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Providing employees with clear work instructions is integral to operational success.
Work instructions refer to documented guidelines that clarify how to perform assignments. They provide precise descriptions of task-related steps to reduce potential setbacks, damages, and inconveniences. Work instructions are also known as work guides, job aids, or user manuals.
The acronym, RECS, represents the successful outcome of clearly articulated work instructions: Reliability, Efficiency, Confidence, and Safety. Sectors that rely heavily on work instructions include manufacturing, healthcare, science and research, hospitality, and transport. In this article, you’ll learn how to develop effective work instructions that work! We’ll begin by exploring the relationship between work instructions and standard operating procedures (SOPs).
How to Write Work Instructions That Are Easy to Follow
The Difference between Work Instructions and SOPs
Managers often confuse work instructions with SOPs. Though both documents exist to communicate business procedures, they are not the same. SOPs outline the steps involved in completing a task from start to finish. Alternatively, work instructions describe how workers should perform individual SOP steps. In other words, work instructions detail how to execute SOPs.
Does that mean every SOP needs accompanying work instructions? No, only process steps that require more than a couple of elaborative sentences should have them. Lengthy clarifications can clutter SOP checklists, cause confusion, and result in workers missing essential steps.
The easiest way to begin documenting a procedure is first to outline the SOP steps. Then, once the SOP is complete, go back and write work instructions for items that require greater clarification. This order ensures no gaps in understanding occur.
7 Traits of Good Work Instructions
The most important part of writing good work instructions? Leave nothing open to misinterpretation! Vague work instructions confuse employees, disrupt productivity, and often result in costly errors. With that in mind, here are seven characteristics to aim for when developing work instructions:
- Clarity: Good work instructions provide clear, precise, and comprehensive directions on how employees should perform tasks. Clarity means any employee can read a task description and understand its meaning immediately upon reading it. To ensure comprehension, avoid using acronyms, multi-syllable words, and unexplained technical terms.
- Brevity: French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal infamously said, “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” If you’ve ever struggled to explain a complex topic succinctly, you understand Pascal’s struggle. Strive to thoroughly understand the tasks you’re writing about so you can describe them in a few words. Brevity equals simplicity.
- Accessibility: Unseen work instructions benefit no one. Ensure employees have easy access to work instructions wherever they are onsite and offsite. Fail to make the documents accessible, and some employees won’t bother tracking them down. Digital task-management systems like MaintianX allow workers to access SOPs, work instructions, and work orders from their mobile devices.
- Consistency: Ensure work instructions are consistent with assigned employee skill sets. Additionally, they need to use the same methodology, terminology, and layout throughout the draft. Essentially, follow an SOP for developing work instructions! Errors are less likely to occur when employees know what to expect from organizational documents.
- Accuracy: Employees should see work instructions as accurate, helpful, and credible. Therefore, the instructions must match the employee’s work reality. Managers should consult more experienced employees to ensure they aren’t missing important details. Only people who consistently complete a task know the ins and outs of how to do it.
- Visual: Employees are often more comfortable consulting visual media than multi-page manuscripts. Why? Studies show individuals process visual information 60,000 times faster compared to textual information. Try incorporating infographics, images, and photos into your work instructions whenever possible.
Remember: the responsibility of developing work instructions should never lie with a single person. The best-written processes include the input of several stakeholders to ensure all of the above characteristics are met.
How to Write Work Instructions
Sitting down to write both work instructions and SOPs can be daunting, especially when breaking a complex process into smaller steps. Use the following sequence to draft your next work instructions:
Step 1: Write a Clear Title
First, write the document’s title. The title should refer to the task at hand. For example, “How to Disinfect Countertops” may be the title of work instructions explaining a restaurant’s Opening Procedures.
Step 2: Write a Brief Introduction
Next, write a brief introduction that provides contextual background, identifies task owners, and describes the task’s purpose. This step will help you develop the document with a clear goal in mind. With our previous example, the purpose of disinfecting restaurant countertops is to maintain a safe environment for patrons and follow recommended COVID-19 guidelines.
Step 3: Describe How to Do It
This step is self-explanatory: describe how workers should complete the task. Explain how to disinfect the countertops in clear, detailed language. Additionally, list all approved materials needed for the job. You may want to include relevant references—images, flow charts, and tables—to enhance employee understanding.
Step 4: Format Work Instructions
Select a design format to use consistently throughout the document. Break down any necessary steps into numbered sequences, with each step representing a single action. If you’re using infographics, don’t just drop them onto the page. Refer to the images within the text for additional clarification.
Ideally, keep images on the left and text on the right for optimized informational processing. Also, use bold, italicized, and UPPER-CASE text to emphasize important pieces of information.
Step 5: Revise Your Document
Once you’re finished writing, review your draft for opportunities to remove extraneous words, simplify complex sentences, and improve readability. Here are some quick editorial tips:
- Abbreviate Correctly: Spell out complex terminology on first use and enclose abbreviations in parentheses next to the initial term. Subsequently, you may use the abbreviation throughout the document. For an example, refer to the first time I wrote the term standard operating procedures (SOPs) in this article.
- Provide a Glossary: If you find yourself heavily referencing abbreviations, consider linking to a glossary of terminology.
- Maintain Consistency: For example, if you use the term “liquid detergent” in one step, continue to use that term throughout the entire document to avoid confusion.
Affordable editing software like Grammarly or Hemingway help with editing to improve both readability and remove grammatical errors.
Step 6: Provide Resources
Once your initial editing is complete, look for opportunities to provide additional resources and reading materials. You can do this either by adding footnotes or including an appendix at the end of the document.
Step 7: Test Effectiveness
Finally, test the effectiveness of your work instructions before making them available company-wide. Ask an employee or colleague to follow the directions and perform the associated task. This exercise will reveal any instructional gaps that need clarification. Observe and take note of how your colleague performs the job so you can go back and improve the document.
Once you’ve confirmed the instructions are easy to understand and follow, begin including them within associated SOPs and work orders.
Step-by-Step Instruction Example
Here’s an example of a basic work instruction format:
|Steel Fabrication Work Instructions:|
|Work Instructions No:|
2.0 SCOPE: List the areas and processes that apply to the instructions.
3.0 RECORDS: Indicate specific records that will need maintaining and how they’re to be maintained.
4.0 ASSOCIATED DOCUMENTS: Refer to other relevant documents.
5.0 DEFINITIONS: Define the tasks and any phrases that might confuse the task owner.
6.0 RESPONSIBILITY: List the people responsible for maintaining the instructions.
7.0 TOOLS: List all the tools needed to perform the outlined task.
8.0 SAFETY REQUIREMENTS: List the safety precautions to comply with.
9.0 INSTRUCTIONS: Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, etc.
|Insert work instructions flowchart|
Streamline Task-Management with MaintainX
Remember: work instructions are only effective when employees use them to improve business processes. Documents gathering dust on a shelf are nothing more than a waste of precious space. Leverage a digital task-management platform like MaintainX to ensure work instructions are always accessible, useful, and editable.