5 tips to write effective work instructions

Work instructions are a special kind of instruction: the instruction and execution happen simultaneously. Classroom instructions provide a safe environment, and simulating real-life events with VR glasses doesn’t carry a great risk. These artificial settings leave a margin of error. When executing work instructions on a shop floor you don’t have this margin. If you’re carrying out a line changeover, you’d better execute it right to avoid costly delays, machine downtime or do-overs. Well-written work instructions ensure smooth daily operations on your shop floor, whereas incoherent, vague instructions will not be read nor used by your operators, causing all sorts of problems. In this article we’ll first focus on what work instructions are and then explain the 5 steps towards an effective work instruction.

What is the difference between instructions and procedures?

Before we get to the actual tips, we’ll briefly explain the difference between instructions and procedures. Procedures typically contain multiple work instructions and tell you who should perform something when. A work instruction is the most detailed documentation for one identifiable task. It instructs a person on how to do something. This distinction between procedures and instructions doesn’t always hold. Standard operating procedures often are work instructions in disguise with extra information fields such as approval date, approved by, department, required permits, hazards, risks etc. This makes things very confusing. As a golden rule, if you want to explain to someone how he or she should do something, it’s an instruction.

Define the goal of the instruction

Starting from a blank slate is a very hard thing to do. Before you eagerly start writing the first step of your instructions, take a step back and reflect what the goal of the work instruction is. Is it successfully assembling? Is it the inspection of an asset? Understanding your goal will make it easier for you to write down all the necessary sub-steps. It will also influence the way you’ll write steps and include pictures.

Don’t forget your audience: take your operators into account

You should never write work instructions for their own sake. They’re written for operators and they come in many flavors. You have operators who’ve worked at your company for 20 years, others just left school. The latter will need much more information than the former and your instructions should serve the needs of both.

For any step, always start with the essential information. If inexperienced operators could benefit from more information, add this information below or after the essential information. You do not want to frustrate your experienced employees with information they know.

Split the instruction into multiple steps

Maintain a clear structure. Instructions consist of multiple steps. Every step should have only one action and you should be able to explain every step in maximum two sentences. The steps should be organized logically. There shouldn’t be any gaps between two steps.

Keep language easy to understand. Avoid meaningless adverbs and adjectives. They’ll clutter the instruction and are often too ambiguous to interpret correctly. Being precise is essential. Use simple verbs, but don’t compromise on precise, even technical terms. Be explicit. Do not leave anything unsaid. Everything you expect to be done, should be stated. Lastly, only give positive instructions. Don’t say: don’t do this. While this may seem attractive, it requires a short thought process. You’ll have to read what is not required and reverse the phrase to know what is required.

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Replace words with visual content

Speech is silver, but images are golden. Reduce processing time by replacing words with images. People, especially the younger generation of operators, interpret images faster than words. It will also help you overcome language issues on the shop floor.

No one expects you to be an artist when you’re taking pictures, but keep the following tips at the back of your mind:

  • Stand where the operator would stand: Take pictures from the point of view of the operator, it will help them to better orient themselves.
  • Zoom in: Wide angle shots will not help your operator to execute a specific task. Take detailed pictures of tools, machinery, final product, … Try to exclude unnecessary items as much as possible.

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In some instances, a short video (with a length of 10 seconds) might be even better than an image. Video has taken over the internet and as YouTube has shown us time and again, video is even better than images for explaining something. If you want to embed videos, you'll have to rely on work instruction software

Execute, receive feedback, make changes and iterate

Your instructions will not be perfect before going to the floor. They cannot be implemented without the input of the people executing them. Avoid spending endless hours perfecting your work instructions. The benefits of marginally improving your instruction will not outweigh the costs. Instead, bring your work instruction to the floor, gather feedback, adapt and iterate the entire process. This improvement through direct application will save you time, but it will also give ownership to your audience. By giving operators a voice in this creation process, they’ll be more willing to actually use those instructions while they’re working.