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Practical Project and Process Documentation

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Documentation! We hate to do it and we are upset when it seems like irrelevant paperwork to please some external party. If you are experiencing either too much or too little documentation, there is an effective middle ground; one that allows you to be productive in your projects, but not taxed with irrelevancy.

Documentation! We hate to do it and we are upset when it seems like irrelevant paperwork to please some external party. When we don't have any, we can feel left in the dark because of a lack of direction and communication among colleagues, and mentally taxed because we have to remember everything that has ever been discussed. If you are experiencing either too much or too little documentation, there is an effective middle ground; one that allows you to be productive in your projects, but not taxed with irrelevancy.

This article is a brief look at some strategies you can use to make documentation work for you. The examples contain a mix of project and process documentation scenarios.

The purpose of documentation

In the 15 years we have been observing companies and helping them improve, a common cause of irrelevant or overwhelming stacks of paper is a lack of purpose or objective. When we ask the average team member why he or she has so much documentation, a common answer is, "Because my organization requires me to fill out the templates." If we ask about the usefulness of such documentation, a typical reply is, "I guess it will provide a trail of what has happened so that management can study my project later." But almost no one ever goes back and ploughs through "the stack." With purposes as unclear as these, it is not surprising that people "fill out the templates."

What is the purpose of documentation? Here are two examples for project and process documentation:

  • Project documentation:

    a method of concisely capturing and sharing critical project concepts, plans and information as they are developed, so that impacted parties can share this information, make informed decisions, and keep the project moving forward without having to revisit old discussions.

  • Process documentation:

    a method of capturing and sharing engineering and management practices so that an organization can remember, reuse and refine its skills and not have to re-invent lessons learned and best practices for each new project.

Note that we did not include in our definition "a form of evidence to please managers or auditors." If one defines the information that should be captured to manage a project effectively, this natural document should provide ample evidence that certain practices are occurring. For example, if we plan a project correctly and capture the details so that they can be communicated to others, the natural document that results (the plan) should be ample evidence that planning took place. Evidence is free when good practices are followed.

Before you develop any document, ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of this document, why does this information need capturing and who is going to use the document when it is complete? If there is no "user," maybe it is "useless."

  • If this document were not created, what would the risk be to the project's success?

  • Is the information we capture critical or are we just "Filling out the template," because "We believe that we have to?"

If you can't provide good answers to these questions, stop until you can. If you have sound responses, continue reading the following strategies to make your documents more effective.

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