Procedure and Form Numbering

Who was it who said that procedures and forms had to be numbered? It eludes us, but we would like to give them a kick in the pants. Almost every Company that already has an in-house management system or one they outsourced has the whole thing numbered from start to end and even we are guilty of it.

When numbering makes sense

We number the procedures that make up the integrated section of management systems we develop. There’s a good reason why we number them – they’re fixed – they won’t change. They may be amended, but those documents will most likely be there from the beginning to the end of the life of the management system. How can we be so sure? Because they are titles for generic elements that are in most management systems and they aren’t focussed on one particular standard.

The Good

The value of numbering a document is that it can:
• allow you to quickly find a document in a list
• it can be easily referred to without repeating a long title
• it can help organise electronic files in folders into your preferred order

So based on this why would anyone avoid numbering their documents?

The Bad

Well those were the positives, now the negatives. Numbered procedures and forms can be:
• restrictive in that trying to insert a document into a specific location in the list becomes awkward,
• confusing to users when a form number is missing from a sequence,
• difficult to decipher which document is being referred to for those unfamiliar with the document numbers,
• easily mistyped – a single digit error means that you are referred to completely the wrong document.

Heirarchy of thought

So we’ve identified the good and the bad of numbering you may think your decision is easier, but I want to pick apart the positives a bit further. If you are looking for a document, what’s the hierarchy of thought? In our experience people first think they need a document for a specific purpose such as recording an incident and then try to recall the document number. If the key piece of information is the purpose of the form why try to shift focus to a document number?
Ok so picking it apart a bit more; would anyone believe it good practice to only refer to a document number in text rather than quoting the title too? We think not. As we’ve already said it’s too easy to make a mistake if you only quote a document number and even if you get it right can you imagine what a nightmare a document would be if it read something like this “Using P65 carry out the TM7 and record it on F12 ensuring compliance with P67 at all times”. Ridiculous! Users would have to sit there with the document index open to make any sense of it. So again the name of the document is critical, the number much less so.

Grouping

However you arrange your documents they should be grouped (such as in folders) and not rely on numbering or their names solely to be located. The more documents you have, the more levels of groups you need.

Numbering, but not as you know it

When we design a Management System we number operational procedures. These are the procedures that are specific to say Environmental Management, but trust us it’s not the traditional numbering. They all get the same number. Yep, that’s right we might, for instance, give all the quality specific procedures that sit below the integrated top level documents the same number, all the safety procedures another number, and another number for the environmental procedures. Does that sound weird? Let’s explore the reasoning behind this.

Providing the same number for groups of documents means that the focus is on the name of the document (which is really what people think of when they go looking for a document), the number merely identifies what part of the system the document relates to and allows documents to be grouped quickly and easily. We generally put these documents into their own container which is similarly numbered and has an appropriate description. Then we aim to limit the number of documents with the same document number in each container to around twelve. If you can get as far as the right folder or document number for a group of twelve documents then identifying the document you need is easy. It also means there are far fewer document numbers to remember so there is a much better chance of committing them to memory.

Numbering persists

If you are going to insist on numbering your documents and avoid grouping them then make sure the numbering system has some logic to it. Ensure people can have a good stab at guessing at least the start of the document number. For instance a Safety Form could start SF whereas a Safety procedure could start SP and a Quality Procedure start QP.

Naming in the absence of numbering

If you are not using document numbers then when you name a document or a file think about its name carefully. Computers generally order files alphabetically so if you are careful you can ensure that the right documents are side by side in a file listing. For instance don’t use the names Audit Report and Schedule of Audits, rather use Audit Report and Audit Schedule so that these related documents appear next to each other in a folder listing.

Never expect users to rely solely on the document numbers to locate them and make sure you provide and use search tools where possible. Ensure you teach your staff how to use whatever search facilities you have in place – these are critical to the success of your system and should be included as part of Management System training.

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