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Quality Basics Simplify Complex Engineering Document Management Challenge
by Ted Shaar, Freelance Writer on Quality Topics

Oct 06, 2010 | Free Downloads | email | Print

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This article was originally published in ASQ.

In the spring of 2006, Ray Wilson, an internal business systems analyst for an investor-owned utility company, faced a monumental challenge: how to go about transferring the management of approximately 750,000 documents on paper, Mylar, microfiche, and other media from more than 150 different facilities to one centralized location.

He was also responsible for helping to determine which documents should be retained, creating a searchable database, and maintaining the data files that resulted from the effort.

An investor-owned utility company needed to transfer the management of 750,000 documents from more than 150 different facilities to a centralized location.

Although the scope may have been once-in-a-lifetime, at the heart of the task was a common problem for engineers everywhere-content management for engineering drawings.

A One-Year, Multi-Million-Dollar Document Management Challenge

In a world that is becoming more and more accustomed to electronic searching, sliding file cabinet drawers open and thumbing through hard copy documents is antiquated. Physical documents consume not only valuable space but also time, as locating and accessing needed drawings or specifications can be difficult. To address the need for organizations to take advantage of Information Age electronic storage and search capabilities, the field of document management has emerged as a specialty.

When undertaking a conversion project, an organization typically will choose either to convert all documents right away, making the change from an existing storage and retrieval approach to a new approach, or to convert individual documents as they are retrieved and used, gradually completing the conversion over time.

For Wilson, the decision to convert all documents at once was evident. The utility had been instructed by its parent company to turn over document management to an independent transmission company. Under a three-year service contract, the parent company had been maintaining the documents at a cost of $1.5 million per year. By the time that contract would end May 1, 2007, the parent company planned to double the $1.5 million annual fee.

Wilson had roughly one year to transfer the documents to an independent transmission company.

About the Engineering Documents

Wilson's organization and its parent company work together to supply electricity to customers across Lower Michigan. The documents the independent transmission company had to absorb were currently housed in the basement of the parent company's headquarters and at about 150 electrical utility substations scattered across Lower Michigan. Included were engineering drawings, inspection and maintenance histories, lists of stock items and spare parts, vendor information, guidelines involving wetlands and endangered species, and patrol maps.

The goal was to sort through all of the documents, convert what had to be retained to electronic files, and index those files in a searchable database. The effort would require a long-term paper storage and destruction solution and backup. Power companies typically make arrangements to buy power from other utilities to meet the load demand, so personnel were acquainted with the need for redundancy. Critical documents would need to be stored electronically in at least two places.

Documents pertaining to wetlands and endangered species listed environmental factors such as the location of Indiana bat and bald eagle nesting sites. These needed to be considered when engineers and crews were working on construction or repair projects in certain areas. "At one of our sites, workers had to contact a fish and wildlife professor at the university to determine whether a bald eagle nest was empty," Wilson said.

Compliance and regulatory issues also needed to be identified and addressed, including standards established by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).

Additional challenges included labeling and categorizing information and developing a classification system that would ensure the right documents could be surfaced by users when needed. No form of classification currently existed.

Fact-Finding With Quality Tools

Considering the wide variety of documents to be transferred and aware of the many types of information they contained, Wilson knew he needed to start with a solid understanding of end user requirements. To get his arms around the project, he used a number of quality tools including process mapping and fishbone analyses.

He observed the work of engineers, control room personnel, and field technicians to learn more about their jobs and to map how they used drawings and other documents. When he saw documents being handled, he'd stop personnel and ask questions such as: What document did you just take out? What document did you just file? How did you use it? This helped him add details to the process map.

Wilson created the fishbone diagram in Figure 1 to help team members and stakeholders work more effectively with all of the details and disparate interests. The fishbone helped demonstrate what was needed to proceed, what support was available, and how to put the entire effort together. With the important goal of transferring all documents from the parent company as efficiently and effectively as possible, the fishbone, says Wilson, "was crucial in helping the team avoid stepping on toes, achieving compliance, and meeting quality checks."

Tradition vs. Innovation

Complicating matters was the reality that Wilson and his team were dealing with two different organizational cultures. The utility had roots stretching back to the 19th century, and the independent transmission company, one of only four in the country, was formed more than 100 years later in 2002.

"This meant we were working with two completely different ways of doing things and trying to direct everyone toward a common goal," Wilson said.

The effort involved a range of professionals, including nuclear engineers and transmission distribution experts. Many of the specialists and technicians who used the documents involved in the project were accustomed to certain ways of working and weren't enthusiastic about changing.

To aid the transition process, encourage cooperation, and create buy-in, Wilson regularly met with stakeholders and employees from both organizations to identify their respective needs and objectives. He found that personnel from different areas such as planning, construction, project management, the operations group, and quality management brought different views to the project and had their own opinions on what would be the best solution.

Some veteran utility workers felt more comfortable working with physical drawings and documents, even though the newer and more efficient way was to carry a laptop that would offer access to all needed information. "Technicians were used to walking around with drawings tucked under their arms, and we were proposing something radically different," said Wilson.

Most control room specialists also wanted to have physical drawings close at hand. To them, hard copies seemed more permanent and authoritative, and they were reluctant to think about having to verify information using a laptop.

Knowledge transfer was another challenge. "Most parent company workers had decades of experience, so one of our goals was capturing their know-how and making it available to the next generation," Wilson recalled. "In some cases, we were looking to put informative notations right on the drawings."

Retirement dates were studied and meetings held in an effort to record information before an individual left the utility. In addition to exit interviews covering process and technical expertise, a 90-day, post-retirement window was established to continue talking with retirees.

Planning the Solution

A three-pronged approach was proposed:

  • Temporary document storage in one physical location - All 750,000 documents would be transported to one location for scanning.
  • Document conversion and entry into a content management system -The physical documents would be scanned to create electronic versions, which would be described and categorized upon checking in to the content management system.
  • Establishing backup electronic documentation - An electronic document holder in North Carolina was selected to store backup electronic documentation. If the entire state of Michigan were to lose power, backups of critical documents would be available.

During the planning stages, Wilson and his team relied heavily on simulations, especially for the complex task of converting the documents. Many of the originals were more than 80 years old, with some dating back to 1899, so reducing handling prior to scanning would help protect the fragile materials from damage.

Figure 2, the simulated document management process flow, provides an overview of the steps involved in converting the documents. Wilson mapped a workflow layout of approximately 8,000 square feet and projected the time required to move all 750,000 documents through the process. If four or five people working in shifts covered 24 hours per day, he determined, sorting and digitizing the documents and creating a cross-reference would take 69 weeks. From there, he figured in time for breaks, weekends, and holidays. Again, process mapping proved useful in capturing critical details of the sorting and conversion process, helping identify and address issues related to planning, financial incentives, safety, and scheduling.

Based on the simulation, Wilson estimated that the immediate impact on the bottom line would be a savings of $2,500 in the first year.

Building the Solution

Before any document conversion and storage could begin, Wilson worked on establishing the classification system that would make the documents accessible in searches. Because no form of classification had been in use, Wilson first had to convince stakeholders and the management team of the importance of this step to an orderly turnover process and to long-term document management.

Having learned of an earlier successful attempt to create a construction list database, Wilson decided to use it as the basis for the new system. He added classification fields to address key information needs uncovered in his meetings with stakeholders, developing a unified system that would work through the entire field.

In 2006, planning for the project was completed and a pilot program conducted. Hardware was implemented, software debugged, and personnel trained. Documents started arriving in semi trucks, and scanning and indexing began.

As they digitized the documents, Wilson's team sought to enrich each drawing. Although they were working on a deadline, they recognized that converting physical drawings to electronic files offered the opportunity to bring older drawings up to code and add data such as inspection histories and instructions on locating and accessing substations.

Beyond the conversion of the originals, the team was responsible for destruction of documents that were outdated or no longer needed, and for establishing a clear and accurate versioning process. Crews in the field who were troubleshooting or working on repairs, additions, or new installations needed to be assured that they were accessing not only the correct drawing but also the most appropriate version of that drawing-usually, but not always, the most recent update.

The final step was to notify users of the data that were now available to them and teach them how to find documents in the new system. To close the feedback loop, the team developed a recommender process. When users accessed drawings, they could recommend additional information to record.

Signs of Success

As shown in Figure 3, full document turnover was completed by December 2007. The primary focus in 2008 was on document management, including making ongoing updates and revisions to documents.

The project was also a financial success. Savings added up to approximately $1.1 million in 2006, $1 million in 2007, $1.2 million in 2008, and $1.5 million in 2009. Further confirmation of success came in 2009 when a competitor purchased the utility and continued to use the document management program the team developed.

Continuous improvement plans include more attention to the versioning process. Fishbone analysis and process mapping have again featured prominently in charting the way.

For More Information

Learn more about using quality tools for process management by visiting

Ted Schaar is a freelance writer who has written on quality topics ranging from statistical process control to 5S. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he resides in Brookfield, WI.

Reginald (Ray) Wilson is an industrial operations specialist with more than 20 years of electrical systems methodology and analytical process philosophy experience in the utility, defense, and commercial electronic industries. He is also an adjunct lecturer for Michigan's Ferris State University, Baker College, and Grand Rapids Community College, teaching courses in managerial business processes, circuit analysis, and electronic instrumentation. An ASQ Certified Quality Process Analyst and ASQ Certified Six Sigma Green Belt, Wilson holds a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's degree in industrial operations from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, MI. He is an active member of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), the Institute of Industrial Engineers, and ASQ.

Copyright © 2010 ASQ ( All rights reserved.

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