Effective Document Control Part 2

Or: Don’t leave your checklist out in the rain

Continuing from the previous post, control of documentation can be a challenge for any organization. What follows are examples of poor document control along with suggestions for improvement.

Part Two: Documents

This is information that provides direction to an organization. Common examples are policies, manuals, procedures, and work instructions. Generally speaking, they are arranged in a hierarchy with the top level documents providing the structure and direction to the rest, laying out the processes in the management system and how to find the lower-level content.


Start with the most basic part of document control: creating and approving documentation. In some organizations there is a Wild West method where everyone can create, approve, and distribute documentation as they see fit. The result is that no-one is ever certain if what they are looking at is the correct form, policy, or procedure. This results in confusion and loss of time.

Here are some key things to consider:

 Who creates the document?

               Can anyone create a document that is needed for the management system, or is it restricted to certain roles, departments, etc.? The most effective way is to allow everyone to suggest documentation, but restrict approval, perhaps to department managers.

How is documentation approved?

Some organizations have the approval within the electronic file or storage system. Others print out a copy and have it signed as the approved master. An effective system makes it clear who has reviewed and approved each document, as well as the storage method.

How are changes controlled?

Changes should be handled the same way as initial approval: anyone can suggest changes, a gatekeeper handles approval, and there is a method for ensuring that only the approved version is available for use. Track revisions and approvals so that you have the history and can go back if needed. Keep in mind that writing on a posted copy of a document is not usually considered an approved change. If it needs to happen, ensure that the date and approval are noted along with the change and ensure that the original is updated and approved in a timely fashion.

Electronic Storage:

Most key documents are created electronically these days. This makes it much easier to create, edit, store, and distribute compared with paper documents, but does lead to some other issues. If a document is created and stored on a local device (instead of a server or cloud storage) it can be difficult to locate, especially if the person who created the file isn’t available. Even when stored on a server, if files aren’t well organized then even a search may not locate what you are looking for.

Good storage habits involve setting up the server in the same way a library is organized – by topic. Create folders by function, process, or department, with (ideally) no more than two levels of subfolders. For example:

Main FolderSubfolderSub-subfolder
Product EngineeringClient ABCPart Number ABC001
Part Number ABC002
Client DEFPart Number DEF001
Part Number DEF002
Human ResourcesTrainingHealth and Safety Topic #1
Health and Safety Topic #2

The idea is to be able to get to what you need with a fairly small number of clicks.

Make sure that all electronic files are backed up regularly, stored offsite where possible, and protected from cyberattacks. Also keep in mind that server space is not endless. If you store all of your important files as part of your email inbox you may discover that they disappear when IT does a purge.

Next: Part Three on Records and Document Retention