Robert N Phillips
CEO, Lasotell Pty Ltd.

Half the battle with deciding to adopt standard procedures is adhering to the standard at all times. Nearly ten years ago, when establishing our own technical writing processes and procedures, we implemented JoAnn Hackos’s methodology from Estimating and Managing Documentation Projects. Since then we seldom undertake a technical writing job unless the customer (an internal department or company client) is prepared to go through the Information Plan and Content Specification phases. War stories help to convince customers and trainees of the value of adhering to our standard.

On one occasion a Project Manager was about to assign two work-years of effort to producing an online help system for a defence-related application. We convinced the manager to wait until we prepared an Information Plan. Because the scope, target audience, and general presentation were already defined in the various contract documents, we opted for only 5% (5 weeks) rather than the standard 10% (10 weeks) for preparing the plan.

By the time the plan was finished, nobody was able to find any written requirement to prepare such help information–not in the contract, correspondence, or notebooks of anybody on the project. It was all hearsay that the company was supposed to produce the help system. On the other hand, there was a specific contract statement saying the prime contractor would provide the relevant help files. The Information Plan recommended sending a letter to the prime contractor stating we would be ready to receive their help files after such and such a date. The letter was sent and no help files had been received by the time the prime contractor signed for acceptance and delivery of the software three years later. Two work-years saved.

On another occasion, a Project Manager wanted a user manual prepared urgently for a Windows version of an old DOS program. The new software performed all the same tasks as the old software but everything was different in appearance and presentation. We insisted on preparing an Information Plan, even though we would have only three work-days to prepare it (10% of the manager’s estimate of the time available for the task).

By the end of the three days, it became obvious that the users were all experienced in the work, and they had no problem using the new software, other than working out where to find this or that function. The end result was to recommend producing a wall-chart “mud-map” that linked the functions and screens together so the users could follow the logic flow to find the functions. It took two work-weeks to prepare the mud map, and the users loved it. Three work-weeks saved.

The management moral of these war stories is that once you settle on a set of processes or procedures, then manage the people and the work by insisting that the processes and procedures are followed. If the customer won’t accept the “time wasting instead of getting on with the job”, you need to ask yourself if you really want to accept this job. If a senior manager wants the task started “immediately”, we have found the best question that usually penetrates is: Do you realise this task is going to cost you at least 50% more in time and money than you have estimated? It then takes ten minutes of asking the senior manager a number of questions that require factual answers to break down the remaining barriers.

The practicalities are that adhering to your processes and procedures at all times will, as often as not, lead you to produce simpler outcomes, in less time, and for lower cost. We insist on adhering to our planning activities because we believe the maxim: Write in Haste, Repent in Panic.