Establishing a Document Control System

The particulars of each organization’s document control system may vary, but the principles that inform the design of a consistent, effective, and logical system are universal. Whether you’re seeking conformance to a specific standard, like an ISO standard, or building a system to meet your own internal quality goals and culture, your development process should be driven by what you expect your document control system to achieve. Bear in mind that an effective document control system is not just a place for files to live when you’re not using them, but a set of processes for editing, labeling, retrieving, storing, and reviewing those documents in an orderly and consistent way to form a logical system. 

As you plan the design of your system, start by considering the types of documents your organization utilizes, both created and referenced routinely like lab reports and those used or reviewed infrequently like emergency procedures. Your system must be suitable for managing all types of documents and make them accessible to the correct people when they are needed. Different types of documents might be governed by different procedures, and the relevant procedure will have to be clear and consistent for anyone interacting with the documents now or in the future. Consider which documents need to move between departments and individuals, and how continuity will be maintained across any copies or versions.  

In general, a successful document control system will need to include all of the following procedures, each of which may be different depending on the type of document in question. If you are seeking conformance to a specific standard, be sure to check the requirements related to document management or document control systems as you begin your planning. 

  • Creation: Documents should be formatted in a way that is clear and consistent with other documents of similar kinds. Consider whether you need templates, what aspects of the templates can be modified, and by whom.  

  • Review: Who is responsible for approving and finalizing any newly created document or revisions of existing documents? ISO standards often specify who must review the documents and what the reviewer’s credentials must be, so if you are seeking accreditation, make sure you refer to a copy of the relevant standard when you make these decisions. 

  • Revision: Nearly all documents will need to be revised at some point. The interval of these revisions will depend on the document type and company needs. It must always be clear which version of the document is the most up to date, but a version history should be clearly maintained, and the changes or corrections from one version to the next should be clear. Keep in mind that multiple copies of a document may exist, and all copies must be consistent. 

  • Organization: Standards may specify how documents are to be organized, so check the requirements as necessary. Categorization of documents will vary from one industry to the next, but clear identifiers such as publication date and revision date, as well as page numbers and titling conventions are important for consistent organization. 

  • Accessibility: Documents must be readily accessible to the people who need them, and access to some documents will need to be restricted to only the relevant parties or departments. Accessibility refers both to the security and permissions associated with a document, and the staff’s ability to retrieve the document at the time and place it is needed, whether in a physical cabinet or a computer terminal. 

  • Removal: Documents that are mistakenly duplicated or created in error can be deleted to prevent confusion, but obsolete versions of documents should be securely archived to create a clear version history. The design of the system should ensure that obsolete documents are separate from up-to-date documents and that older versions cannot be confused for current versions. 

An effective document control system is an important component of a quality system and plays a risk management role in every organization. Clear, effective processes create a strong foundation for consistency and steady growth. For more information about creating effective processes, managing risk, and the requirements associated with ISO standards, consider one of AWPT’s many instructor-led or self-directed course offerings. Interested in a course that’s not currently on the schedule? Contact us about scheduling a custom training session.