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I am employed in a company where some workers are designed to enter data into system.

They receive the data as pdf files on email. The quality is not great therefore OCR is not really an option (it's actually received through fax system). Data is five pages with tables, usually only few cells are filled although sometimes there are tens of numbers. They have to find the corresponding cell and enter the number.

What they do is - print out everything and then type from papers into the software.

This amounts to about 400 pages of paper per month. The work is done by three people with minimal training. There's no formal quality control process, but we do get feedback when one of these orders is served incorrectly.

What we (resource department) suggest is to place email and the program (the window for a table is as small as textboxes here) side by side on the screen and NOT print hundreds of papers where most of the cells are empty. As data entry clerks they have sufficiently large screens (22 or 24 inches).

They object that it's more precise from paper. We think that side by side comparison should actually be better for precision. But is there any proof of this?

Could you provide any sources, some research done about data entry quality and speed comparing entry from paper and entry from the same screen or from screen to screen?

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I would highly suggest giving them a second screen, such that they can have one "source" screen and a second "target" screen. - do a trial run - any research is likely to be data-dependent, some stuff is easier to read digitally than on paper, while others isn't - personally I find paper has a great advantage for allowing you to track where you left off. –  user2813274 Aug 4 at 17:55
    
Reading from a screen makes you about 20-30% slower vs. paper. If your data entry crew spend 120 hours on this task in a month, then skimping on the 400 printed pages might cost 25-35 hours in lost productivity. –  Brandin Aug 4 at 18:01
    
@Brandin is it faster to scroll through 5 pages of empty tables, find a single "1" and enter it in the soft or to start by printing those pages? –  Juris Aug 5 at 7:52
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FRankly when I did process improvement, I woudl not ever start with what I want the answer to be as you have done. First you document the current processs by observation and talking tothe people doing it) then you look at places where things could be easier, but never do you suggest something the people themselves do not favor doing. That is a change doomed to failure. I suspect that if you actually took the time to observe how they work rather than assuming they are stupid , you would find that there are things they do that are not easy to do with the onscreen version. –  HLGEM Aug 5 at 14:28
    
If you have to scan through a table manually/visually, personally I would find paper easier and (more importantly) less error prone, unless the digital version can be searched automatically. But you already said its not automatically searchable, so... –  Brandin Aug 5 at 15:25

3 Answers 3

I've been in a number of companies where a workflow similar to this was critiqued.

It is true that by not printing the data you are saving money in paper, toner and secure disposal costs but, as Ollie Jones mentioned in his excellent answer these are really very small costs.

Often this procedure endures as it does because 'it works' but, in my experience at least, often the individuals who want to change the procedure have little to no experience in the actuality of the work. What do I mean by that?

Documents sent via fax to an email system are often terribly named. If I'm inputting 400 pages a month, split among several workers. Ok so now we have 400 emails named "silly_report_##########". How do you split these up evenly? Are they placed in a shared network drive and pulled by each user as they are processed? How do you prevent duplicates? With a paper copy this is pretty easy. Print out the docs, split the pile up between workers and if a worker is done with their pile before everyone else they can just grab the tail end of another's pile. It is extremely easy to prevent duplicate work.

What if the worker need to stop in the middle of a page? What if there's a question about the data? These are small, simple questions that, often, folks coming in to change the process don't think about.

Additionally - side by side documents, even in a 24" monitor, is going to be fairly small. Consider that a monitor is often ~2 feet away from the user and a paper document may be less than a foot away... this is not a small different. Additionally I would wager that these workers do not spend that much time looking at the screen right now. They probably pour over the printed documents and type in the data with only a cursory glance at the screen. Having workers stare at a screen for 8 hours a day is very different and may bring with it additional challenges.

In short - this sounds like the kind of change new workers or new management try to do to 'get noticed'. It also sounds like the kind of change that, at best, marginally increases productivity and, at worst, decimates morale.

What do you really hope to gain out of this change? To be completely honest the biggest gains you could get your company would be finding a way to automate more of the system OR a process to check the accuracy of the current system. OCR from fax isn't great but it's certainly doable. Perhaps a better solution might even be to stop using fax as an input point? (If users have a fax machine surely they have access to the web and could input the data into forms or via email etc.) I really think you're barking up an unhelpful tree with your current goal.

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Can you make a business case for this change? That's what you need to do. You need to find some benefits for making the change that outweigh the costs of making the change.

What are the possible benefits? improved accuracy? faster turnaround? lower production cost (paper and laser-printer toner)? Notice that accuracy and fast turnaround could be overwhelmingly compelling benefits if they will improve profitability or customer satisfaction.

What are the possible costs of making the change? training? overcoming employee resistance to change? designing a new workflow so orders don't get missed on somebody's hard drive?

Accuracy

Your question focuses on the question of accuracy. That is a legitimate place to focus, if the key benefit of making the change is to improve accuracy.

When I used a famous search engine whose name begins with g to look up "Data Entry Accuracy Studies" I quickly found good work on this question. That work comes out of health-statistics studies, where accuracy is mission-critical. It's mostly about doing quality control. But you don't do that.

Operational Costs

You have the potential to avoid using one package of paper (500 sheets) each month. The cost of that ream of paper where I work is about US$4. If you use the most expensive imaginable inkjet printer, you'll get another $10 a month.

If your volume goes up by a factor of four, you're up to US$56 a month in cost savings. That is two or three hours of wages for an IT specialist. That's not much money, especially if your replacement on screen system requires ongoing IT support.

Conclusion

With respect, drop this project. It's too small. Find an area where you can really boost your company's fortunes.

Personal note

I once worked at a place that received and processed about a million pages of fax images a month. It was vital to profitability to handle those pages efficiently. But the situation you describe 3-4 orders of magnitude smaller.

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What about the human time required to walk to the printer, sift through/change pages, refill the printer & supplies, etc.? Those are costs as well. Recycling the paper costs money too. And having the data in hardcopy presents an additional risk of proprietary information walking out the door. –  alroc Aug 4 at 13:38
    
The quality and lack of quality control is up to their department. Our concern is that they are demanding for an additional printer from us (resource department) because they "have to work in parallel". –  Juris Aug 4 at 13:43
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@alroc I take your point. Let's quadruple, again, my estimated cost to cover the labor of operating the printer. We're now at about US$200 per month. I'm pretty sure the basic argument remains unchanged. –  Ollie Jones Aug 4 at 13:43

I've done some data entry in my life. The main advantage with using paper is that it's easy to put a ruler on a paper and mark what line you're on. While some programs will allow you to use a highlighter or draw a line on the screen, it's usually more cumbersome and it also requires you to shift from keyboard to mouse and shift focus between programs.

It is, of course, possible that your staff who've been doing the data entry for a long time are wrong about what is the best way to do it. In order to test that, I'd suggest that you find one or a few workers who are willing to test using the screen instead of papers. Then measure the difference in throughput and accuracy.

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