How Critical is Documentation?

Duke has posed an interesting question on the forum:

Actually a couple of questions.

They get to the heart of “When can you say something is actually a process?”

I have my views, but I want to hold back until I hear from some of you.

This could get as good as the 5S discussion.  🙂

5 Replies to “How Critical is Documentation?”

  1. So I guess the main question is whether or not you can have a process (and improve it) without that process being documented. As I always try to do with my son, let me take both sides of the argument.

    First, I’ll assume that a process isn’t documented. (Or, it’s documented and that’s not what we actually do.) Either way, we’re not “saying what we do, doing what we say – every time.” I’ve seen so many processes that fit this bill that I could write books on the subject. What do you think the real result of a process run this way would be from a quality standpoint? I’d suggest that the quality would be all over the map. Maybe that’s why companies like Toyota worry about the results, but they actually worry more about the process that generated those results.

    Now for the $64,000 question; could you improve that kind of process? Part of me wants to say that there would be tons of opportunity to improve that kind of process. Hell, I’d be willing to bet that just stabilizing the process would yield an improvement! But, what would the real chances of maintaining that improvement be? Very low.

    The other side of the argument would say that the process is documented. And I’m going to qualify that by saying we actually do the process exactly as it’s documented. Further, any time we change the process, we update the documentation. If somebody did all of this, it would demonstrate a high degree of discipline.

    Let’s ask the same question around whether or not we could improve this process. My answer here would be that you’d be more likely to be going about your improvement efforts in a much more disciplined manner. Because of that, you’d have a much better chance of knowing if a change you made improved or actually hurt the process results.

    So I guess my answer here would be that you cannot improve a process that is not documented – or documented and not followed – because you probably have no discipline. Going one step further, it’s not about the documentation. It’s about the discipline – or lack thereof – that backs up the documentation.

    1. Bryan –
      Good point – considering that they never really documented it at all, at least not until recently. It was researchers and and academics that reverse engineered it and wrote it down… or at least tried to.

  2. Bryan makes a very interesting point, but I think some cultural differences may explain how Toyota made that work. My experiences with the Japanese have always shown them to be very disciplined and very willing to follow orders to the letter. I hate to stereotype, but many of my experiences with my fellow Americans have shown them to be very creative – and maybe less willing to follow exact orders. There’s always this “letter of the law” vs. “spirit of the law” argument. We generally go with the spirit, while they go with the letter. So I guess my question here would be what TPS would look like if it were passed from generation to generation – without written documentation – in America?

    The way I generally get folks to rally around the importance of doing things the same way every time is to ask “If you guys were gluing wings on airplanes, would you take your next trip on one you built?” (I generally get lots of sheepish looks there.) To further add to the original question, what would it take to get folks to willingly ride on airplanes they’d glued the wings on?

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