A Year of Writing Work Instructions—What I Have Learned, Part 4

A Continuing Series from Mr. Procedure

The batch-oriented work instruction, described in Part 3, intends that the process performer use their task learning to complete a recurring batch of product. A set of instructions to mix ingredients is supplemented by instructions on how to operate the mixer. Since the mixer is operated the same way regardless of the ingredients added, the operator need only learn mixer operation once and apply that learning to any subsequent mix. Each work instruction is freed from having a tutorial on the mixer.

The second type of mix instructions to consider is the assembly-oriented instruction. This type of instruction describes how to build an individual assembly or to integrate assemblies together.

The pre-requisite information for an assembly-oriented work instruction is most frequently the Bill of Materials (BOM) that describes the pieces that go into the assembly and the drawing that illustrates the assembly.

In theory, the BOM and drawing should be sufficient to complete the assembly. I have been told that more than one time by people: why write a work instruction for an assembly when they (the operators) have the drawing?

The answer is that the drawing shows the parts coming together to make a whole, but does not provide the order of events to assemble the item. A work instruction for an assembly provides the order, allowing the assembler to more efficiently build the item without having to assemble by trial-and-error.

The assembly-oriented work instructions will have its own pre-requisites, which will vary by the type and complexity of the assembly being built. We will discuss specific elements of a work instruction for assemblies in a future post, but there are two basic pre-requisites for any assembly:

  • The tools and equipment used to complete the assembly
  • Any specific skills required to perform the assembly work

Skills can include how to use certain tools (such as precision measuring instruments and torque drivers).

By identifying the required skills to complete an assembly, the organization can assign workers to assembly tasks based on their skill sets. They can also train workers in those skills (similar to task training) to ensure adequate capability in the assembly area.

An example skill—one I dealt with extensively in recent writing jobs—is electrical wiring. If an assembly requires several or many wires to be installed, the instructions have to deal with the wire itself (the color, length and gauge) and the manner of connection (pins, direct placement, soldering, etc.). All of the elements of wiring can be described in simple, linear format if the assembler understands the basics of wiring. Without the external capability development, work instructions would have to be unreasonably lengthy to compensate, and more capable workers would be bogged down in elementary discussions of skills they no longer need.

Why This Matters

The importance of identifying (and establishing) required capability for assembly instructions is identical to the pre-requisite training for batch-operation instructions. A straightforward description of steps is all my work instructions will need for success. Additionally, having pre-identified skills allows the organization to seek out those skills when hiring workers.  

Next, we will discuss work instructions for testing.

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A Year of Writing Work Instructions—What I Have Learned, Part 3

A Continuing Series from Mr. Procedure

The key to effective work instructions is being clear on the pre-requisite capability to support work instruction performance. In Writing Operating Procedures, and in the upcoming Writing Work Instructions, I stress that effective documentation is concise documentation.

Neither type of document should have any unnecessary words. In the case of work instructions, the words that would otherwise be in the instructions are placed elsewhere. The operator is made familiar with these words in a non-productive setting, and once qualified to perform the activity, is provided the instruction and with minimal words and minimal supervision.

The pre-requisite capability for each type of work instruction varies with type. Some combination of task capability (primarily established through operating procedures and training) and skills development (typically through formal skills training or education) comprises the pre-requisite capability.

To illustrate this, let’s begin by discussing the batch-oriented work instruction. A batch-oriented work instruction describes how to create a product, usually through combining materials (e.g., mixing or coating). This type of environment is where I have spent most of my career.

In a batch-oriented environment, the primary pre-requisite capability is the ability to operate the machines and equipment used to create the batch (combine and/or treat the material that comprises the product). I have frequently used the example of baking cookies to describe the relationship between operating procedures and work instructions and how each document contributes to success.

To produce cookies, the ingredients must be measured out and mixed together in some order to create the dough. Once mixed, the dough must be measured out and placed onto the cookie sheet. Then the dough must be baked at a set temperature for a set time period.

The capability required to successfully make the cookies involves the following:

  • Weighing and measuring ingredients
  • Operation of mixer (including addition of ingredients, setting mixer speed, etc.)
  • Placement of dough on the cookie sheet (may or may not involve equipment)
  • Operation of the oven

In a proper performance management structure, all of the above would be captured as essential tasks. The prospective cookie maker would need to learn and master each task element to be deemed capable to make the cookies. (Of course, the organization may elect to split the task capability among other operators. Regardless of who is trained, every task element must be covered by capable operators for the operation to succeed.)

Why This Matters

If I have effectively trained the operators in use of the required cookie-making equipment, I can simplify my work instructions. For example, I may begin by listing the cookie ingredients and amounts of each. I could list the ingredients in the order they are added, though it is not necessary. Then, when it is time for an ingredient to be added, I can provide a very simple line item, “Weigh [ingredient X] and add to the mixer.” I do not need to tell the operator to set up and clean the scale, place an intermediate container onto the scale, then tare the scale on this step or any other step. Similarly, when it comes time to perform the mixing, I do not have to state “press the ON button on the front of the mixer, lower the mixer lid, set the mixer speed to [X] rpm.” I can state “mix at [X] rpm for [X] minutes.”

Defining the equipment operation independently of the work instruction frees the operator to view only the information necessary to complete a particular batch. And if I have 100 different varieties of cookies to produce, I have made the work instruction development that much easier by NOT repeating verbiage 100 times when I have captured it once in another location.

Tomorrow: work instructions for building assemblies.

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A Year of Writing Work Instructions—What I Have Learned, Part 2

A Continuing Series from Mr. Procedure

Work instructions are where the rubber meets the road (to paraphrase the ages-old tire commercial). A company’s success depends on preparing and delivering their product, exactly as the customer desires it, on time in the right quantity, while creating as little waste as possible. Work instructions describe the actions that directly create the product, primary assemblies and sub-assemblies, perform essential testing of the product, document the product and prepare the product for shipment.

The work instruction must provide a detailed description of each step, usually using words and pictures together, to enable the operator to perfectly perform the step. That is pretty much the work instruction’s only objective.

Before discussing the nuts and bolts of work instruction development, first let’s consider the basic types of work instructions:

  • The batch-oriented work instruction: a batch-oriented work instruction describes how to blend ingredients together in the proper proportions and proper conditions to achieve the product’s desired outcomes.
  • The assembly-oriented work instruction: an assembly-oriented work instruction describes how to build a discrete part or integrate parts together into a larger assembly.
  • The testing work instruction: a test work instruction describes how to conduct a test on raw, intermediate or finished products/materials. A test work instruction may be a subset of a batch-oriented or assembly-oriented work instruction, depending on the specific aspects of the test.
  • The form-completion work instruction: a form-completion work instruction describes how to fill in the blanks of a form (IRS Form 1040 a prime example).

There may be other types of work instructions but for this discussion, most work instruction types will fit into one of these four categories.

Identifying the work instruction type is valuable for structuring the instruction layout, especially when a large number of work instructions. For example, if your organization needs a hundred assembly instructions to perform all activities in a product build, all one hundred instructions should be structured the same way. The assembler should not have to learn a new instruction format each time they move from one assembly action to the next.

More valuable than correctly identifying work instruction type is identifying the pre-requisite capability to perform the activity described by the instruction. Pre-requisite capability is defined as the skills, knowledge and/or task capability required to successfully complete the activity. Pre-requisite capability is often implied in the instruction, though in many situations it may be explicitly stated up front.

Understanding pre-requisite capability is critical, because the pre-requisite capability is what allows a work instruction to be “short and sweet,” conveying all the necessary information without cluttering the document with information the operator already knows.    In tomorrow’s installment, we will begin to look at each type of work instruction and the specific types of pre-requisite capability that allows each work instruction to make sense.

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A Year of Writing Work Instructions—What I Have Learned

A New Series from Mr. Procedure

I have focused most of my writing career on the operating procedure level of the Documentation Hierarchy. Usually, the development of work instructions fell to others (such as process engineers) while I wrote the procedures that facilitated training and development—preparing the operator to use the work instructions.

But in the last year, I found myself out of a job of 8 1/2 years and had to find a new gig. For the first time in my life, I found myself in a contract position. My task was to write work instructions for a company that manufactures testing equipment. While I avoided being tagged with the nickname “Mr. Work Instructions,” I learned a lot about the development of work instructions.

In Writing Operating Procedures, my initial foray into book development, I discussed the principal difference between the Operating Procedure and a Work Instruction document. Even though in some cases the distinction between the two can be blurred, the documents serve separate purposes. The Work Instruction can be defined as the document the operator must have in their possession while performing the activity.   

[Note: you can receive a free .pdf copy of Writing Operating Procedures simply by requesting it at mrprocedure@gmail.com. And I promise not to follow up with emails trying to sell you something.]

In the installments of the series to follow, I will describe different types of work instructions, and how they are supported by operating procedures and/or by development of relevant skills. In time I will expand on my thoughts to develop a companion book to Writing Operating Procedures, to be called Writing Work Instructions. But in the interim I still have my second discussion of operating procedures (which I am only six years late in producing), tentatively titled Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures, to complete. (The anticipated subjects of this book are shared in a previous post.)

In the meantime, this series will share some thoughts and ideas that ideally will permit persons developing work instructions to plan, develop and optimize work instructions to achieve their desired outcomes. I hope you join us in this series and I welcome any comments or questions related to work instruction development (or any other aspect of instructional communication).

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The $84 Million User Manual

The United States will be paying Boeing approximately $5.3 billion for two 747 aircraft to serve as Air Force One. If that sounds outlandish, the 747s in question are being repurposed from pre-existing aircraft instead of being built from the ground up.

Normally, Pentagon purchases don’t merit a discussion at Mr. Procedure, except that one line item jumped out at me: the government is spending $84 million for the maintenance manuals. So where do I bid to get a piece of that action?!

Granted, the expectation is that the manuals will total 100,000 pages. If you do the math, the Pentagon will be paying $840 per page for the manuals. That number got me thinking.

How would any of my bosses have reacted had I told them I will produce procedures at a rate of $840 per page? At my predominant pay rate, and factoring in benefits, my progress would sound something like this:

“Hey Brad, the procedure is going well. I finished one half of a page today, and I will finish the second half of the page tomorrow!”

Because I run a clean blog, I cannot share the boss’s likely response to that rate of production. Suffice to say, none of my bosses would have accepted half a page per day, at least on the projects I have customarily written. Nor should they have.

However, writing all the maintenance instructions for a 747—especially one used by the President of the United States—is a critical assignment, and the effort to completely capture every activity required to keep Air Force One safely flying may take the whole 100,000 pages (maybe the pages are very large as well).

The writing of a procedure—placing words and graphics on pages—is only good as the information provided or collected. Somebody needs to describe how each activity is performed before the writers and graphics developers put the process on paper. And once the procedure is reduced to words and pictures, it must be reviewed, tested (both to see if it is accurate and the process performer can follow it) and optimized. Certainly much more is involved than writing, and the writing itself may involve many iterations.

The manual is every bit a product as the airliners it describes. Just as the 747 must perform perfectly, the manuals must perfectly support the plane’s perfect performance. If the folks at Boeing have determined that $84 million is what it will take to deliver those manuals (and the Pentagon bought off on it), I can only presume that they know better than I do.

However, if they want to farm out about 100 pages of it and pay me $84,000 to develop it, they know how to contact me.

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Miranda Rights for Interviewees

Author’s Note: I am pleased to report that I have obtained at least temporary employment in the technical writing field, commencing next Monday (March 9). But the experience of being interviewed–which I don’t participate in very often–is fresh in my mind as I ponder the whole process.

In my recent experience related to securing new employment in the wake of my former employer ripping the rug out from under us in January, I am reminded of something I authored several years ago. Its relevance has not diminished in my mind. It is what I call the Miranda Rights for Job Interviewees, and should be prominently posted in every H.R. office or other room where interviews take place. The “rights” read as follows:

You do not have the right to remain silent. Everything you say, everything you don’t say and everything we believe you should have said can and will be used against you in the hiring decision.

You do not have the right to speak to anyone before we bombard you with questions. You do not have the right to a lawyer or anyone else present during questioning. And if you cannot afford a lawyer, working here is not going to help you in that regard either.

Although I am very pleased that I somehow succeeded at the interview game, I am not sure that interviews are the best tools to determine one’s fitness for a job opening. I am convinced, however, that H.R. is much more concerned about avoiding a bad hire than hiring the best for the position. After all, if they reject an excellent candidate, they will never know. But a bad hire can reverberate for years.

I look at interviews much the same way I look at Presidential debates. Both situations measure abilities that are completely irrelevant to the actual job in question. Winning the debate or interview depends on the right “sound bite.” I have been on both sides of the interview table and admittedly I have honed in on something said (usually something I perceived as negative), hoping the interviewee will dig themselves a deeper hole and make my job of sizing up the candidate that much easier.

What would I advise people going into interviews? Be yourself, be honest, be direct, and be brief with all questions. Don’t answer questions that weren’t asked. If you go into the interview trying to be someone else, you’re going to have to figure out how to continue being that someone else if you land the job. Better they hire the real you than some character you chose to play in the interview.

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Disruption Culture: Zume-ing toward Disaster

I am not particularly savvy as it relates to the venture capital game but I am fascinated by the development of ideas. So I was intrigued by the story of Zume Pizza, the brainchild of an entrepreneur named Alex Garden and funded by a $375 million investment from venture capital  firm SoftBank.

The purported breakthrough for Zume Pizza was pizzas being made entirely by machines, placed inside delivery trucks so that the pizza would be made while being delivered to you.

Well, three years and $375 million later, Zume Pizza appears to be on life support, if not clinically dead. Bloomberg provided an interesting analysis of the rise and downfall of Zume. The article is here.

I won’t rewrite the article here, but this story seems to follow an increasingly familiar pattern. “Visionary” person arrives with a proposal not to establish a competitor in a market hoping to gain traction, but to disrupt the market by providing something so radical that it will drive all competition into bankruptcy.

Zume Pizza’s strategy of making pizzas entirely by machine resonated with the folks at SoftBank. Apparently nothing is more evil to these types than actually hiring human beings to do work, so an idea that removes the human element comes off as a winner.

As an occasional pizza consumer, my priorities for the pizza are 1) taste, 2) price, 3) ease of obtaining it (though I usually order pizza and pick it up myself). I don’t find any additional value in knowing a machine made my pizza, even if it is mounted inside a truck driving to my residence.

As the article points out, “a visionary founder with a fire hose of money can’t solve every problem.” And, “I’ve never seen data to suggest that being charismatic and confident and overly brash is linked to a successful business.” Rather, as UC Berkeley business school director Kellie McElhaney suggested, venture capitalists should seek out leaders “who combine confidence with humility.”

I would add to that they should seek out leaders who understand that process is king. That being a “rock star” entrepreneur does not substitute for having a capable, repeatable process that results in a product the consumer actually wants or needs. I would tend to believe that both SoftBank and Zume Pizza could have established proof-of-concept for far less than $350 million. They could have developed a process, a plan and determined there was a demand (or perhaps no demand) for a machine-made pizza without disrupting the lives of 360 people (those laid off when Zume began to tank).

But more and more it appears that the horses have escaped the barn as it relates to that kind of thinking. As hinted at in the article, the venture capital crowd loves their rock-stars-in-the-making, who possess an attitude of “it’s guaranteed to succeed because I the visionary am at the center of it.” And the reason is because the venture capitalists see their younger selves in the Alex Gardens of the world. “And if I succeeded with that attitude, why shouldn’t they?”

One can only wonder how much capital (money, resources, intellectual, etc.) has been squandered and how much progress has been delayed because every one is trying to capture lightning in a bottle, be “the next Tesla, Google, Amazon” or whatever. In other words, the drive to be rich dwarfs the desire to establish and improve a process slow and steady. But then I’m not rich, so what do I know?

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Immunity Promises in Investigations: A Whole New Ball Game?

Several years ago, a safety incident occurred at one of my former employer’s sites. In wanting to get to the bottom of the problem (a worthy goal of any investigation), the worker most closely involved said he would share what he knew in exchange for immunity. Incredibly, the site leadership granted his immunity request, after which he gladly told them he had broken a safety rule and the incident resulted.

This became an object lesson when I trained incident investigation strategy. Simply put, if someone in the investigation is asking for immunity from punishment, they have already told you most of what you need to know. I will describe how I recommended handling the situation later.

This issue suddenly became front and center in the wake of the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in Major League Baseball. Unbelievably, the head of a multi-billion dollar operation made the same foolish mistake an in-over-their-head new leader made at my site.

It is clear from every angle that the players themselves were the initiators and perpetrators of a scheme to use illegal (read, technological) means to capture an opposing catcher’s pitch selection signs and communicate them to hitters. Any hitter knowing what pitch is coming has a distinct advantage. And Houston walked away with the 2017 World Series title, apparently as a result.

I am not going to guess how much the scheme helped Houston win, nor am I going to discuss the incredibly lame “apology” issued by the Astros’ owner. I am going to focus on the Office of the Commissioner and the actions at the heart of the investigation.

During the investigation, the Commissioner of Baseball granted the players immunity from sanction in exchange for their testimony. Usually, in judicial proceedings, you grant immunity to one individual so that you can reel in a bigger fish, as it were. You don’t grant immunity when you are unsure who’s responsible and to what degree.

But that is what the Commissioner did. He gave the players immunity, after which they explained their techniques. And since the players had immunity, the Commissioner had to levy the punishment on the team’s general manager and field manager, who had little to no influence or knowledge of the scheme. Oh, and the team was fined $5 million and lost some draft picks. A small price for a title.

And as spring training ramps up for the 2020 baseball season, fans are outraged that the players–the central characters in the biggest scandal in baseball in a century–had nothing at all happen to them. Only one player suffered any fallout, a former player (Carlos Beltran) who lost his new gig as manager of the New York Mets.

So How Do You Handle an Immunity Request?

No one asks for immunity unless they need it. If you are investigating a workplace incident and an interviewee asks for immunity, you are correct to suspect you have the guilty party. Here is what I recommended to my investigation classes:

As soon as someone asks for immunity, inform them that the interview is over. Also let them know that you have plenty of means at your disposal to determine what took place and who was at fault. As you adjourn the meeting, inform the worker that their cooperation or lack of cooperation with the investigation will be factored into any discipline that results from the investigation. And invite the employee to meet with you at a later time, by which time they should be more willing to come clean. 

Too often I have seen situations where the employee responsible for an incident got off scot-free while their supervisor or lead person was punished. The persons most directly responsible for misconduct should be the ones most directly impacted. That’s the basic principle of fairness.

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Back on the Blog–Back in the Job Market

I have promised myself for years–usually every time the renewal for the mrprocedure.com domain comes around–that I will return to my instructional communication blog and ponder all things related to people’s connection to process. Well, as we begin a new decade, I am without excuse.

You see, after 8 1/2 years, the company for which I have written system manuals and internal procedures announced an abrupt closing on Jan. 27. As a result, I and about 35 others found themselves clutching a manila envelope with termination documents, a severance check and a kind admonition to “get lost.”

So what this means is that yours truly is back in the job market and I figure any avenue to project myself I will take advantage of. My specialty areas, as reflected in the blog posts I have created over 9 or so years (though virtually none in the last six years), include training development (online, classroom and on-the-job), course development and facilitation (lean principles, behavioral safety, quality systems and audits), safety program administration, full-spectrum training program development, deployment and administration, and, of course, writing of any variety to support business operations (including but not limited to: policies, operating procedures, work instructions, record forms, newsletters and online content).

I am located in southern California, specifically what we refer to as the Inland Empire (about 40 miles east of Los Angeles) though I would consider relocation for the right combination of job factors.

I may be reached at mrprocedure@gmail.com or by telephone at (909) 767-8574. I can provide my resume (customized for position objective), samples of work and references.

Meanwhile, I will also return to developing my long-awaited follow-up to my Writing Operating Procedures book, Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures. And I will go back to creating posts that display my philosophies of leadership, process optimization and instructional communication.

Thank you so much for the support you provided over the years, Mr. Procedure.

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A One-Question Analysis of Your Priorities

Since it’s been over two years since my last post, I decided to tiptoe back into the blog pool and write something light (meaning, added for fun and not to be taken so seriously despite the ominous title).

So here is Mr. Procedure’s one question to assess your priorities:

Who would you rather spend a day with:

Warren Buffett


Jimmy Buffett


I’ll get back to discussing procedures shortly…I promise!

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