Are You Maintaining Your Documentation Correctly?
As I’ve said in many eZines, you must write stuff down.
The other day, an interviewer asked,
“How many pages you written?”
“Somewhere around 30,000 pages delivered, not including thousands of draft pages.”
“You must love writing!”
“I don’t love writing per se. I love the applications. I love the results. In writing, you can create, let’s say, the first level of reality. By writing, you can begin to give intangible ideas form in the physical universe.
“Can you imagine how many people discovered the secret of fire and didn’t write it down? The news had to spread by ‘tribal knowledge!’
“How many times did the secret vanish because some fire-novice asphyxiated himself and family? How many times do think some do-gooder banned fire due to its dangers?
“It probably took eons to discover that secret – over and over!
“Eventually, I suppose, someone wrote the secret on a cave wall or cocktail napkin…”
“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining… researching… talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” — E.L. Doctorow
Anyway, when you write stuff down, you’ll eventually need to update it. (I’ll talk here about large, important documents – Operations Manuals, Technical Manuals, User Manuals, or maybe the secret of fire and how to control it.)
“Mike, what have you learned over the years about maintaining documentation?”
Well, large documentation projects have their own “life cycle.” This cycle extends from conception to obsolescence.
When you develop large-scale documents, you’ll typically iterate through the following:
Includes definition, statement of goals, preliminary analysis, functional specifications, and design constraints.
Includes outline definition, format definition, etc.
Requires writing, editing, integration of various components, and proofing.
Includes verification and evaluation against the requirements.
But wait! There’s another phase I call Documentation Maintenance! It begins after you deliver your documentation to your user.
You can divide Documentation Maintenance into the following steps:
Determine need for change
Submit Change Request
Review Proposed Changes
Approve/Reject Change Request
Review and Analyze Design
Write and Edit
Verify against Standards
In these steps, I outline the maintenance process, which begins when someone needs a change and ends when your user accepts your changes.
As you can imagine, changing documentation is frequently complex and may involve many people.
For example, imagine the task of updating documentation for applications in complex electronics, aerospace, law, medical, insurance, etc. Or, how about updating flight-prep manual for a commercial airliner?
The maintenance process above appears linear. But again, you’ll undergo many steps and iterative loops.
You may need to clarify the Change Request. You may require more analysis of the Design Reviews. You may need to rewrite your Standards Audit. Your users may fail to accept the results, etc.
Someone, the “Maintainer(s)” must do the work.
This Maintainer must make changes within the context of the existing documentation. Maintenance people often find this the most challenging problem.
The older the documentation, the more challenging and time-consuming the maintenance effort. But normally, maintenance takes you less time than development.
Your development effort may span several months. You may schedule PERFECTIVE maintenance in cycles of one to six months. But, you may require CORRECTIVE maintenance within hours.
Functionally, you can divide documentation maintenance activities into three categories:
Let me explain…
“Perfective maintenance” is when you make changes, insertions, deletions, modifications, extensions, and enhancements to improve understandability or maintainability.
You generally do Perfective maintenance because you have new or changing requirements, or you may need to fine-tune the documentation.
Fine-tuning is an excellent way to introduce a new writer to your documentation. This will reduce your chance of serious errors later.
Both failures and successes of your documentation require Perfective maintenance. If your documentation works well, users want more features; if your documentation works poorly, you must fix it.
When you perform Perfective maintenance on poorly written documentation, you can dramatically reduce resource requirements by making your documentation more maintainable.
“Adaptive Maintenance” is when you adapt the documentation to changes in the user environment. Environmental changes are normally beyond control of the writer and consist mainly of changes to:
Rules, laws, and regulations that affect the documentation. Typically you must quickly make these changes to meet dates established by the rules and regulations.
Equipment configurations, such as, new computers, new terminals, local printers, etc. Usually, you want to take advantage of improved features and/or pricing. You normally perform this maintenance on a scheduled basis.
Data formats, file structures, etc. You may require extensive maintenance if these items were not properly designed and implemented. If you can isolate changes to specific modules, the maintenance may have less impact. If not, the effort can be both lengthy and costly.
System software, operating systems, compilers, utilities, etc. In these cases, you usually perform maintenance on a schedule.
“Corrective Maintenance” is when you must fix errors – sometimes immediately.
Generally, you’ll find three types of errors:
These errors include incomplete or faulty design because of incorrect, incomplete, or unclear descriptions, or when the writer does not fully understand the user’s needs.
Often, logic errors occur when user instructions and/or unusual data combinations are not tested during development or maintenance. These errors, usually attributable to the designer or previous maintainer, include invalid assumptions, tests, instructions, or conclusions, or faulty logic flow, and incorrect implementation.
The writer causes these errors. These errors include incorrect implementation or design logic, or incorrect use of special terms. While these errors may be the result of negligence or carelessness, they are usually the easiest to fix.
NOTE: Many managers consider maintenance to include changing specifications or adding new capabilities.
Fascinating stuff, eh?
5. Call to Action
As I’ve said before, I’m a fanatic about documenting business processes.
Find out for yourself! You have nothing to lose.
Together, let’s document what you want, how you want it, and when you want it. We will discuss various creative approaches before the project begins.
Your partner in streamlining business.