Documentation Is Important: More Valuable Than You Think

Documentation is important, gosh darn it.

I had a conversation with a highly experienced business owner late last week that gave me some feedback I found alarming.

We were talking about process improvement, and he told me what he thought about some of the copy on my website that mentions "documentation."

He didn't think it was important. Nor did the wording tell him enough about what my company does.

And it's my fault.

I haven't explained this well enough.

Documentation is important. Far more important than you think.

When people see that word, "Documentation," I can understand that their eyes glaze over.

It sounds boring.

"Yeah, yeah," they say. "I know about documentation."

After all, all you have to do is write things down...right?

And then you're documented.


documentation camera coffee recording data information doodle process map

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Good Documentation Is The Key To Learning

Unfortunately, that's where the understanding ends for most business people.

And when they see that word, "documentation," their brains shut off. It's already dealt with. No big deal. Not even a problem.

Right there: that's the fail point.

When you think you've already handled something...that's the very item you should be reviewing.

Since my company documents other companies for a living, I can tell you a few things. Let's begin with this: most organizations are pretty darn poor about documentation.

They don't have process maps.

They certainly don't understand their metrics.

They did not choose their measures deliberately, instead abdicating that responsibility to some tech who came in to install their CRM.

Let's Change Your Definition of Documentation

Most organizations are way off when it comes to effective documentation.

Let me state this plainly: data collection is NOT documentation.

Especially data collection by default.

Have you noticed that many companies collect data...and then have no idea what to do with it?

That is a symptom, resulting directly from the problem of not having chosen good, business-specific KPIs.

Let me continue: if you don't document well, you can't learn anything.

The story will change over time, and the lessons you thought you learned will become invalidated.

Let's say you've got a knockout sales team of three people. They land a multi-million dollar contract and come back swaggering.

That's great.

But how do you repeat that experience?

The answer is to get busy documenting exactly what happened.

Documenting with clarity.

If you don't, two years from now Mary and John from the superstar sales team will be gone...and Sam will be telling a hero story that so aggrandizes his own involvement as the fulcrum of the sale you'll never be able to separate him from the results.

And how do you duplicate that?!

The opportunity to grasp exactly what did happen will have long been lost.

And your organization won't learn a thing.

If there's one thing I could persuade you of here, it's this: When you see the word "documentation" from now on, pay attention. Get alert. Look at it and its surroundings carefully.

What measures are being used? Data collected? Will they help you record a solid story, one that stays consistent over time, one that gives you the tools to derive repeatable results?

From my perspective, this is the key: the element that makes your company a learning organization. And you must become a learning organization to adapt and survive and thrive. Stagnant organizations who don't adjust and improve over time simply go extinct.

You say you know that.

But your documentation tells me otherwise.

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Do Businesses Learn?

Do businesses learn anything?

I was watching a video analysis of the 1986 Miami-Dade Shooting by Paul Harrell when he said something that made me really pay attention.

Paul’s discussion was about the police and FBI experience with two tragedies, first a cursory coverage of the 1970 Newhall Incident and second an in-depth look at Miami-Dade.

Organizational Behavior Lessons from Law Enforcement: Do Businesses Learn?

Every 15-20 years or so, Paul said, a major event like these shootings happens that results in a big shakeup of how police and FBI training is done.

He continued—and this is what really made me sit up—if the documentation is bad, the story of what happened can change over time.

Since the stories can change, the lessons law enforcement agencies think they learned from these incidents may be completely invalidated. Paul then gave a specific training example that resulted from Newhall, impacting at least two generations of law enforcement. The problem was, as the Internet allowed people to connect, those who were there encountered one another online, and some said the story leading to this change in training and methodology may never have happened.

If that doesn’t scare the heck out of you, I don’t know what to say.

Do Businesses Learn: How About Your Business?

I was really surprised to hear the word "documentation" being used in a weapons training video.

Take this to your business.

Since I run a business that investigates and maps processes for other businesses, I can tell you most organizations—even big companies—have nothing written down.

Their processes are practically non-existent and there’s little consistency between the way Dave does the task and the way Mary does the task. Simply talk to two customer service or sales reps at a business, large or small, and see how inconsistent the experience is. Not much data is collected (like what stage they are at in the process, when they complete a step, whether a problem stopped them and they had to go to ask for clarification from higher-ups, etc.)

And if little to no data is being collected, that means nearly all businesses really suck at documenting what happened.

What’s Paul Harrell’s conclusion, then, from his law enforcement examples? That the story will change over time. This means your story about what happened in your organization will change over time.

A Personal Answer To The Question Of: Do Businesses Learn?

Some of you know I’m a pretty good photographer.

A year ago today at the Wilmington Arboretum I was out in the afternoon taking pictures and a giant black and white roach with an interesting pattern landed on my shoulder. This was disturbing and I brushed it off. The thing fell to the bricks and played dead for awhile, finally ambling off into the undergrowth.

do businesses learn bug roach tall tale story retelling

I recorded the incident by sharing a picture of it on Facebook and writing a quick note that it was about 2-½” to 3” long.

Almost a year later, a couple days ago, a friend in another state posted a pic of this kind of roach and expressed her displeasure that it had been in her personal space. She wondered what it was. I responded with my example, and said my version was about 4” long.

I felt good about the number I reported.

It seemed right.

But this morning in FB Memories the original post from last year came up and I saw my documented evidence that the actual bug length was at least 25% less than what I’d told my friend. 25% different is NOT accurate.

In the past year, in the retelling of the story only one time, the bug had grown in my imagination.

I am a big fan of The Truth.

It’s the core value of my organization.

It irritates me that I’m human like everybody else and do the same things other people do, like accidentally tell tall tales. This bug got bigger in a single retelling of the story. What do you think happens with the stories of the heroic things your staff did and the demonic things your Customers From Hell did as time goes on and the retellings grow in frequency and sentiment?

This is how easy it is for your story of what happened to change, and the lessons learned to be changed as well. Thankfully I had documentation to tell me when I had made the error.

If you haven’t consistently well documented what happened, your business and your people and you won’t learn anything—and anything you do think you’ve learned will be invalidated because your story of what happened will change over time.

Here's a quick video I made about my reaction to Paul Harrell's video:

If you want help in clearing up your processes so you collect that data as it comes in, and thereby keep an accurate picture of what happened so the story won’t change, talk to me.