Image showing woman pushing a stack of papers aside in favor of a laptop

What would you do if you were able to free up 30 minutes every week by simplifying the work processes used by your team? Improving forms may not have the political weight of a new roadway project, or the popular support of a park improvement, but they are the number-one thing you can do to immediately increase the efficiency of your organization and, in turn, upgrade public perception of your organization.

Behind every paper form in your office lurks a clunky, manual process that is begging to be digitized so it can become more efficient and lead to a better customer experience. Your customers yearn for a more modern approach to interacting with the local government, and your staff will appreciate a reduction in the menial work they have to do.

Paper forms may be hidden in plain sight in all corners of your organization. Forms used by your police department for vacation house watches; human resource forms for onboarding new employees; or reservation forms for parks, shelters, and meeting rooms all are examples that may be found behind customer counters in your organization.

These paper forms may be familiar and comfortable to your employees, but they should almost always be a red flag indication that a process needs to be improved and brought into the modern age. Spending a little time digitizing these paper forms now will certainly lead to process improvements in your office. This modernization will, in turn, improve internal efficiency and customer satisfaction.

We extend our sympathies to you if you still have any of those vintage triplicate forms around your office. The 1980s called and they want their forms back! One of our employees recently filed a permit with the state of Ohio for a swimming pool that is being constructed in our new recreation center, and in return he received a hand-written carbon copy receipt. This triplicate receipt is an administrative canary in the coal mine that is telling us there are process improvements needed in that office.

Before everyone else breathes a sigh of relief and says this isn’t a problem in your organization because you have all of your forms on your website, let us point out that online pdfs are only slightly better than the paper forms you used to keep behind your customer counter. In most cases, online pdfs have only made the forms more accessible to your customers. They have not addressed the underlying issues of inefficiency and rework that are intrinsic within paper and pdf forms.

Online pdf forms, even if they are fillable, typically require someone in your organization to retype and re-enter data from those forms into another system or workflow. Even worse, we often find that these online forms are immediately printed by your staff — whether they come into your office digitally or not — so the form can be reviewed and manually routed for approval around your organization. The repetitive entry of data and the errors that can result from retyping should be a sign that your organization needs to become more efficient by using better digital tools.

What Lean Management Reveals About the Real Waste of Outdated Forms

Lean management is the suite of tools and techniques that enable an organization to deliver value to the customer at the highest possible quality, in the shortest possible time, and for the lowest possible cost, while respecting those who do the work. A hallmark of lean management is to reduce waste, including the time and materials necessary to produce the desired outcomes for the customer. The outdated forms in your office reveal many of the common forms of waste that lean categorizes:


Paper and pdf forms typically do not have sophisticated built-in mechanisms to ensure that customers fill out fields correctly and completely. Modern digital form tools feature conditional fields that appear only when the customer selects certain characteristics, helping to ensure that customers only see the fields that they absolutely have to fill out. Further, the fields in an online form can be built to accept information only in an expected format, like a 10-digit phone number or a specific user ID. Selecting dates from a dropdown calendar will prevent errors in date entries. Simplicity helps eliminate errors and improves customer satisfaction.

Over-production and Inventory

I once glanced over the front desk of a police department that had at least 30 different paper forms hanging in individual baskets on the wall. All of these paper forms were copied in advance, virtually ensuring that outdated forms would have to be thrown away when updates were made to information or fields on the form. Even worse, old and outdated versions of paper forms continue to be found in desk drawers and filing cabinets around the office, almost ensuring future defects and errors in the completion of these forms when they are pulled out and used.

Waiting and Unnecessary Motion

Printed forms typically are manually routed around your office waiting for the review and approval by all the necessary personnel who need to see the application. In contrast, fully digital forms allow parallel or concurrent review among different staff and departments, and they move seamlessly around your organization with no additional effort.

Extra Processing

Often paper and online pdf forms are only customer-facing front-end tools. The manual re-entry of these paper and online forms into back-end software or offline spreadsheets used for tracking means that staff is re-entering customer information, which invites opportunities for transposition errors to occur.

Underutilizing Human Talents

This is another waste within lean that is not always fully measurable. For example, assigning basic or menial work to an advanced employee who is manually processing or re-entering customer data. Digitizing forms will free up time and capacity in your organization, empowering employees to contribute at a higher level. For most team members this can be invigorating, but for some others it can leave them in a “who moved my cheese” moment. Notably, every time that we have fully digitized the work of a building department, it freed up at least 50% of a full-time employee’s schedule for other tasks.

Careful Review of Form Fields Will Shorten Your Forms and Make Your Customers Happy

You should always spend time carefully reviewing the questions and information that are requested on a form. Ask why each field is necessary and who is reviewing the information. One good acid test question: If a field is filled out incorrectly, will it be rejected? If not, it may be a field that can be removed.

The lack of clarity in a form affects customers and staff. It is possible that the department reviewing the form may not even know why certain fields are included. And if the cross-functional team that needs to review and approve a form does not know what each other is looking for, we may suffer from the twin problems of gaps and overlaps. Some elements are checked multiple times, while other requirements are not gathered successfully on the first try.

You should also be on the lookout for non-value adding approvals. If something is approved 100% of the time without any questions, then that approval step is likely no longer needed at that threshold, or it is an authority that can be delegated to others in the organization.

Fully digital forms introduce the ability for different people to concurrently review applications rather than each person or office approving a form in series, one after the other. Concurrent review of forms can dramatically reduce the time the customer waits for approval. The technology that enables digital form collection and review is widely available, and the cost for these services is becoming more manageable.

You may also find that some of the forms are able to become “instant permits.” Using published rules, accepting online fee payment, and building controls into the digital forms, it is possible to have forms that enable automatic completion and approval with no additional administrative review needed. This “instant permit” can be a customer winner. In our organization, roof and tent permits are examples of applications that are processed instantly. We still inspect the final work (often with a digitally submitted photo), but the customer has permission to proceed as soon as they press submit on their computer and make a payment.

Next Steps

1. Choose a couple of forms in your office and map the process for review and approval of all of the requested information on the forms. Often, simply gathering all the staff members who review or touch a form will spawn ideas for improvement.

2. Think about the submission of these forms from the customer perspective. Are the form fields and questions clear and concise enough that they consistently result in accurate information being submitted by customers? If not, consider simplifying the language that is being used to request information.

3. If your organization hasn’t yet fully digitized the applications and approval process for building or other frequently used forms, it is time to evaluate tools that will allow you to accept and process these applications digitally. When fully implemented, these systems can dramatically reduce the time necessary to review applications and in turn boost customer satisfaction.

Start today and make these changes to your important forms. The frequency of errors will decrease, your customers will appreciate the simpler process, and your team will save time. That free time is like a gift every week, bringing with it the opportunity to do more rewarding and value-adding work. The benefits of such a change can be enormous for your staff and your customers.

Dan Ralley headshot


DAN RALLEY is assistant city manager of Hilliard, Ohio.




Tracy Owens headshot


TRACY OWENS is an ASQ certified quality engineer who teaches at The Ohio State University’s colleges of business and engineering.

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