October 2002

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Dear Friends,

By the time you receive this newsletter, the October annual meeting of the CIDM will be underway. As you know, one of our areas of focus at this year’s session is the Six Sigma methodology of managing and measuring quality. The Six Sigma method originated with Motorola as they sought to reduce the errors in their chip manufacturing process. To reduce the number of bad chips, Motorola looked for flaws in the manufacturing process. A process flaw resulted in defects in the chips. By fixing the process, they could lower the likelihood of failure and improve the quality of the product.

Bill Hackos of the CIDM and Jim Romano of Prisma are slated at the conference to tell us how Six Sigma relates to technical information development. As communicators, we produce information, not chips. But the problems of flaws are just as critical to our processes as they are to a manufacturing process.

What might constitute a flaw in the information that we provide to our customers? Well-as you might expect, the list is long. Here are just a few thoughts about how flaws might occur in our information:

  • Information may be incorrect or incomplete, resulting in failed processes on the customer’s part.
  • Information that the customer needs may be missing.
  • Information may be too difficult or time-consuming to find even when it is available.
  • Information may be difficult for customers to understand even if it is correct and complete.

How might we discover flaws in our information? Customer feedback is the best source. We might ask customers about problems they have in accessing and using our information. We might watch them try to find answers to their questions during usability tests. We might discuss customer problems with others in the support chain, including trainers, consultants, and telephone support personnel.

What might happen once we discover a flaw? Let’s say, for example, that we discover that information the customer needs is missing from the documentation. Once we discover that something is missing, we can work hard to produce and distribute the needed information. Unfortunately, responding to a complaint and fixing the problem will not result in a long-term solution. In keeping with the Six Sigma philosophy, we must look at our information-development process and discover why the information was missing in the first place. Six Sigma reveals that only by improving the process do we stop the same problems from occurring in the future.

If we look at the problem of missing information more carefully, we are likely to discover that our staff members never knew the information was required in the first place. In too many information-development organizations, we find that communicators have very little insight into the information needs of the users. For example, a writer recently complained to me that he would have to meet with many different user groups in an effort to learn what they need to know because his product was used in many different parts of the customer’s organization.

In our application of Six Sigma concepts to information development, we will concentrate on those parts of the process that add value for the customer. Knowing what the customer’s job duties and tasks are all about will ensure that we provide the information required to support the tasks, rather than the information that is easily available to us from the product developers.

As you know, we have no substitutes for customer knowledge. The more we understand our customers and what they do with our products, the better we can provide them with valuable information. Yet, customer knowledge is one of the most rare commodities in an information-development organization.

If you were not able to join us at the 4th annual CIDM Best Practices conference this year, I hope that you will start budgeting now for next year. The conference is perhaps the best source of knowledge available that will make you an effective leader and a sound corporate manager. CIDMIconNewsletter