Looking For Process Improvement? Follow The Useless Paper Trail

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

11 thoughts on “Looking For Process Improvement? Follow The Useless Paper Trail”

  1. Excellent points.

    My usual rule with my teams is: “if you need to keep a proof that assets will or have changed hands, then you need a paper, because it will bear signatures and stamps (in more formal environments). Everything else it’s almost always safe to not create/recycle.”

    One horror story comes from my time as a fresh CFO for a large multinational and my team was complaining about lack of archiving space. I went there and saw the majority of the print-outs being intercompany invoices. Here follows the mind-boggling conversation:
    Me: “Why do you print i/co invoices?”
    Team: “We have to – for fiscal purposes”
    Me: “They don’t even look like real invoices, more like text dumps from a mainframe system”
    Team: “Yes, but what if we get a fiscal audit? They only want to review paper invoices”
    Me: “Well, why don’t you just print ONLY the documents that are being audited, and only THEN (more like every 5 years)?”

    Needless to say, all this waste was cancelled immediately… A huge amount of paper was recycled, we reclaimed the lost office space and the i/co accountant just had several hours per week freed up and I allocated actually useful tasks to her and helped her grow professionally into a controller role.

    1. Sometimes all it takes is challenging people, asking them why they are doing what they’re doing. Once they make the connection between actions and motivators, it’s easy to change the habits (and improve the process).

      1. Yup, I had one client misunderstand, take offense when I anecdotally related that I always go into 3 yr-old mode when I first go on-site and continuously ask “why.” Invariably you find a broken process and multiple opportunities for improvement. Later on, when those gains were realized, I got a belated “oohhh…”

  2. Sandy, around ten years ago I coined the phrase that ‘There is no process without content and content without process is waste.’ Coming from the content world I find it surprising – and then not – that the BPM crowd just wakes up to that fact. To consider that news as in the blog post about Rehman is odd.

    So I am in utter agreement, but I would not call the document useless. Rather the opposite. It is actually the carrier AND record of the process. Clearly it makes sense in these days to turn the paper into an electronic one, but why then have most BPM solutions very poor means to do so (at best some e-forms)? And why is there this focus on a rigid flow? Paper was patient as the saying goes and all one had to do was to attach a Post-It and write the name of a new participant onto the inhouse mail envelope and the process was adjusted on the fly. All the flexibility went out the door with BPM and flow-diagrams.

    Now that I propose to bring the flexibility back with the ACM approach, there is the grand discussion if that is BPM or not? Very odd too. No one needs BPM. What is needed is the content and the knowledge in the head of the performers … and yes, it makes sense to give them a tool that allows them to stay away from paper and from email and from MS-Office. Because all of these do not make the simple paper form simpler, but actually a lot more complex. BPM makes is so hard to manage you need additional bureaucracy.

    And let’s not forget the key point of ACM is to think in goals – well defined achievements, large or small that show the performer WHY he is doing what he is doing and that can be enumerated and automatically achieved too. Yes, some processes are rigid, particularly when they need to interact with silo-data-transaction-systems, so some flow capability is needed.

    People interaction does not really need flow diagrams. It rather needs a well-defined capability map as to which process owners are responsible to achieve which goals. These can be directly translated into process goals if the system can handle them.

    And let’s not forget, if you execute a process it may well be that at the end of it you need a paper trail. BPM systems do not deliver that. If you create electronic forms and send them rather than BPM-forms, people find them easier to work with and you get the process record for free. So they are not useless at all.

    1. I didn’t say that content was useless, I said to look for the “useless paper documents”, that is, those that exist but do not need to exist in paper form.

      1. Hi Sandy, thanks. I assumed this is what you meant. The problem is that too many in business and even in IT cannot distinguish between ‘printed’ and ‘digital’ content. They tend to live in the illusion that ‘documents’ will go away ‘a.k.a. the paperless office’ and thus are reluctant to invest into content management that creates and not just destroys (archives). They also forget that a business document is a complex mix of data, text, rules and formatting (capture) instructions, both in the inbound and outbound channel. In both directions there is complex interaction between the content and a number of process steps even with multiple performers. Business doesn’t understand it and IT thinks that it is easy to code, but in reality it is more complex than any other UI application.

        So clearly, any negative comment on paper or documents being useless fuels that perspective, which I think you will agree, is wrong.

    2. I guess this all depends on your definition of “Paper Trail”. There’s no technical reason BPM systems can’t deliver audit trail… and some of them do. Just as there’s no reason an ECM system can’t offer BPMN modeling… and maybe some of them do. (leaving out in both cases whether they should or not)

      1. Hi Scott, you are right that BPM is potentially the means to create a ‘paper-like’ trail. What I am proposing that it is better to see the paper documents ‘AS-THE-PROCESS’ rather than as something unwanted. Most people find it much easier to see their paper trail electronically and then start to improve it.

        And yes, there should be no distinction between ECM, BPM and even CRM, because processes that leave out customer interaction are wasteful from the outset. Customer communications is a process exercise and improving customer experience is not about fancy mobile apps but performing customer facing processes that focus on the individual.

  3. Great concept. I once came into a project as a BA (after it had been implemented without a BA) that was implementing a new electronic records system. The end user’s process hadn’t been fully taken into account and they received inadequate training. As a result, they were printing and scanning the documents and additional time after the electronic records systems was installed. They would download the document, print it, add notes, and scan it in to store it again. We were able to evaluate their process and use a little out-of-the-box system functionality to handle the notes and remove several unnecessary and wasteful steps.

    So I’d agree – following the useless paper trail is great advice for finding potential improvement areas!

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