Paying it forward for an efficient team

Corinna Lines | July 30, 2018

Image, 17th-century women comparing a tub wringer, with the laundry tub on the floor, and a bench wringer that has everything on a table.

Decisions, decisions. Image from Boston Public Library / No known restrictions

Do your eyes glaze over when people talk about how they used to do things? Perhaps it’s just your nan reminiscing about mangles and coppers, or your boss talking about life before email. Sigh. But there’s a good reason for looking back. People have always sought more efficient ways of working — and sometimes you don’t realise how far you might still go until you think about how far you’ve come.

In my first ‘proper’ proofreading job, I worked for McKinsey & Co (management consultants) in their London office, in the Report Production department. I worked with the Report Typing ‘girls’, with IBM word processors; the Visual Aids section, where the more artistic types compiled graphs and charts using Xerox Star computers; and the Duplication chaps, who printed and bound the enormous reports the consultants produced.

Image, 1980s Xerox Star computer with keyboard, mouse, graphs on small screen.

Squeezing graphs onto tiny screens in the 1980s. Image of the Xerox Star computer / Original source unknown

What happened to secretaries?

In the 1980s and 90s, people didn’t have their own computers. Even high-powered McKinsey consultants scribbled their drafts by hand and sent them to Report Typing. Secretaries looked after their non-report needs and diaries.

The Report Typing section was like an elite SAS typing unit, where aspirational young women with whizz-bang typing speeds moved to from jobs as secretaries. They relished their word-processing skills, turning the handwritten drafts into reports rapidly and efficiently, and sharing tips and workloads to meet the constant deadlines. Often they had to share out sections of the reports to get them finished on time, so they had to all be working in the same way.

The Clean Typing Rules

On the wall they had posted their ‘charter’: The Clean Typing Rules.

These rules established that they all looked out for each other. They said that when starting a job, you took the time to set things up properly, so you didn’t make more work for the next person who worked on it. If a colleague took over the job, they didn’t have to backtrack to fix any lazy work that would slow them down. You can still see some of this ‘lazy work’ in today’s Word documents — things like using the space-bar repeatedly in tables instead of setting up proper tabs.

Word processing then wasn’t sophisticated, but it was obviously a big step forward from the electric typewriters the typists learned on. With tables of figures, for example, they would set ‘hard tabs’ to keep the numbers aligned, so that if the figures changed, the alignment wouldn’t. They had adapted the word-processing system to make the figures work too, and they took great pride in the finished result.

How efficient is your workplace?

I’ve been reminded of The Clean Typing Rules in many different places and contexts. Very few workplaces have people who are solely responsible for their work. Most of us work as part of a team or a process, and being efficient is something we all aspire to.

But when the deadline is looming, or time is running out, or you’ve been delayed by someone else taking a shortcut… would it help to have an agreed approach that respects everyone’s role and streamlines processes as much as possible? Would it help your workplace or team if you drew up your own ‘Clean Typing Rules’?

Image, old cell phones nailed to a door, with a sign saying 'Please destroy cell phones before entering'.

How to have an efficient meeting? Image by Pixabay / CC0

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