I’m often called upon by clients to help them find areas for process improvement in their organizations, and I typically start by digging out two types of artifacts in their existing processes: spreadsheets, and “useless” paper documents. I’ve covered the topic of using spreadsheets and email as a stopgap in business processes in the past, but today I was struck by all of the useless paper that organizations deal with on a daily basis.
There are still many legitimate paper documents in business processes – for external communications with customers who are not comfortable with electronic communications, or where laws and regulations haven’t caught up with technology – but I see many situations of companies that create paper documents internally that are used internally, then destroyed (or worse, photocopied and/or filed). These range from routing slips to cheque requisitions to contracts to printed copies of emails and more, and you really need to relentlessly hunt them down and exterminate them if you’re going to lift your processes out of the paper sludge.
I was reminded of this today because of a business process of my own, where I just transferred money by writing a paper cheque on my corporate bank account, scanning it into the banking app to deposit it into my personal bank account, then shredding the cheque, all without getting up from my desk. The reasons why it has to happen this way aren’t important (except to me), but it made me think about all of the similar situations in organizations where I walk through their operations and challenge why they are creating, routing and filing paper documents that are not required for any external or regulatory reason.
My route to BPM is via ECM – the first systems that I implemented in this field were document imaging and workflow systems in the late 1980’s – and I continue to see the lessons about paper reduction as a key leverage point for process improvement in many situations. Two rules to live by:
- If you can get something in electronic form rather than paper, do so. If it never exists on paper, then it is much easier to change the processes around it, including filing and retention.
- If you get something in paper form, convert it to electronic form as early in the process as possible, and stop the paper trail either by immediate filing (if required) or destruction (preferred).
There are a lot of processes that exist without any shred of paper, but in the back offices of financial institutions, where I do a lot of my work, paper-based processes are still rampant, including many instances of internal-only paper documents that have no real reason for existing. Earlier this year, I wrote about my own paperless office and how to get there for small businesses, but as I pointed out at the time, the same principles are at the core of any large-scale ECM initiative. And don’t kid yourself: any ECM initiative is actually a process improvement initiative, although sometimes in disguise.