By converting to a paperless office and linking documents to work orders, this past America's Best Builder winner has streamlined its operations. By Matthew Power

A study by the National Archives and Records Administration found that a cubic foot of paper records costs $23.24 per year to store, based on typical office rental costs. Add to that the initial cost of purchasing paper, preparing the records, maintaining copiers and printers--not to mention the environmental impact of paper creation--and you can see why the idea of a "paperless" office has a certain appeal.

Wayne Homes, a division of public builder Centex Homes based in Uniontown, Ohio, has done what few have dared: converted huge stacks of paperwork into digital ones and zeros. The decision came about while planning a new building to handle the company's growing infrastructure.

"We were building a corporate office and allocating space for long-term storage," notes John Neidert, director of information technology for Wayne, which won an America's Best Builder honor in 1995 and is the first winner of the Business Innovation Award for ABB alumni. "We compared costs with a manual system [that] a lot of hospitals use. To store five years' worth of our records would have cost $72,000 and taken all of our allotted floor space."

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Instead, the company began to look at an electronic document management (EDM) system. The new system held up favorably compared with manual filing--especially in light of the 20-year warranties Wayne offers. The builder knew that its documents needed to be archived for a long time. "We had some concerns [about moving to an electronic system], because our thinking was all based on the idea of scanning and processing papers by hand. But with the COLD [computer output to laser disc] system, we found that a lot of document processing could be automated," Neidert says.

After researching various EDM systems, the company selected OnBase by Cleveland-based Hyland Software, a sophisticated package that allows the builder to integrate additional modules gradually.

Photo: Jim Baron Photography

John Neidert, director of information technology "It worked just as planned," Neidert recalls. "As soon as customer service began to talk about it, the accounting people wanted to try it. Then, they got purchasing agents interested." The key to OnBase, Neidert says, is that it treats many types of paperwork in a uniform way, so they can all be cross-referenced, whether they're photos, contracts, receipts, or client information. Records can then be stored on various media, including CD-ROMs, DVDs, or tape drives.

The system has another advantage for the multistate builder: "Since we're in five states, being able to access documents by e-mail or the Web is a big plus," Neidert says. "We call it a 'push or pull' mentality. If you need a document, we can push one to you by e-mail, or you can pull one from the Web site."

Wayne Homes has added its own innovation to the OnBase system, a subroutine called "vendor workpacks" to smooth daily operations. When a job order is created, the EDM system automatically identifies and collects relevant documents that need to be sent to the vendor or contractor. These documents are then attached to the work order. The whole thing is printed (many subs haven't gone paperless yet) and sent out as a package.

"We can process 300 to 500 pages of information on accounting at the end of the month in about three minutes," Neidert boasts.

"The biggest learning curve is getting our people to think differently. As soon as we get a new piece of paper, our first reaction is, 'How do we make it smart? What info can we put on it in terms of a bar code so the system can process and cross-reference it?'"

Of course, he adds, Wayne had one big advantage at the get-go. "We had good management systems in place," Neidert says. "If you have crappy systems in place, you may end up with crappy paperless systems."