What is Document Control?

Posted by Steven Gentles on Mar 27, 2017 12:00:00 PM

What is document control and why do we do it? In the simplest of terms we control documents when it’s important that the right people have the right information and we need to know who has whatHere’s Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean collecting lunar soil samples in 1969 - see the checklist on his left wrist?

Apollo 12 Al Bean - What is Document Control.jpg

I’m guessing that this checklist was updated weekly (if not more often) up to and including the day of liftoff. As new checklist updates were delivered out of engineering, a document controller would have: 

  • Reviewed the distribution matrix to see who has obsolete versions
  • Make controlled copies of the latest revision
  • Run around to find and replace the now obsolete with the latest revision
  • Update his records so he knows who now has the latest revision

Why go through all this bother? Because if you're NASA, the last place you want Al Bean to be is on the moon with a checklist that’s two revisions behind.

Controlled Documents

Clearly, controlling documents takes time and costs money – and many don’t need to be controlled. The ones you need to control become obvious after you examine the potential impact of using the wrong version of a document which could include: 

  • Rework and scrap (if building to the wrong drawing)
  • Productivity (using a stale activity or experiment checklist on the moon)
  • Safety (using an out of date and sub-par repair on a pressure vessel)
  • Failed audits by regulators (most standards such as ISO 9001 require document control)
  • Litigation

Documents that need to be controlled may be created internally by your company or they may come to you from external sources such as other companies.

  • Internal documents will be typically authored and released by the engineering department then handed off to your Document Control team for controlled distribution. Whether distributed inside or outside your company, your team will follow established document control procedures so they always know what they gave to who and when (for external parties, this is tracked through a transmittal of documents process).
  • External documents by outside companies will be received as a submittal package and distributed internally by your document controllers – this is tracked through a submittal process.

It doesn’t really matter if new revisions come to you from within or without. In principle, control of external documents is achieved in the same way as for internal documentation. If your project will be negatively impacted by inadvertently using an old document version, that document needs to be controlled so you know the who, what, where and when

Regardless of the source, controlled documents need to be conspicuously marked – usually stamped CONTROLLED. That way, information consumers KNOW that they’re accessing the latest, greatest document.

Uncontrolled Documents

Best practise is to also mark all documents that aren’t controlled. This increases the probability that, for example, a reference drawing is not misused to fabricate a part. Uncontrolled information should be stamped UNCONTROLLED or REFERENCE ONLY.

Difference Between Controlled and Uncontrolled Documents

Controlled documents are always the latest revision and you never need to check.

Uncontrolled documents might be the latest revision and if you need the latest version you need to check (and if you need the latest version, it should probably be controlled).

Controlling Physical Documents

Based on the Al Bean checklist example, controlling physical media (paper, vellum, micro-film) documents is labour intensive and costly. Despite the advent of new technologies, product centric companies still rely heavily on physical documents to get work done. Libraries and sub-libraries are common to warehouse this information and document controllers need to have tools and processes in place to control updates, access and distribution.

Controlling an Electronic Document

If your company is using the right document control software, robust control can be achieved with very little effort. Coupled with solid document control procedures and experienced Document Controllers, answers to the who, what, where and when for all documents in the system are just a click away.

But if you're doing things the old school way using Network drives, Windows File Folders, Excel spreadsheets and email, control will be extremely difficult and costly to achieve (check out my blog on how network drives kill productivity).

Document Control Software - 10,000 Foot View


If you're more and more convinced that it's time to fundamentally change the way your engineers (and engineering projects) work, check out this blog for a primer on the high level things you need to start thinking about. Things like:

  • What Does Document Control Mean to You?
  • What does your company do?
  • What Top Problems Do You REALLY Need to Solve?
  • Electronic or Paper Documents (or Both – or More)?
  • The Best Solution or the Perfect Solution?
  • Will Document Control Software be Enough?
  • If Not Enough, What Else?
  • Custom, Off-the-Shelf (or a Hybrid)?
  • Cloud SaaS or On-Premise (Traditional)?
  • Got the Gamer Attitude?

I think that the last point is the most important.

By gamer attitude, I mean rapidly test drive software options, fail fast and move along until you find the right solution. If any vendor out there demands money for a trial, or takes longer than a business day to get you set up and in the driver's seat, they are not worthy of your time.

Document Control Software - Sea Level View

NASA Image AS15-82-11120HR-Document-Control.jpg

The devil is always in the details - what EXACTLY are you trying to control? Based on my Aerospace & Defence experience, I know this can cover a lot of ground. Here are three blog posts outlining what document control means to me:

Document Control Software - What Do You Want to Control (Part I)?:

  • Controlling Forms and Template
  • Controlling Identification (Numbering)
  • Controlling Document and File Access
  • Controlling Versioning

Document Control Software - What Do You Want to Control (Part II)?:

  • Controlling Release
  • Controlling Archival
  • Controlling Deletion

Document Control Software - What Do You Want to Control (Part III)?:

  • Controlling Revisioning (Project Change Control)
  • Controlling Communication
  • Controlling Distribution (Transmittals)
  • Controlling Devices (Phones & Tablets)
  • Controlling System Access

Topics: Productivity, Solution Framing, Document Control

Comments Welcome!

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