Re: our relationship to the bottom line/certification

Subject: Re: our relationship to the bottom line/certification
From: "Arlen P. Walker" <Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- JCI -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 14 Jul 1995 08:37:00 -0600

I'd be very interested in hearing about how other technical writers
demonstrate their effectiveness "via the corporate treasury,"
particularly those writers who produce documentation for in-house use.

When a company deisgns and builds (or even simply customizes) its manufactuting
equipment, it also needs people to maintain this equipment. This maintenance
cost is overhead, and is considered part of the cost of manufaturing.

A well-written maintenance manual enables those who do the maintenance to more
easily find the problem and fix it. And, since keeping good staff is always
problematic, it also will help new personnel, unfamiliar with the finer details
of the equipment, locate and fix problems faster.

Case in point: Management was going to spend several thousand dollars for expert
systems to help troubleshoot some complicated equipment, till some silly,
insolent wag in the pubs department asked what this system would provide that a
simple, well-documented decision tree wouldn't for considerably less money.

The expert system would be primed to ask several questions, and ask further
questions depending upon the response. The same effect could be duplicated in a
three-ring maintenance binder, which would refer the user to other pages in the
manual, depending upon the answer. (Sort of a maintenance version of a "Choose
Your Own Adventure book.) In that particular case, the decision tree involved a
few hundred pages, and was developed in-house for a considerably lower cost than
rolling out one expert system per plant would have cost.

Lower cost to roll it out, resulting in faster maintence of the machines
(meaning, in its turn lower overall maintence costs, lower overhead, higher
profit). And some esteem for the pubs department from management. Everyone wins
(except the expert system vendor).

It seems that it
would be easier to justify your existence if you ship handsome, shiny
manuals with your products.

It depends upon the accounting system your company uses. Some companies do their
cost-accounting in such a head-in-the-sand manner that nothing shows up. Others
do it well.

I work for a large company and produce systems
documentation for internal use. There is no official career path for
technical communicators here, and full-time headcount for tech writers
can probably be counted on the thumbs of both hands. Users complain about
documentation, yet no one wants to pay for it.

I assume by "systems" you mean computer programs. Here's a couple of ideas.

Find out what portions of the systems result in the most help desk calls. That's
you're first clue that's something's wrong. Recheck the docs on that section,
making them clearer and including answers for the most popular calls and
reissue. Consider issuing a short "Top Ten Q&A" letter to the users,
disseminating the answers to the top ten (or four, or six, whatever) help desk
questions. Then see what happens to help desk calls. If they go down, estimate
the time savings realized by the help desk analysts, and take credit for saving
the company $x of the help desk's time.

Send a small survey out, asking your audience what parts of the manuals are bad,
and why. (don't make it long, or you won't get much participation). Invite a few
who are wiling to come and tell you exactly what's wrong. Park your ego at the
door and let them vent while listening. You're going to hear your children (er,
your manuals) abused mightily. Resist the temptation to defend them. Some of
what you hear will be flat-out wrong, or useless. But you'll learn some things
which are valuable. Fix the biggest problems for them, and reissue. After the
reissue, ask if these new manuals are any easier. If so, how much time do your
changes save them, on average. That again can lead to a rough estimate of cost
savings for the company. Once again, claim credit for it in the name of Good
Documentation.

These actions are undertaken in the almighty name of Continuous Improvement. If
quality issues aren't important to management, update your resume. Odds are this
company won't be needing your services (or anyone else's) for much longer.

I'm going because I want to learn fresh ideas and new ways of thinking.

The two best reasons to undertake *any* project.

Sometimes it's the journey that counts, not the destination.

The Journey Is The Reward. (Sayyy. What a great title for a book!)


Have fun,
Arlen
Chief Managing Director In Charge, Department of Redundancy Department
DNRC 124

Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- JCI -dot- Com
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In God we trust; all others must provide data.
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