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.

About Tim James "Mr. Procedure"

A communicator; all-purpose capability in writing, designing and presenting training for all facets of organizational function. While my focus has been manufacturing, my training/development experience includes supervisory and lead person development, audit processes, continuous improvement and Lean, and Quality Management System implementation.
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