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

Posted in Continuous improvement, Dr. Harry, Leadership, Lean, Lean Six Sigma, Process, Process Analysis, Six Sigma, Training | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 mrprocedure@gmail.com. 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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Implementing Lean: Going Boldly Where No Company Has Gone Before?

Editor’s note: on occasion I take a question posed on a LinkedIn group discussion and expand on the response I provided to the discussion. Since I am very much at odds with the big-program (read, big-budget) initiative approach so prevalent as it relates to continuous improvement, some topics elicit a stronger reaction than others. Today is one of those occasions. Some time I will return to my leadership series, which I began in August.

This question was posed in a Continuous Improvement group in LinkedIn recently:

What is the most challenging part of implementing lean in a business that has never dealt with lean before?

This question struck me as a curious one, and it elicited a lot of answers from fellow travelers. Many answers focused on leadership, others focused on culture–all good thoughts. But here is an alternative thought: there is no business that has never dealt with Lean!

True, there are many organizations that have never embarked on a “Lean program,” replete with consultants, roll-outs, etc. etc. But think about it for a minute: what organization has not looked at any of its processes and never done anything to improve them?

Maybe a significant part of the “challenge” would be eliminated if those of us in the teaching chair considered that people intuitively understand Lean, have to some extent “done Lean” and that the idea of eliminating waste is far from a foreign concept.

In one of my past incarnations, I conducted a two-day “introduction to Lean” course that included a factory simulation (actually included two working side by side). Through the iterations of factory line improvement, I told the attendees to focus on the process. The one “tool” I had them use was an outcome-focused Process Map. Over the course of the first day (first four of eight simulated days), the teams made significant improvements in their operation.

It was early on the second day that I presented a segment on the “Tools of Lean.” During this time I gave a brief description of each tool (5S, Quick Changeover, etc.), and we discussed how the teams had implemented Lean without having had the tools discussed in advance. The teams were using the tools whether or not they knew what they were doing had been described as a tool.

The reality was that through a careful analysis of the processes they used on their lines, and some “common sense” thinking, the teams made the changes necessary to improve quality and throughput.

If an organization is seeking to embark on a Lean journey, I’m suggesting that while the business may have never dealt with Lean (as an initiative), the people have dealt with Lean. They do not need a new way of thinking (read, they do not need to be told they’re idiots),  they most likely need only to sharpen their process-analysis skills to see how a process contributes to waste and then focus on what will remove the waste.

PS–this is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in Canada. My heartfelt thanks to those who served, both in war and in peacetime, to preserve the freedoms we all too often take for granted.

Posted in Continuous improvement, Culture change, Leadership, Process, Process Analysis, Purpose Maps, Training, Training Program Development | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So You’re a “Champion?”

One of the great highlights of my sports-fan watching occurred June 11, 2012. On that date, the Los Angeles Kings defeated the New Jersey Devils, 6-1 to claim their first Stanley Cup championship as an organization. For fans such as myself–who was actually part of the smallest home crowd in Kings history in 1967, their first year, who drew a comic strip newsletter about the Kings through high school, who attended Wayne Gretzky’s first game as a King, who waited, and waited, and waited through some miserable seasons–this was nothing short of a miracle. For the 23 or so players, winning the Cup was the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat, tears, sacrifice (not to mention the brilliant goaltending of Jonathan Quick).

So what does this have to do with continuous improvement? Not a whole lot, except lately I have been pondering how organizations get so many things backward. Sometime in the not-too-distant past, a new job title emerged: Champion. As in, “so-and-so has been named the new Lean Champion here at XYZ Corporation.” Somehow, “manager,” “leader,” etc., was not good enough. We need a Champion!

The more I thought about it, the more it struck me that such a “champion” has not necessarily succeeded at anything, much less proven to be the best. Now, of course, many of you will say, “The person is there to champion (v.t.) the cause of Lean, or Six Sigma, or whatever initiative.” I get that. But can’t they promote, cheerlead, facilitate, guide and lead the organization into better conduct without such an off-putting title? Or should the person at least earn the title of Champion the way the Kings earned their skate with the Stanley Cup in 2012?

Naming someone a “champion” before they’ve won anything is putting the cart before the horse, and setting the champion up for a potential fall. In an organization, the title puts emphasis in the wrong place–on a person, a Messiah-figure–when the emphasis should be on the processes the organization owns and the methods and tools the organization intends to use to improve. In that regard, the term Champion is counter-productive (employees will not respond as readily if it’s already determined who gets the glory for the success). A true Champion of continuous improvement doesn’t need a title. He or she knows success is a team effort and the team’s success is all the glory they need. A true Champion does not have to go around telling the world they are champion. Their accomplishments speak for them.

And don’t even get me started on “Change Agents.”

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Leadership, Part 13: Shall I Serve or Shall I Rule?–Part 2

What is the leader truly after? Success for a people, an organization, a country, or success for Self?

The barometer for any leader (that is, who they truly serve) will be seen in the degree to which they can build consensus and instill a cooperative environment. The leader whose heart is in service to others will move effortlessly into this realm and stay there. The leader whose hear is in service to Self will make only the most superficial stab at creating such an environment, because in a cooperative environment the Self-serving ruler runs the great risk of having credit fall to others.

What makes Consensus-Building and Cooperation the go-to mode of the serve-others leader is that they rely on an organization-wide focus on the processes and actions that lead to organizational performance, its success or lack of success. These modes by their nature de-centralize decision-making and allow people at all levels the opportunity to do what aids and abets improved process performance. By this I am not suggesting that people are “empowered” and “self-directed” to make changes, but changes can be suggested at any level, evaluated in terms of their effect on the process, and attempted as evidence suggests they are viable.

The leader’s principal role becomes to (initially) create the consensus: that is, establish the understanding about how the organization will operate, and that anyone’s success will rise and fall with their conformance to a particular way of operating rather than their conformance to the leader’s desire.

Once consensus is established and cooperative momentum is developing, the leader’s next role changes to sustaining the cooperative environment. This involves providing the time for development of workers at all levels in the methods of process analysis and communication. It also involves maintaining open communication in all directions. It also involves ensuring that all people, especially those in “mid-management” roles are not permitted to engage in behavior that suggests service-to-self. And of course the leader must walk the talk.

And–here is where service-to-self types are exposed–the cooperative leader is quick to provide recognition and reward for the process successes achieved by workers, teams and departments. It is impossible to stand in the middle of a spotlight you are shining on someone else. When the organizational environment is built on letting the process dictate direction, the “glory” is diluted. To the leader dedicating to “servant leadership,” his/her satisfaction is maximized when employee satisfaction and process excellence are maximized.

Such leadership requires that one check their ego at the door. Unfortunately, that’s a tall order for too many.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue to discuss servant leadership and its implications.

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Leadership, Part 12: Shall I Serve or Shall I Rule?

In the discussion of the 7Cs, five of the seven Cs of the progression dealt with either how a leader ascends to the position of leadership or how they intend to retain their leader role. Only two of them–Consensus Building and Cooperation–really deal with how the leader intends to behave in the role. You could also say that these are the only two whose execution depends entirely on honesty and transparency (two attributes every U.S. President in my adult lifetime have given lip service to providing).

Let’s go back to the first two Cs:

A potential leader or current leader can seize on a Crisis to come into leadership or consolidate leadership. The crisis need not be real, or be honestly evaluated, if the end game is to get followers in line. The leader does have to project a confidence that they can get the followers through. In a democratically-elected structure, it can also help that the leader is the leader and is not in danger of being replaced.

Is such a leader ruling or serving? Much depends on what happens when the crisis recedes. The leader who declares martial law, and never lifts martial law when the crisis is over, has either become enamored of the thought of ruling or intended to become a ruler all along.

This progression is evident in the histories of many countries, but does it play out in business organizations as well? Consider the corporate leader who is thrust into the sort of crisis that threatens the organization’s survival. The leader must make quick, and in many cases, unpopular decisions. And, should the organization survive, regain its footing and grow, the leader may conclude his/her leadership is what saved the organization, and since that type of rule got us through, it’s appropriate to continue with that form of leadership. Such a leader may feel a sense of entitlement to transition into a ruling mode, and may even justify it by saying things such as, “if I hadn’t led us through the crisis, you wouldn’t have a job!”

The Compelling Vision can be more insidious than a Crisis, in particular because the would-be leader can claim ownership of the Vision when they would be loath to own the crisis. Most people would love to be in on the ground floor with the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, and for them someone with a unique vision can be hypnotic. The danger of course is that many of these visionaries are driven by the singular vision of them being in absolute control of others.

In the business world, this Vision may lead to a breakthrough product. The ruling visionary, buoyed by this success, may be deluded by the notion they have some Midas touch, that every idea will be similarly golden, and they will not tolerate dissent or any opinion that their next Vision will be anything less than revolution 2.o.

For such leaders, political or corporate, leading by serving was either abandoned in the heat of the struggle or was never a consideration to begin with. Either of these can make a quick leap to ruling with an iron fist, exercising complete control over everything, even being so brash and self-absorbed as to fire subordinates in the middle of a global conference call (one can only hope the situation was quickly Patched up–sorry).

What was missed in the progressions described above? Leading by serving, which not so coincidentally is embodied by Consensus-Building and Cooperation. There was no stop on the path from Crisis and Vision straight to Coercion and Control. More often than not, the reason is the leader never intended anything less than Rule by Self.

Tomorrow: embodying leadership by service.



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Leadership, Part 11: The Motivation to Lead, Part 2

My experience stepping into leadership took place in 1989. Funny, because I had actually been the “lead person” in the analytical chemistry lab for three years prior. I never really embraced it as a leadership position, ironically, which likely limited my effectiveness in any area other than getting testing completed and results reported.

But in March of 1989, the organization I was working for had posted a position for a Mixing Supervisor. I had spoken to several colleagues who expressed an interest in the position, only to be told they would not be considered because they did not have a college degree. Well, I had a college degree, so I thought, “let me put my name in and see what excuse they give me.” Long story short, I was given the position and started my new life in the ranks of the exempt on April 3, 1989.

The mixing group consisted of seven people, one of whom was a lead person. I had dealt with this lead person in my prior role and knew he was an excellent performer in his role. I did not need to take over his role and demonstrate I was the boss. Whether out of sheer luck, my reticent personality, my falling back on my skill set (writing), or a combination of the three, I stumbled into what would become my fundamental belief about a leader’s real role.

In this new position, I had several administrative-type tasks (time card review, keeping the supply cage stocked, among other things), but really did not have a road map or specific guidance about how to be a supervisor. So I looked around and discovered that one critical need the group had was improved documentation. The mixing instructions and operating procedures for the equipment was somewhere between lacking and non-existent. So I plunged into rewriting all of the mixing instructions, developed a new form for them to follow in documenting their mixes (so the same information would be recorded each time), and developed more complete procedures to describe how to use equipment.

The result was that the scrap rate of mixes fell sharply, and others in the organization released the perception that “the Mix Room people don’t know what they’re doing.” I did not change the lead person’s function one iota. I did not have a bunch of meetings with the crew, other than to explain on occasion the new way mixes were to be documented.

What I discovered in that role, very much by accident, was that my value to the organization as “the leader” increased in proportion to how much easier I made it for the workers to accomplish their work successfully.

Now, what does that have to do with motivation? In an inverted sense, my discovery came out of the manner in which I did not lead. I did not go in and lay down the law, demand compliance, make sure everyone knew I was in charge, etc. This was not a path I carefully planned out, nor was I really coached in my approach. But it seemed a good plan to assume that the group was doing a good job, and they did not need me beating them into performing well. They needed someone who could facilitate them becoming better.

As a leader, is your desire to serve, or to rule? This cuts to the core of who we are as leaders and how we approach leadership. We’ll look at that tomorrow.

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