There are two types of filing systems. Paper and Computer.
Any system of computer filing is faster and more versatile than a paper method. If your paper documents are scanned then they can be tagged and they can be located in the blink of an eye with a computer search.
Paper systems can be messy, but I’m going to show you a simple way to deal with all that paper, no matter what the paper is about.
The bomb-disposal site in your office, and your dining-room table are going to be yours again!
Much of what I write here is also applicable to the business of allocating folders on your computer hard drive, and you will spot those places immediately, but for now, I am going to discuss ONLY that mountain of paper that keeps you awake at night.
As always, the first thing is to set a goal. Try this and see how it feels: “I want to be able to lay my hands on any particular sheet of paper within thirty seconds.”.
Sounds good? Implicitly we mean “within my office, where I am now standing”. If you are in Paris France and your home office is in Toronto Canada, you’ll need to add at least seven hours to your goal time.
A typical filing system has one or more filing cabinets in a room, each cabinet has one or more drawers, each drawer has perhaps two dozen hanging folders, and each hanging folder holds up to half a dozen manila folders.
Each manila folder may hold anything from twenty to five hundred pieces of paper, and I’ll tell you why that is a little further down.
Your goal of thirty seconds means that you have to
(1) Locate the appropriate filing cabinet
(2) Locate the appropriate drawer
(3) Locate the appropriate hanging folder
(4) Locate the appropriate manila folder
(5) Locate the appropriate piece of paper
These five steps must be taken in sequence. It follows that the time of thirty seconds will be allocated in parts to each of the five steps.
Let’s start at the simplest unit – the piece of paper.
The Piece of Paper
A collection of papers in a manila folder may be a set of account statements, a set of invoices, a set of ATM receipts, or a collection of press clippings about forestry.
Where items have an obvious key (such as ATM receipts which can be sorted by date), we can have up to 500 or so of them, because when we are looking for the ATM receipt for the deposit made on Friday, August 26, 2013, we can quickly locate the date in the date sequence and narrow down our search.
Invoices for telephone accounts can be grouped by supplier and then date within supplier, or just grouped by date if the number of suppliers is low. In either case you will be hunting for a manila folder marked “Telephone Accounts” or else for “Telephone Accounts - BELL” or “Telephone Accounts - ROGERS” and so on.
The Manila Folder
Each manila folder will collect a bunch or group of papers. If your telephone accounts are not too bulky, then you might keep “Telephone Accounts - BELL” and “Telephone Accounts - ROGERS” in a manila folder marked ““Telephone Accounts”.
If all your corporate or domestic accounts for telephone, travel, supplies and meals are not too bulky, those bunches of papers can be in a single manila folder marked “Accounts”.
You might need to have two manila folders marked “Domestic Accounts” and “Corporate Accounts”. We’ll see how to decide that in a moment.
Filing Cabinets, Drawers and Hanging Folders
At this stage you have reduced a mountain of sheets of paper into a small hill of manila folders, and in that process, you have gained a broad understanding of volumes.
At this point you could measure the total storage length of your system as the number of cabinets multiplied by the number of drawers multiplied by the depth of drawers in inches (typically twelve). If you own two four-drawer cabinets, you would say that you had ninety-six inches of space.
Now measure the depth of your pile of manila folders. Let’s suppose that it comes to four feet or forty-eight inches.
That suggests that each drawer could be half-full, on average.
While it is wise to leave some space for growth, you might start off by trying to group your set of manila folders with some logic. Maybe “Corporate” and “Domestic” or “Current” and “Archived” and so on. At this point you will be able to sort your manila folders into a logical sequence and load them a few at a time into hanging folders in the cabinet drawers.
Label the cabinets, drawers, and hanging folders and you are done!
Run with the system for a month or so; it will not be perfect; you may decide that you need a different arrangement in collecting or grouping manila folders.
During the trial period, keep a stopwatch handy and every now and then time yourself to see how long it takes you to lay a hand on a piece of paper.
If your timing is always within your stated goal, then you have achieved your goal, and congratulations are in order.
Otherwise you will spend some time rethinking your management of papers. Do you experience delays when hunting for accounts rather than equipment? Are the newspaper clippings taking you far too long?
Focus on the poor areas and improve the filing in that area.