8 Things About Creating Paper Filing Systems – From the Trenches

By Bryant Duhon posted 09-23-2014 14:34


Our next 8 Things is focused on paper records. However, these 8 pieces of advice work for electronic records too -- except maybe the color-coding bit. 

Trish OakesTrish Oakes Winners has been a records manager for over 10 years in Alaska and is an AIIM Certified Information Professional. When she isn’t crawling into small holes under staircases to drag out long forgotten records or digging through moldy, frozen boxes at -30F, she likes to go salmon fishing and moose hunting with her husband Scott, and mess around with film.  Via Twitter @OakesWinners

Everyone knows the main concepts to creating a filing system, paper or electronic or both – talk to the users, understand their world, craft a solution that best meets their needs. Here are some pointers that work, but aren’t discussed as often. Many of these apply equally to electronic records as to paper.

1. Create a Written Agreement with your customers.

Create an SLA (service level agreement) with your customers before you start. Identify the sponsor. Create a transition plan for minimal disruption, and a 2-way communication plan for all stakeholders. Your SLA should include what rights you as the SME (subject matter expert) have. A manager, even the sponsor, may bend to the opinion of their admin over your informed opinion on proper file management; an SLA can help set those boundaries when heads are cooler.

2. Don’t let Pain Avoidance call the shots; pay now or you’ll pay later, with interest.

Change is hard; changing a filing system can be very hard up front. Don’t make decisions based on avoiding pain.  Better to have the one-time, up-front pain during implementation than pain, frustration, and inefficiency every day for the life of the file system. For example, a decision to integrate all correspondence into the rest of the filing system during implementation is pain that’s soon over as opposed to questioning every day whether what you need is in the regular files or in a separate correspondence file.  For example, a Notice of Violation (NOV) from an environmental agency comes in the form of a letter – would it be found in Correspondence? Or in the file on the compliance project to resolve the violation? Or in a Violations category for that program? Once you’ve found the optimal solution, don’t let the pain of the change stop you. Remember – if you do this right you’ll be living with your decisions for hopefully at least the next ten years.

3. A stepped approach allows flexibility when creating your system.

Taking a phased or stepped approach allows you to adapt as you learn. If you think multi-part folders are the answer, before purchasing enough folders for all the records, and new cabinets to hold them, try a few. Partway into your pilot you may realize color-coded labels on end-tab folders like a doctor’s office quickly mark misfiled environmental records, save space and allow for fast retrieval and have more economical cabinets. Or you may discover that only a few documents are legal sized in the legal sized folders; best to learn this before you’ve bought all new folders.

4. Plan on Paper as much as you can before you touch the files, but allow for flex

It’s a lot easier to flip things back and forth in a spreadsheet than in a file drawer. However, some issues only come clear once your hands are in the files. It’s good to start with a “pilot” section. We inherited a taxonomy which we fit to our site on paper, but when we started to file the records under the headings, we found what appeared to be multiple places where one document could be filed, which the other site confirmed. We flipped the hierarchy over and put Program (Air-Title V) above Record Type (Correspondence, Analytics, etc.) and suddenly it was smooth and sweet. The environmental engineers were happy with the intuitive system, even though the change cost them extra filing work up front; and IT easily adjusted the software for us.

5. Start at the end – What will you know when you need to find this again?

A small-business man filed purchasing and sales records by date; but when he needed a receipt what did he know to help him find it? He knew where he bought it or to whom he sold it. When re-filed by Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable and then by vendor name, 2-3 hour searches became 30 second finds.

Piping x-rays were filed by project, but when searching no one could remember what project each pipe was from.  Everyone knew where the pipe was they were trying to find inspection records for, so we re-filed by location and, Voilà! Quick finds.

6. Let “use” determine organization - Red Pens/Blue Pens

You have a bundle of Red Pens, Red Pencils, Blue Pens, and Blue Pencils; how do you split it in two?  A teacher may put red in one cup, blue in another; red for correcting papers.  A drafter splits by pens and pencils – one is erasable, the other isn’t. Determining how the records will be used, another aspect of “Start at the end,” helps determine how to file.

7. Make one logical place for each record

Take an egg carton and a handful of marbles.  Make rules for each egg cup –green in this one, blue in that one. What do you do with a blue-green swirl? Make an egg cup just for blue-green swirls? Or make an egg cup for all swirls? Or determine that blue always trumps green? Your rules must ensure there is only one place to find blue-green swirls.

8. Document: Keep a record of decisions and the filing key

Remember the woman who cut the ends off her ham like her mom? She later learned her mother only did it because her pan was too small. Document WHY you are doing things a certain way so future users don’t mindlessly do needless steps when things change over time. It also helps ensure consistency in filing, giving your file system longevity. The filing system should be as intuitive as possible, but a simple key in a convenient location can also help users navigate. The documentation should stay easily accessible, often in the first drawer, and be kept evergreen.

#ERM #Records-Management #electronic records management #paperrecords #ElectronicRecordsManagement