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

or

Jimmy Buffett

?

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

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Beyond the Writing of Procedures 5 — The Procedure Contract

[ In the next several pots, I will introduce a topic covered in my upcoming book, Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures. Most of the sections of the book (see this post) will be referenced in these posts. Remember I am looking for folks to review the book as it comes together. This will be the only opportunity to receive the book for free (!). ]

In Writing Operating Procedures, section 11, I discuss the concept of “procedure as contract.” I said the following:

The Operating Procedure, first and foremost, serves as a sort of contract between the organization, the Floor Trainer and the new employee. The procedure contains everything the new employee needs to learn about the Task, and it tells the Floor Trainer everything that must be taught. Between the organization and the new employee, it means if the employee does everything according to procedure and something goes wrong, the employee will be held harmless.

The implication of the “procedure contract” must be understood by anyone in the organization charged with approving procedures. Consequently, the organization needs to take a step back and give thought to how their approval process will be structured. Often, the approval process will involve department heads (particularly the subject department, quality, safety, etc.) . That is to be expected, and ideally department heads would be suited for procedure approval.

So what does “being suited for procedure approval” mean? It means that the person signing the procedure can ensure that the information the organization will insist its employees follow will:

  • Not injure or kill them
  • Yield the right result every time the information is followed
  • Provide a standard by which a task can be taught and capability can be measured

As much as the procedure developer (individual writer, team, whoever) should be delivering the best possible description of the task, the procedure reviewers/approvers must serve as essential “gate keepers.” They are taking the responsibility for the procedure information upon themselves. For them to carry out the responsibility, they need to be understand the tasks (i.e., understand what they are reading).

Consequently, the organization’s policy over procedure approval should ensure that approvers know what they are approving, not merely have an impressive title.

 

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Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures 4–Who Am I Writing For?

The thought process that went into the development of the outline for Beyond (you can see the outline in the last post) led me to focus on a question that every writer must address:

Who is the audience for this book?

The reality that became apparent is the audience for Beyond may be largely or completely different than the audience for Writing Operating Procedures! The target reader of the original book is pretty well defined: the writer. Not that only writers can benefit from understanding procedure intent and execution, but the procedure writer would be the primary beneficiary.

But what happens when the procedure is completed, and now it enters its life cycle? Suddenly, a bunch of people who may have had no part in writing the procedure are now expected to ensure the procedure is maintained and effectively used.  If you look at the procedure life-cycle diagram (Operating Procedure Life Cycle I), the audience for Beyond will include anyone responsible for the actions illustrated in the book.

For the writer/prospective book seller, that should be good news! The audience is literally huge!

That wasn’t the point I was trying to make…but any organization will have some group of individuals who would logically take on the responsibilities defined in Beyond. The larger the organization, typically, the larger the number of participants in the procedure’s life cycle.

What does this mean to the organization? For one, the responsibilities entailed in procedure maintenance must be clearly established and communicated. A set of policies (and perhaps even procedures) may be advisable. But beyond establishing responsibilities, the organization has the opportunity to look at how it approaches its processes.

Ultimately, then, Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures is written to as many people in the organization as will be expected to maintain and improve essential processes. I have been blessed (burdened?) with fulfilling each of the responsibilities at one time or another in my career,  and I intend to use that experience both in describing the actions and describing how to create a cooperative environment in which the procedure life cycle is managed to the maximum benefit of the process — and by extension, the organization.

 

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Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures 3 — Outline of the Book

I am pleased to announce the official, final outline of Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures. Well, it may not be fully cast in stone. Maybe I’ll consider changes. Heck, maybe I’ll throw the outline out and start over. But as I described in my last post, the “procedure life cycle” is a reflection of the process life cycle. The process life cycle includes those times when changes to the procedure are pondered or necessary, but also those times when the procedure is integral to performing or improving the process.

The outline of Beyond is reflected in the illustration of the life cycle in my last post. Here is the same illustration, augmented to show the sections of the book as they fit into the life cycle model. So, if you want to absorb the outline visually, click here (just note the section numbers are different):

Operating Procedure Life Cycle II

If you want to read the outline, here it is with a brief synopsis of the section focus:

Section 1: Procedure Life Cycle. This section describes in detail the life cycle of the procedure in terms of the process it describes, using the illustration above as the model. This section sets up the discussions in each section that follows.

Section 2: Procedure Approval. This section focuses on the requirements for approval, determining functions responsible for procedure, and a discussion of what procedure approval represents to the organization and the procedure’s performers.

Section 3: Procedure Implemented. This section focuses on the manner in which the approved procedure is distributed and made available to procedure performers. Issues such as paper vs. electronic distribution methods will be discussed.

Section 4: Procedures and Training. This section focuses on the use of the procedure to perform training (some of which I covered in Writing Operating Procedures). The section will discuss a procedure-focused training sequence as well as the development of procedure-focused training measurement tools.

Section 5: Putting the Procedure on Display. This section focuses on visual and other tools to put procedure information within reach of process performers without having to constantly reference the procedure. It will describe signs, diagrams and even work instructions as supplements to the operating procedure.

Section 6: Managing the Task. This section discusses the influence of the operating procedures in on-going department performance. This section leads into the discussions that follow in sections 6-8.

Section 7: Managing Incidents. This section focuses on the information gathering phase of an incident or process investigation, and how the procedure is integral to the investigation. The section focuses on comparing what happened (incident) with what should have happened (procedure) during an investigation, as well as the importance of identifying what may change in the process (and ultimately, the procedure).

Section 8: Improving the Task. This section discusses the use of the procedure when evaluating a task with the intention of making it better (less waste, safer, more efficient, etc.). The use of the procedure in a formal continuous improvement team or individual process investigation will be studied.

Section 9: Procedures and Capital Projects. This section discusses the impact of projects (capital or otherwise) on the department’s task structure (which includes its training program and procedure needs).

Section 10: Periodic Procedure Review. This section discusses the review of operating procedures that may occur independent of all situations covered in sections 4-9. This section describes methods to review procedures that work within an organization’s Quality Review cycle and ensure that Quality Review actions are carried out as they relate to procedures.

Section 11: Revising Procedures. This section discusses how to revise an operating procedure. The discussions include the drivers of revisions, types of revisions, how to mark revisions to benefit the procedure’s performers, how to implement the revision and how to ensure necessary follow-up occurs.

Section 12: Retiring Procedures. This section discusses circumstances under which procedures may be removed from circulation, how to document procedure retirement while ensuring information that is still relevant is not discarded.

As I noted, this outline (actually list of sections) is fluid at present, so I will welcome all suggestions, especially those from would-be reviewers who could tip me off on what they believe should be covered before I submit a review copy that ignores the topic.

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Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures 2 — Operating Procedure “Life Cycle”

If Writing Operating Procedures describes the birth of a procedure (which it does), and the operating procedure’s existence is integral to the optimal performance of the task it describes (which it does), then it follows that the procedure receive the proper care and feeding to be a healthy, vibrant part of the organization’s Quality effort.

OK, so I’ve taken the Dr. Spock analogy too far, but post-development handling of the procedure is critical to its utility. If the procedure does not continue to support the process and represent the best knowledge we have about the process, its usefulness will rapidly diminish. Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures is focused on making your procedures maintain their usefulness.

So, that begs the question: what is a “procedure life cycle?”

The answer is illustrated in the attachment linked below, but in reality, there is not really a procedure life cycle. There is, however, a process life cycle that the operating procedure must mirror for the organization to succeed. That may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s important to consider since organizations are much more in-tune to their processes– analyzing them, making them better, simplifying them–than they are to the procedures that describe those processes.

Operating Procedure Life Cycle I

Each element of process development illustrated represents a change (or potential change), after the procedure is approved and put into circulation. Of course, approval and distribution of the procedure are critical elements that must also be carefully controlled.

But it is in the performance of the task that an improvement-focused organization will study to see what can be made better. This may be in the form of informal observations and reports, or in the form of formal improvement team activities. An incident or failure involving the process will necessitate a more detailed review to identify corrective actions.

Each action in the diagram involves interaction with the procedure and may affect procedure construction or content. It is important to realize that maintaining a procedure through its life cycle involves more than updating and revision control. Of course those are critical considerations, but more important than maintaining a procedure is using the procedure.

Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures will look at the “whole life” of the procedure, not just those junctures where the procedure is revised and I have to make sure that Rev. B is out of circulation now that Rev. C is in circulation. In my next post, I will introduce the outline of Beyond.

As this book comes together, I am all ears to suggestions or ideas related to the content and development of the topics. And as I noted in the last post,  I am looking for technical communicators to review my book when the review version is complete (it may be your only chance to snag a free(!) copy of my second book).

 

 

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Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures – Upcoming Book and Invitation to Review

I am hoping that by early to mid-September, I will have completed and readied for review my follow-up to Writing Operating Procedures, my original foray into writing for continuous improvement. Writing Operating Procedures, which I gave away for free (!) received a positive response (maybe the price had a thing to do with that), and also a positive review from the Society for Technical Communication in their journal in late 2013.

The new book, which I am calling Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures, addresses an issue that the STC review brought up: that I had not discussed revising and other issues related to the “procedure life cycle.” I considered that to be a good point. In fact, I had noted in Writing Operating Procedures there was more to discuss. I just did not anticipate the topic expanding to a second book.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be addressing some of the issues related to (and discussed in) the second book, including the topic, Who is the audience for the second book?

Unlike Writing Operating Procedures, I will not be able to offer Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures for free. The intention of the second book will be to find a paying audience. (At that time, I will also have to cease distributing Writing Operating Procedures for free.) But I am interested in hearing from people in the technical communication and related professions who would like to read and provide feedback and review comments on the book. I apologize in advance I cannot offer compensation other than a free pre-release version of the book and the possibility your comments will be included in the book or here in my blog. You may also reap the satisfaction of helping me to refine my approach to the topics addressed in Beyond.

If you are interested in being considered for review, please write me at mrprocedure@gmail.com. Include a brief description of your position and organization, if you are an STD member, and any other information that may be useful in my selection process. I don’t have any hard and fast criteria for reviewers, but I do hope to gather a good cross-section of people with varying experience to comment for review’s sake and comment for improvement’s sake. I expect I will select around 30-40 reviewers, if indeed I get that many offers.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the technical communication community. I look forward to expanding my discussion of operating procedures “beyond!”

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What Do Technical Writers Do?

On the occasions I have been a candidate for a technical writing position, particularly with “big companies” (that shall go nameless here), I have been confronted with a lot of questions regarding my philosophy of technical communication. In one instance I was  interviewed by no less than nine individuals, many of whom asked identical or similar questions regarding my “beliefs.”

Whether I ultimately landed such positions or not, because it forced me to articulate my thoughts and opinions on what a “technical writer” should be and do. (I could always point them to my blog and the content of Writing Operating Procedures, but they invariably prefer a more immediate response.) I can summarize the focus: what do you as a technical writer contribute (or expect to contribute) to organizational success?

Any technical writer, or a practitioner of any specialty, should be ready to easily and confidently answer that question. Barry Saiff, of Saiff Solutions, a technical writing service organization in the Philippines, addressed this question on his blog, which I have linked here. I became aware of it through a LinkedIn group.

http://saiffsolutions.com/home/goodtws

The article does an excellent job of summarizing what a “good” technical writer does, and it’s worth a read. I can boil the focus (mine, not necessarily Mr. Saiff’s) of the answer to one word, which Mr. Saiff uses twice in his post: customer.

Technical writing is a customer service occupation. The technical writer’s sole focus–and it in reality should be the focus of anyone in any occupation or position–is on delivering to the customer exactly what they need, when they need it, in a form that facilitates their successful use of the product being described.

Most of us in the field can write. We have mastered the art of penning thousands upon thousands of words to describe something, press an argument, inform someone, or whatever was needed to achieve the grade in that class (when our grades were our customers!). That is actually the easy part. The hard part is to place ourselves in our customers’ shoes and write for their benefit. Achieving that is a much more difficult process, one that I find myself having to continue to improve upon.

I guess I can summarize my thoughts on the matter as: am I writing primarily for my customers or my ego? The latter is so easy, since so many around us are quick to praise our efforts because I have spared them the task of doing the writing. But it’s the former that will ultimately dictate my usefulness to whatever community I belong to.

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