the auditors come by, then hidden in a computer or desk drawer. They should be used every day by employees. Good documentation can help you not only meet requirements, but also make your processes and employees more efficient, productive and consistent, which in turn can increase quality, profits, and prestige.

Because documentation is often seen not as an investment but as a hoop to jump through, many companies try to use their own employees to do a hurry-up job to please the certifiers or auditors. Even if such documentation is good enough to meet requirements (and it might not be), this is usually a bad idea for a variety of reasons:

• Not everyone is a good writer. Writing is a specific skill, and documentation requires particular attention to clarity, conciseness andconsistency.

• Similarly, not everyone is adept at organizing information, and organization is essential for good documentation.

• Employees’ time is better spent on the work for which they were hired and at which they are the experts.

• People who are very close to a process may not be able to document it thoroughly. This might sound counterintuitive, but those who follow a process are often likely to leave out steps that feel automatic to them but would be necessary to document for someone who is just learning. Documents that are inaccurate or incomplete are not trusted by operators, and because they are not trusted, they are not used.

An Inside Look

In the case of Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses in Portage, Mich., these growers quickly learned they needed help with documentation in preparation for organic certification. One of their employees tried to write the documents yet realized he needed outside support. So Elzinga & Hoeksema hired a team of documentation experts from Prima Communications, Inc. to analyze their processes and develop the needed documentation.

The first step in building good documents is defining (and making sure everyone understands) the work process. Hiring an outside company makes it more likely that all steps of a process will be recognized and described properly. Frequently, a process that seems to be self evident is discovered to be more complicated than it appeared initially.

For example, one of the processes Prima helped Elzinga & Hoeksema define was the general cutting process. By asking a lot of questions, the documentation experts at Prima helped specify the steps in what at first appeared to be a relatively straightforward task. Now, Elzinga & Hoeksema uses a five-step document – in English and Spanish – to accommodate all of its workers and help them follow correct cutting procedures in the organic growing area.

The document isn’t a complex one, but it spells out steps that would be easy to overlook and impossible to intuit, such as using hand sanitizer frequently and discarding gloves when leaving the organic area.

As another example, during a meeting to discuss how to clean and prepare carts for shipping plants, one of the Prima documentation experts asked how the carts for organic plants would be differentiated from those for non-organic plants. This wasn’t something the growers at Elzinga & Hoeksema had considered, so Prima developed a cleaning log that includes a step for labeling carts.

In initial meetings and interviews, when seeking to understand the process thoroughly, documentation experts ask many detailed questions, often bringing up issues that haven’t been considered before. Documentation experts need to know how the process is done, as well as who does it, what the paper trail is, where the associated equipment comes from and so on, in order to make certain that critical steps and tasks are covered.

Tips For Information Sharing

After the process has been defined, documentation should drive its performance. This can be the most difficult part, and getting employees to follow documentation and take it seriously may require a culture shift. The key is to be clear and consistent about expectations. Below are several points to consider.

• Make sure documentation is physically accessible. If your employees are doing work on a plant floor, but the procedure outlining that work is stored in a computer in an office somewhere, the procedure is not going to do them any good and they are not going to follow it.

• Make sure documentation is available in the languages your employees speak and understand. Elzinga & Hoeksema have a bilingual workforce, so all documents are written in both English and Spanish.

• Communicate visually. Regardless of language, most people understand information better if it includes visual elements that illustrate and augment text.

• If you have a large set of documents, train your employees on how they fit together and what kinds of information can be found in the different document types. Avoid repeating information across documents. Write clearly and without ambiguity. Tell people exactly what they need to do and what they need to know to do it – and nothing more. Use indexes, tables of contents, sections, titling, and any other workable ways to arrange information so that it can be used easily.

• Find ways to replace unwritten rules with documentation.

• Encourage supervisors or senior employees to refer to documents when they are asked questions.

• Commit to putting accurate and complete information on the floor.

Once you have your processes analyzed and documents that accurately represent them – and you get employees to actually use these documents – your production quality stands to improve, your downtime to decrease, and ultimately, your profits to increase. What’s more, you can now use these documents for training purposes. In addition to being able to use their documents to assist with training, Elzinga & Hoeksema also got a document management system so they can easily make changes.

Now that Elzinga & Hoeksema has a comprehensive set of documents in place – which not only please certifiers but also make employees’ tasks go more smoothly and efficiently – it knows exactly how processes are supposed to run. Without the headache of having to worry about that, Elzinga & Hoeksema can put its energy toward growing, which is where it belongs.

Good documentation is an investment in both time and money. But it is one that can have big returns in terms of productivity and profits, and one that is usually worth the effort and expense.

Phil Meade lives in Three Rivers, Mich., and has worked for Prima Communications, Inc. for the last 12 years developing documentation primarily for the pharmaceutical industry, and also grower and food businesses. He can be reached at


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    2 comments on “Online Only: Spreading The Word

    1. Anonymous

      Elzinga continues to lead the way, to show the rest of us how it should be done. Excellent analysis of a difficult subject.

    2. Anonymous

      Elzinga continues to lead the way, to show the rest of us how it should be done. Excellent analysis of a difficult subject.