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Patrick Sweeney

Quality Insider

Four Essentials of Effective Work Instructions

Returning the focus to the worker

Published: Monday, March 30, 2009 - 12:21

A work instruction is a tool provided to help someone do a job correctly. This simple statement implies that the purpose of the work instruction is quality and that the target user is the worker. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, today’s work instructions have little connection with this fundamental focus. Factories have encumbered work instructions with content that has been added to satisfy auditors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, and yes, even quality managers. We’ve piled on so much extraneous material that we’ve lost sight of the intended purpose of work instructions.

Instead of providing a simple tool to do a job right, we’ve buried the work instruction under a cascade of specifications, contract requirements, revision history, references, controls, licensing provisions, and engineering theory. The person who uses the work instruction has become an afterthought in favor of satisfying a licensing or certifying auditor.

If work instructions are to be practical quality tools, the worker must at least share focus with the auditor. This shift in emphasis doesn’t require removal of the licensing and certification information that has been added to instructions. However, the procedure portion of the work instructions can be improved, often significantly, by appropriate consideration of the worker. Workers learn quickly to spot the usable portions of the work instructions and apply the appropriate material on the job.

This article suggests a four-part criteria against which work instructions can be evaluated and improved as needed. As a first step in judging the overall effectiveness of work instructions, managers can examine their work instructions against four essential characteristics: credibility, usability, accessibility, and consistency.

Credibility: Workers trust them

Credible work instructions are at the heart of standardized best practices. In a workplace that’s committed to one and only one way to perform all procedures and processes, work instructions must define that standard.

When work instructions are credible, workers accept and trust them. But it’s easy for work instructions to lose their credibility. A common way to lose credibility is when standard procedure updates and changes get passed along verbally, and there are consistent and regular delays in updating the written work instructions. With verbal changes, an important step can be missed or an individual can otherwise fail to get the correct message. In a busy workplace with frequent undocumented changes and updates, work instructions become marginalized with workers no longer trusting them as being accurate.

Work instructions also lose credibility when a supervisor initiates a change and deviates from standardized best practice. Even though the change may be an improvement, the worker is forced to make a choice, and the boss’s words are always going to win over the written work instructions. For work instructions to be credible, workers must believe that they define the one, single, proper way to perform a task.

Clarity: Workers understand them

A clear work instruction can be quickly understood by the worker with a minimum of effort. To accommodate the typical worker, an ideal work instruction explains mostly with graphics using only minimal clarifying text. Illustrations or other graphic support should be immediately visible and the worker shouldn’t be required to go to any other location for supporting information.

Work instructions start to become unusable when they contain extraneous matter not directly related to the procedure. Also, multipage or multiscreen work instructions that cannot be quickly and easily grasped don’t meet the clarity test. Because most workers have neither the time nor the patience to struggle with unclear work instructions, they lose their practical value.

Accessibility: Workers can get to them

Work instructions are accessible when they can be located quickly and easily. "Quickly" means within seconds and "easily" requires a retrieval system that the worker knows, understands, and trusts. An ideally accessible work instruction is displayed as a job aid in immediate full view in the workspace.

If someone with a question about the proper procedure must struggle to even locate the applicable work instruction, the typical worker will find an alternative such as trial and error, guesswork, and questioning an associate or supervisor. While these alternatives might produce the right answer, they lead to a decline in the significance and importance of the work instructions.

Consistency: They match worker training

Consistent work instructions conform to a style guide developed specifically for procedures and work instructions. There must be rigid consistency of terminology so that the same word means the same thing every time. There can be no undefined acronyms and confusing technical terms. All instructions should follow the same format so that the user always knows where to find information such as required tools or control settings.

Consistent work instructions also demand that the material used for worker training is consistent with provided job aids.


In the absence of effective user-focused work instructions, we force the worker to employ a host of unsatisfactory alternatives including guesswork, trial and error, rumor, and tribal knowledge information transfer. The inevitable result is variation, deviation, reduced productivity, and lost potential.

To achieve the desired quality benefits of standard best practice, effective work instructions need to be a fundamental first step.

For more information, visit www.explainers.com.


About The Author

Patrick Sweeney’s picture

Patrick Sweeney

Patrick Sweeney, the founder of Michigan-based Explainers (www.explainers.com), is a noted consultant, writer, and speaker on the topic of procedures and work instructions. He has presented at national and local meetings and conferences of professional organizations, forum keynote talks, college-sponsored workshops, and similar events across a broad range of industries and applications.


work instructions

The ol' picture conveys a thousand words. All true but I find myself writing work instructions to my target users. I find using pictures as the focus and if they can't grasp the picture I slide in the occasional annotation. But if this doesn't work 3 to 4 sentence paragraph underneath the objective picture. you got 3 ways to getting it.