Information is power, within reason, so today’s business environment puts a premium on such. We’re told that computers reduce paperwork; more often they increase it. And one of the biggest workplace complaints is the inability to catch up on business reading.

How do you reconcile these conflicting ideas? For each company, the solutions will be different. The key is to decide what must be produced and kept, what’s optional, what’s habitual and what’s just plain silly.

Electrical contractors can reduce overhead—and employee stress—by reviewing information systems and reducing paperwork.

Admittedly, some of your paperwork is required by government regulations, customer demands, and the need to have access to historical and current information. But every electrical contractor gathers and keeps at least some unnecessary information. Take a look at every piece of paper you generate, and find ways to simplify and improve your information system.

Forms

Every form should be simple, and anyone who is required to fill out a form should know how the information will be used. Even better, make sure that anyone who completes a form receives feedback—a summary of the information and its value to the company.

Also, track the data entry process. Current software programs should make it easy to retrieve and transfer information without re-keying. Good database management reduces costly reporting errors.

Simplify forms using letter and number codes, checklist formats or short-answer options. If your forms are computerized, make sure every employee has training in keyboarding. It’s the best investment you’ll make in overall training.

Include targets on data forms. For example, time cards should include budgeted hours for tasks assigned. Defining expected performance goals is the most basic way to identify skill gaps and reduce employee anxiety. Effective reporting includes a feedback loop.

Handbooks and procedures

Does your employee manual fail the utility test? If most employees don’t read and understand your policies and procedures, they are too complex and too wordy. Simply tell them what the policy is, to whom it applies and the consequences of failing to follow it. Most employees should be able to use some judgment in their job performance. What they need to know is how to avoid major compliance errors and keep the company out of legal trouble.

If your lawyer isn’t comfortable with a shortened version, use additional summary materials, such as a one-page “rules of conduct” listing or posted memos as reminders.

Simpler rules make compliance easier, and you’ll reduce the costs of disciplinary enforcement and low morale.

Analyze each report you require or provide to someone else. Who produces it? How long is it? Who must have the information? Who else must read it? Can it be process electronically, instead of in hard copy format? Train everyone to communicate precisely and tersely. If a sentence will do, don’t use a paragraph. Provide summary information instead of piles of data. Ask to see variances, not information on what’s working according to plan.

Think about the meaning, not the amount of information you’re presenting. You can always provide an appendix or more information upon request.

Planning

To survive and prosper, the company should have both a business plan and a strategic plan. A plan doesn’t have to be lengthy, and it can be altered as conditions and goals change. Planning forces you to decide why you are in business, and how you intend to operate to achieve your goals. If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you know when you get there?

If you can’t do a complete analysis and long-term strategic plan, develop a mission statement and decide on your core values. Without these, your employees have no focus and cannot contribute their best ideas. When everyone has the same vision, employees’ judgments will align with company goals, and your team will pull together.

The best source of ideas is the people who work with the systems or tasks you’re reviewing. Employees know their own jobs best, and they can suggest ways to save real money. You might even consider some form of compensation for paperwork-reduction ideas.

Don’t forget the principles of feng shui, which are drifting into the domestic marketplace. Clutter, especially paperwork, is one of the primary impediments to a comfortable, lower stress work environment, where energy can flow freely. The Chinese have known this for 5,000 years.

Ultimately, every electrical contractor can improve its information system, and even small steps will improve accuracy, reduce the cost of errors and lighten the paperwork burden. Less can be more, especially when you get the same information and improve profits while your employees are more relaxed, more productive and more accurate. EC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.