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6 min read

Mastering Document Control in Construction: A Blueprint for Success

Chris Lee
Published Dec 14, 2023

Before I started working in construction management, I used to see skyscrapers being built and imagine the extraordinary effort put in by so many talented people to construct these massive edifices piercing into the sky. Years later, the same feeling of wonder fills me when I get a chance to see an exciting construction project. The difference is now I know something else: construction projects are built on top of mountains of paperwork.

What is Construction Document Control?

The process of effectively managing how documents get created, processed, organized, communicated, distributed and archived is called document control. It’s a vital process in the construction industry and it needs to be managed effectively on a project of any size, otherwise problems will arise.

There are many different types of documentation in a construction project. Each one serves a different purpose and has different rules regarding its communication. Ultimately, a streamlined document control system has a serious impact on the success of a construction project and plays a key role in the following aspects of a project:

Legal Compliance: The original contract documents, addenda, permits, RFIs and approved submittals are all documentation that can aid you in your legal defense should any claims or lawsuits stem from issues on the project. Having this information organized and easily accessible enables your team to use it effectively as backup should a dispute arise. Additionally, many projects (especially public projects) require periodic audits to ensure proper procedures are being followed and that funding is being used properly. A good document management system helps make an audit as streamlined and easy as possible.

Risk Mitigation: Many project documents involved on a construction project, like RFIs, submittals, insurance documentation, permits, and change orders can represent risk to your project if you don’t have an efficient system to process them. For example, a long lead item in a submittal might get missed unless you have a procurement tracking log setup that provides a precise time for when the submittal needs to be approved and when to place the material order. By having a reliable system in place to not only submit and process the submittal, but also allow for confidence on when you’ll receive the approved submittal back, you can easily take control of the risk that document control can present and manage it.

Communication and Collaboration: Construction projects get built by teams, and the key to a project getting built on-time and within budget is good communication. A robust document control system includes how the documentation within a construction project gets communicated to the right people at the right time.

Quality Assurance: Many permanent materials on a construction project have extremely specialized specifications and slight variations in parts ordered or certain material qualities, even between two items that might otherwise appear the same, can have massive impacts on the quality of the final product. Making sure proper documentation is maintained for permanent materials is critical to making sure everyone on a project knows which materials need to be installed in which location, that the right material for the specific application is being used, and that it’s installed the correct way as recommended by the manufacturer. Making sure that the correct documentation is in the hands of the right people is critical to the quality of the finished construction project.

Establishing The Right Document Control Process

Now that we’ve established how important document control is, it’s time to take a look at what goes into setting up a good document control system on your projects. Follow these steps to build out your document control system the right way.

1. Assign Duties and Responsibilities: Making sure you have one individual who acts as the document control manager is crucial in making sure the process works successfully. This person serves as the one who makes sure the procedures and submission requirements specific to each type of documentation are being followed, that the files are organized and that the right information is accessible. In addition to a document control manager, you might have individuals responsible for submittals pertaining to certain scopes on the project, as well as RFIs. How you assign the responsibilities is up to you, but what is important is that the responsibilities needed for the various document control systems are covered and that each person knows what they are responsible for and how to execute their process.

2. Create a Centralized, Unified System: Create a centralized document management framework (DMF) for the storage, organization, and management of all project-related documents. This can be done as simply as using a shared file folder system, excel spreadsheets and emails, or it can be much more advanced, such as construction project management software. Obviously, using an industry-specific software solution streamlines the system, but you may not need the advanced (and often costly) capabilities these systems provide. What is important though, is making sure you have a centralized system in place and that your team understands how to use it. Consider the user interface and how easy it is for different construction personas to use (like a Superintendent) and facilitate information and documentation flowing throughout the project team. You should also look for a centralized DMF that is cloud-based. Clouds-based systems offer parties in remote locations access to the system and usually provide data backup to ensure you have protected copies of information.

3. Document Naming and Version Oversight: It’s important to enforce a uniform naming protocol for documents, encompassing project title, document type, date, and version index. Establish this convention at the beginning of a project and to make sure all stakeholders understand and follow that protocol throughout the duration of the project. This allows all members of the project team to have confidence that they are using the most up-to-date and current documents to build. This also allows for faster retrieval of documentation and a more efficient system, which will reduce stress and the administrative burden on the management staff.

4. Access Management and Permissions: Not everyone on the project needs to have the same level to access all of the documentation. Sometimes there is financial or legal information that the project manager may want to keep confidential. Set up different permission levels and assign project management team members permission-based roles that restrict what documentation they can access. This can help to secure proprietary information and also restrict users from accidentally deleting or altering documentation.

5. Document Analysis and Endorsement Process: Having your document control manager oversee the quality of the documentation and ensure the standards are being followed ensures that all of the documentation on your project is reliable and will cost the least amount of administrative time to process. This includes outlining workflows of how the documentation should flow in its lifecycle and defining at which step it is reviewed by which individual. By creating a standardized process that everyone knows and can easily follow, you will expedite the processing time and improve the experience of everyone on the project management team.

6. Routine Audits: Regularly auditing your own system and making sure that it is functioning the way it was designed is key to understanding how effective it is and how the system can be improved. Analyze the quality of the documentation and make sure it’s organized appropriately. Check for standardization in the naming conventions and workflows and look at duration times in each of the parts of the workflow, including the response times. This can help you understand where you document control systems  work well and how you can improve it to function better in future jobs.

Here are some additional considerations for maintaining proper function of the document control system once you have it established on your project:

Training: Offer extensive training to all project team members on document control practices and the selected DMF.

Standardization: Develop and apply standardized templates for common documents like meeting records, site reports, and quality assurance checklists.

Archiving: Formulate a method for archiving and storing documents for future reference.

Accessibility: Make certain that all project stakeholders can access necessary documents, regardless of their location or technical proficiency.

Investing in an effective document control system is critical for any construction project, irrespective of its scale or complexity. By dedicating efforts to define roles, select a unified system, and implement clear protocols, you can have confidence in smooth, efficient project documentation progression with minimal risk.

Poor Documentation Control Has A Cost

If you don’t have a well-planned and thought out document control system in place on a project, you are opening yourself and your company up to massive risks in profitability erosion and schedule delay. These are some of the negative repercussion that can stem from an improper or poorly designed document control system:

Escalating Costs and Redundancy: Misplaced or duplicated documents, issues stemming from versioning control with revised drawings or specifications, and lost documentation can all lead to schedule delays, rework, and increased administrative time spent to correct issues,  which represents money that comes out of your bottom line.

Inaccurate Tracking and Overlooked Deadlines: Documentation can often have very hard deadlines in order for the work to continue on a construction project. A poor document control system can cause those deadlines to be missed or, in some cases, completely misunderstood in the first place. A chaotic workflow will cause confusion amongst the project management team and can lead to costly mistakes and rework if the right information isn’t distributed in a timely manner.

Compromised Quality and Safety: If certain details or standards located in the drawings or specifications are not properly communicated to the construction team and permanent work is built in a way that deviates from the established design standards, it represents not only a financial and legal risk to you, but also potentially jeopardizes the quality and safety of the structure you are building. If an accident or structural failure occurs in the future of the project it can cause huge financial consequences and, more importantly, can compromise the safety of the public.

Strained Relationships and Tarnished Reputation: If your document control process is ineffective and causes mistakes and frustration, it can often strain relationships between stakeholders on the team. That could lead to owners not wanting to work with you because you are not organized. And it could mean that subcontractors may choose to not work with you because the poor document control affects them from a financial and stress perspective too.

Final Thoughts

The financial ramifications of these issues can be profound, leading to lost profits, missed opportunities, and legal entanglements. Beyond the monetary costs, poor document control can also negatively impact employee morale, productivity, and job satisfaction. Having been on many projects where poor document control processes were implemented, I can say it is a frustrating and stressful environment to be in and can really affect the quality of life of everyone working on the project.

Disregarding document control spells trouble in construction. It’s not just about file organization; it’s about laying the groundwork for effective teamwork, quality assurance, and risk management. By giving document control the attention it deserves, construction companies can significantly enhance their profitability, project outcomes, and stand out in a competitive market.

Further Reading: How to Create Construction Schedules That Build Profitable Projects

Chris Lee

Chris combines his experience in tech and construction to build products that actually help SMB contractors improve and streamline their business operations.

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