Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Paper Free in 1983!" Are You Any Closer To A Paper Free Office Almost 30 Years Later?

Over this past weekend, my friend and I ran into a neighborhood acquaintance and her husband. Our ships were passing at a busy local restaurant and they offered to let us inherit their coveted table. Over the ensuing few minutes as two couples traded conversation, we caught up on personal and professional lives. As fate would have it, current and past careers were discussed and Stephen, who is employed with one of the "Big 4" Accounting Firms, reminisced about a long forgotten, failed,  initiative,"Paper Free in '83...." This catchy diddy was supposed to be the theme of his company's "paperless office" mandate almost thirty years ago.

The first twelve plus years of my professional career was spent in various roles with a Fortune 50 Supermarket Chain. Accountants, attorneys, mortgage brokers of all stripes, and supermarkets have to be on the Sierra Club's All Time Most Wanted List!
One of Pop's Original Filing Cabinets:
Still Going Strong in 2012

Every time you purchase an item at your local supermarket, you generate a valuable data point (and potentially lines on multiple reports). This information can be used for good, for instance to provide you truly targeted, useful, coupons, for items you want instead of meaningless, expensive, truly "earth unfriendly," mass mailed, missives you no doubt move from mailbox to trash-box routinely multiple times a week. If you receive targeted, "membership" driven, coupons from your supermarket today, I bet they are VERY good at pinpointing what you currently place in your bascart, or better yet, what you might be tempted to buy! I was around for, and part of, the genesis of the "shopping card" revolution. (Please forward all positive and negative feedback to me directly.)

Data, data, data.... Imagine the math.  Seventy stores (70) X 365 days a year (we never closed!) X 1,500 transactions/day X 18 items per transaction = 690,000,000 TRANSACTIONS a YEAR! or about 2 Million transactions a day! (For seventy stores! Imagine the transactional volume nationally for Walmart or Target. The company I worked for has well over a dozen regional offices such as the one I worked in, each faced with a similar mudslide of large numbers. With well over 1,000 stores nationally, in aggregate, the volume of  transactional data and felled trees detailing this activity in various ways, is staggering!

I poured over reports. Numbing billing records, shipping data, retail pricing discrepancies, competitive pricing analyses, and much, much, more. Reports. Reports, Reports. A runner from the mail room would deliver thousands of pages, mostly regurgitations of the dreaded fanfold, alternating color, variety, from one of the many high speed data printers which ran 24/7 in the bowels of our office's IT Department.  

Day and night. Seven days a week. I took pen, pencil, highlighters, rulers, post it notes (god my associates hated it when I discovered how useful Post Its were in moving paper along!) Store level billing issues alone in the thirteen plus years I worked for this company is probably responsible for felling the Sequoia National Forest several times over. Elements of this merry-go-round of business, reporting, and corrective actions, are no doubt better today, but I don't know that the rain-forest is any safer:

Computers are literally quantum leaps more advanced than the turn of the century. Mainframe and local (PC) processing power isn't just a generation or two faster than fifteen years ago, the typical desktop computer is well over 500 times more adept at handling these mammoth data sets! (This is an awesome testimony to our country's engineering and creative might, not to mention Moore's Law's predictive capability.)

Report Filtering allows exceptions to shine through better than ever. I spent countless hours of my life addressing exceptions. After all, that is what everyone was searching for (and attempting to rectify), exceptions. Some were very important: If our system had a cost of .01 for a bag of dog food which a national supplier was charging $11.29, potentially we would issue a payment check "wrong" by $11.28/bag (times 20,000 bags a month) creating a $225,600 under payment to the supplier. Oops. (Catching faux-paws like this was part of my group's responsibilities in those days at least.)

Far more ridiculously, a store might be billed retail for this same bag of dog food $60 on the inter-company paperwork, while its actual retail "value" was $15 a bag (the price this store's scanning system actually sold this product to you, the customer, the week of delivery).  This "actual retail" (which I may well have set at the time using a different computer system!) was $15, netting a $45/bag "retail" accounting charge to the store on paper.... This loss, or gain, was fictional. This discrepancy was called "retail shrink" and it was actually an accounting "game" with potentially dire consequences. Store Managers were graded on many things, among them "retail shrink"-- the paper loss or gain of products moving through their store based on accounting/data input miscues.  So when this kind of billing error crossed a store's desk, more paperwork was churned out to correct the error. More paper, more chances to create havoc as the Forms were pushed back to the office, or visa versa, which had to be manually keyed and reconciled. Theoretically, each of the seventy stores could sell this bag of dog food at a different actual retail price (for competitive reasons), and may also have had a different cost depending on which cost "bucket" they were assigned as product moved through our warehouse distribution systems. If you are envisioning reams of paper print outs gobbling up every inch of available space in my cubicle, you are beginning to get an accurate portrayal of the situation.

Suffice it to say, my company's "paper free" initiative, as laudable as it may have been, never got off the ground or even taken seriously. You can see why.... Well, the report from my friend Stephen was clear, life in this regard hasn't changed much at all over the past fifteen years. My work with several law firms and mortgage companies over the more recent past makes me want to buy stock in  Weyerhauser, the paper tiger is alive and well indeed!

So how is your desk these days? Can you see through the piles or is it all you can do to unearth the telephone when it rings? Are you making at least incremental progress on your "Paper Free, Save A Tree"  efforts or have you thrown in the white flag of surrender? 

Here are some tips to take on the battle anew:

Rule 1 if it arrives digitally, keep it that way! Have you ever received a PDF file or Word Document which requires your signature for legal or other purposes? Have you ever resorted to printing this document, signing  said paperwork and either a.) faxing the paperwork back and filing it away (probably never to be seen again until the infamous "office cleaning day" is mandated a year so down the road) or, b.) scanning the signed forms and returning them to sender as an email attachment (slightly better, but still far from optimal, as far as efficiency and the environmentalists are concerned).

The solution, E-sign, return, and keep the file electronically should you ever need it for reference! You would be amazed how many offices I have worked in through the years which won't put this practice in place. Whether you are the recipient or the creator of these types of documents, it easier to set up paperless solutions than ever before.  Right Signature is a web service specializing is solving this problem. The originator uploads the document and identifies the signatories. The parties sign using a fax service (ugh) or directly using a portable device such as an iPad! (Hooray!) As a bonus, Right Signature then archives the finalized document for you! You can sign up for free and test the service with up to five documents. This service isn't free; it will run between $14 and $249 per month depending on your needs. However, this is money well spent for most businesses. You will save time, be much better organized, and impress current and new clients with your workflow. 
Writing With A Mouse Isn't That Easy!

Want another alternative? Sure! Get your signature into an electronic format. You can scan your signature at a high DPI (dot  per inch) setting on white paper and save the file for insertion into email and documents. If you want a more direct approach use an online service such as My Live Signature. I recommend using a tablet to actually create your digital signature using a stylus or finger, but if you're sitting at your desktop, coordinated,and feeling adventurous, you can click on the nearby link and try using your mouse. Go ahead, it is a fun exercises  if nothing else! (Friends and family who have had to struggle with my penmanship for decades may think I should stick with a mouse for all my handwritten prose!)

Once you have your signature digitized, it is a reasonably simple matter to add it to PDF files, Word Documents and even emails. If you want or need specific instructions how to do this, drop me a note and I will forward directions for your needs. If enough people request additional help, I will devote a follow-up article to detailing the required steps.

Use an e-fax service if you must fax at all! I hate faxing! Talk about last century's technology which apparently simply won't bow out gracefully and die a quiet death, faxing creates paper, filing, and retrieval  problems no one has time to address. If for some reason you must fax ( and yes, there are companies which require facsimile documentation even if the material is already in electronic (i.e. easy to send via email) form) to satisfy a client or vendor, skip steps and use one of the many e-fax alternatives. If you fax needs are infrequent as mine are, you may even be able to use one of the many good free fax company available on the web such as faxzero.com. Many companies, including my company, Music Row Tech, offer economical e-fax products for those whose faxing needs extend beyond a few pages or a handful of fax transactions a month.

Get the receipts, expense reports, and other, paperwork digitized and off your desk! The Neat Company scanner and software solution is a great place to start.   As I have written in previous articles, including this post, Neat can greatly eliminate paperwork, while making reporting and retrieving data-- especially receipts!-- easy when you do need to get your hands on this information again. As a bonus, you can easily digitize and sync business cards with Outlook and other organizing tools using this software and hardware solution.

While we are on the subject of business cards, if you are carrying around an iOS or Android SmartPhone, take five minutes and set up your business information using Bump, or a similar App. Many people today prefer obtaining and maintaining their contact information electronically. LinkedIn's popularity is built around this premise. Still, a paper business card is still considered a necessary accessory of the business world. Bump represents a compromise (and a better "mouse trap" to many). The next time someone asks for your business card while they are staring at their 'phone, use Bump instead of reaching for that crinkled and bent card stuffed between your Costco Membership and Insurance cards. It works and saves the step of scanning and adding this person to your electronic "rolodex" (remember those!?).

You don't have to be a card carrying environmentalist to want to minimize printed documentation around your office. Storing and retrieving all the paper now covering your desk is far better accomplished using bits and bytes. Storage space is expensive, manual filing is rife with error and is time consuming, and the time you spend searching for that "needle in the haystack" exception, or contact, which you "can't quite put your fingers on" is far easier using electronic search tools than combing through piles of paper which "only you really understand!"

I can't tell you how many hours of my life I have spent looking for paperwork "I just saw a day or two ago." There were many trips to my father's law office where I literally had to skip and jump between piles of paper covering his floor to find safe haven on a chair in the corner. Certain corners of our life, especially those touched by legal details, seem stuck in a paper jungle. It's 2012 and we are still a long way from a paperless business world. Are you doing your part? If not, let this post be your inspiration to get started!

If  you have a paperless solution which works for you, I invite you to share your comments below. If you think this post might be of value to a friend or business associate, please reshare this post on Google+, Twitter, or FaceBook.

I currently participate in the Amazon Associates Program and certain item links included within this post may tie to this affiliate program.

I have a long position in

Companies:   Neat, Weyerhauser

This commentary is not meant as an endorsement of any company or to provide financial advice.  If the author has any financial interest in any company mentioned at the time of this article’s posting, it will be explicitly noted. I welcome feedback and comments. 

Music Row Tech will never sell, give away or use your personal information with third parties. 

All rights reserved @2012, Music Row Tech (MRT). Any reproduction without the author's consent is prohibited.


  1. Good point. In my opinion, all offices should use internet faxing. Here is the process of wasting paper. First, a paper is printed out. Then, it is used to fax over to someone else then either shreded or stored somewhere. How about we move printing and put in internet faxing. Now, the new process is: Someone gets an attachment, faxes it over to Australia by clicking a button and done. No paper killed. That is what we did in our offices. We use internet faxing to provide us with the solution for our entire internet faxing needs.

  2. Time has come for companies and administrations to give up keeping tons of wretched papers since the implementation of all this new technology ! Great !


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