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 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.

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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Answers from LinkedIn: Lean, Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma–How They Differ (or Do They?)

(Note: this is an occasional series in which I review a question posed in a LinkedIn group I belong to. In the group, I provide a brief answer and I expand upon it here. This question was posed in the Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma and Lean group.)

Recently, in the Continuous Improvement, Lean and Six Sigma group, Dr. Mikel Harry (co-developer of Six Sigma) asked the group, “Setting aside tools and methods, what constitutes the Six Sigma way of thinking?” This question elicited a lot of good comments. I offered a lengthy description of my concept, using a mythical hair stylist, and concluded with the following declaration:

“Six Sigma Thinking is about being able to step into your customers’ shoes and understand their needs, and then consistently meeting them.”

I was pleased to have a contributor to the discussion ask if he could quote me. Not that a quote from me will necessarily sway any boardroom discussion, but I was happy to grant permission. He then asked an interesting question:

Remembering a previous discussion on LinkedIn, what would you say is the difference between Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma?

A question like this is an excellent opportunity to “set aside tools and methods” and give serious thought to what we really believe our continuous improvement mission is. I was brought up on the classical definitions of Six Sigma being a focused approach to identifying and eliminating variation and Lean being a focused approach to identifying and eliminating waste. Both are necessary to understand because variation feeds waste and both represent dead weight losses to the bottom line.

Adding the “Lean” to “Six Sigma” may suggest a “new” strategy or a new opportunity for practitioners to enhance their resumes. To me, the combination suggests a focused approach to analyzing processes in light of what the customer needs that process to achieve for their benefit. Within any process, some (hopefully most) actions or conditions contribute to the customer’s desires (i.e., they add value), some actions or conditions have no effect either way (and are wastes of resources) and some actions or conditions limit or prevent the process from contributing to the customer’s desires.

Once I understand the nature of the loss or process inadequacy (variation or waste), I can take  appropriate action (using appropriate tools) to address it (that includes ensuring the right steps are consistently performed every time, not just addressing the wastes).

The commonality between “classic” Lean and Six Sigma is the first step, the careful and thorough defining and analysis of what the customer needs (critical to quality) and how my process either enables or hinders meeting those needs. This ability is as crucial as is the ability to implement a tool.

I have often said that if you are thorough in your defining and committed to the improvement process, the tools will work themselves out. That may be a little simplistic, as there is much benefit in learning and practicing both Lean and Six Sigma tools. But the condition Dr. Harry placed on his original question is really excellent advice. When approaching a process issue, set aside tools and methods and look to understand what is happening. You will find that the best improvement strategy usually makes itself apparent.

A wise but anonymous person once said, “a problem well defined is already half-solved.” Defining what is going on in relation to what should be going on is the core of continuous improvement.

Please share your thoughts below! Mr. Procedure

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Answers on LinkedIn: Lean, Continuous Improvement and the Maintenance Department

(Note: this is an occasional series in which I review a question posed in a LinkedIn group I belong to. In the group, I provide a brief answer and I expand upon it here. This question was posed in the Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma and Lean group.)

Question: How Do Continuous Improvement Management Philosophies Relate to the Maintenance Function? Most of us have heard terms such Lean Manufacturing, the 80/20 rule, TQM (Total Quality Management), TPS (Toyota Production System), Kaizen, 5S and TPM (Total Productive Maintenance). They are all management philosophies that can be applied to the practical aspects of a business including the maintenance function, but quite often maintenance becomes a passenger in a business’ effort to apply new philosophies.

My Expanded Answer: most maintenance departments would be happy to find they were “only” passengers in the business’ effort to apply Lean or other programs. More commonly, maintenance departments find themselves deluged with work orders and requests to move, remove and fix items to make other departments more functional.

But Maintenance can play a major role in the improvement process—and be a beneficiary of the improvement processes being implemented.

A critical component of an organization-wide improvement focus is recognizing the value of internal customer service. This is often referred to as “hearing the Voice of the Customer.” Most organizations can identify essential supplier-customer relationships within. Most see Maintenance as a supplier: Maintenance supplies the other departments by keeping machines and facilities in good working order. But in every supplier-customer relationship, there is a reciprocal supplier-customer relationship. So while Maintenance is a supplier to the other departments, it is also a customer to those same departments.

Let me give you a simple example: Maintenance gets a call from Production; “my machine is broken, fix it!” Reasonable request, so Maintenance arrives with a cart full of tools and parts, not knowing which tools and parts are necessary (or if other tools or parts will have to be retrieved). Now if Maintenance received a more detailed explanation of the problem, their job would be easier (bring the right parts and tools to the job) and the Production group would have its machine back in operation.

At the core of any supplier-customer relationship is understanding exactly what the supplier brings to the customer (think in terms of a product, even if the “product” is a service). In terms of Maintenance, the product they deliver to other departments is maximum operational time (up-time). So what does (or can) Maintenance receive as a reciprocal customer to improve their customer service?

There are a few answers, most of which fall under the category of “information.” Of course, getting a clear description of what has broken would be more helpful than “my machine is broken.” But Maintenance’s customers can supply much more information. For example, they can learn the signs of deterioration of a component, watch for the signs and alert Maintenance in advance of an actual breakdown. They can also take on some of the less rigorous and involved preventive maintenance actions. Many of you reading will recognize I am discussing elements of Total Productive Maintenance.

Maintenance, like any department in the organization, plays a significant and unique role in the department meeting its mission, even though they may not produce or ship the organization’s product. For a continuous improvement initiative to achieve its full value, every department (including Maintenance) must identify its role and how it aids the other departments in meeting their missions. There is no room for passengers on the Lean bus.

Additionally, there are many tools that can be implemented within the Maintenance department (i.e., physical location) that make for a smoother, cleaner, safer operation. 5S is an excellent example. But the tools should be the dependent variable: the mission and how to best accomplishment must be the focus of improvement, and tools brought to use only after the benefit from use of the tool is defined and quantified.

I hope this is helpful. The same principle (the reciprocal supplier-customer relationships) applies regardless of department. Achieving lasting, meaningful continuous improvement depends on these relationships being identified and maximized. Please respond with your thoughts,

Mr. Procedure

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The Operating Procedure is Complete–Now What?

I am very pleased with the response to the STC review of Writing Operating Procedures. As I noted in my last post, my next task is to complete the follow-up book that describes how procedures are handled, controlled and updated once they are completed. My thoughts and ideas will be captured in Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures. For now, I anticipate the book will contain the following elements (not necessarily in this order):

1. Gaining Procedure Approval: this will not just be about getting someone to sign off on the procedure, but how to identify those with fundamental responsibility for the procedure’s execution (i.e., correct task performance).

2. Distributing the Procedure: this section will discuss how procedures will be introduced into the organization, not only where and how they will be stored, but how workers will be brought into alignment with the procedure.

3. Controlling Procedures: this will focus on the requirements for Document Control and how organizations will ensure that the latest (presumably most correct) information will always be the information in front of their workers.

4. Revising Procedures: this section will focus on the why’s of revision, the different types of revisions that may occur, and how to format the revised document so that the changes and nature of the changes are highlighted.

5. Delivering Information to the Worker: this section will focus on the many ways procedure information can be supplied to workers, besides paper, binders, etc. This will likely include discussions of (but not advertisements for) software programs used to aid in the flow of information. (I would gladly consider any types of programs for inclusion in this discussion.)

6. Procedures and Their Use in Investigations: this section will discuss the centrality of Operating Procedures in incident and process investigations.

7. Procedure Changes and Performance Management Impact: here I will discuss how procedure changes must be integrated into an organization’s/department’s whole performance management process, based on my five-dimension performance mangement model.

8. Impact of Projects on the Procedure Process: capital and other projects aimed at improving department or organizational function can have a major impact on the operating procedures. Here we will discuss how to identify what will change and how to address the changes during project development rather than scrambling afterward.

9. Maintaining a Procedure Review Process: in this section I will discuss having a procedure evaluation process as an element of an organization’s Quality Planning cycle.

10. Maintaining Focus on Why the Procedures Were Born in the First Place! This section will be a reminder of why the procedures came to be (and it was not to placate auditors), and how to not lose sight of that purpose as your procedure process grows and expands.

That is an introductory stab at the topics I will cover in my Beyond book. I am most eager to hear from people with ideas on what else I should cover in the book, any products you wish to point out to me, as well as any ideas. In the coming weeks, I will post on different elements of this outline. I hope to have the completed companion to Writing Operating Procedures finished by June 30.

Thanks as always for your support, Mr. Procedure.



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Writing Operating Procedures–STC Review

Through much of last year, I offered to the technical writing and continuous improvement communities for free (!) my book, Writing Operating Procedures. I was gratified by the positive response to the book.

I was approached by the Society for Technical Communication (STC) to review my book, which they did. On Dec. 24, I received an email with the review of my book (along with 18 or so other publications they reviewed for their most recent journal). So I cut and pasted the pieces of the review together and here it is (courtesy of STC).

WOP book review from STC

I was very pleased to have my book reviewed and to receive a very positive summation of my work. As far as the last comment, about what the reviewer wished I had included, I actually addressed that at the end of Section 11. Long story short, I had to end the book somewhere, and I noted that I would cover things related to procedure “life cycle” in an updated version of the book. After some thought, I decided that I will write a companion book (with the working title Beyond the Writing of Operating Procedures). So that will be my “big” writing project for the first half of 2014.

In the not-too-distant future, I will have to cease free distribution of the original book. However, through February (at least), I will honor any request for the .pdf version of the book sent to me at And of course, if you are not thoroughly satisfied with the book, I will give you a full refund of the purchase price.

So to all of you who received my book, I thank you for your support. To those who want the book, write me. I will keep you posted on the progress of the companion book to Writing Operating Procedures.

I hope everyone’s New Year is off to a great start, regardless of when your New Year begins!

Tim James, Mr. Procedure

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