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Paul Naysmith


The Art of Writing Procedures

How to become an artisan of quality

Published: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 - 14:47

These days quality professionals have shifted away from actually writing procedures to helping others develop documentation to describe the businesses they are in. Although I live in hope, I still see many poor attempts at “procedures”—or at least failures in their facilitation.

I have a simple view of the world: A management system’s purpose is to describe how you do your business. Because customers and industry overseers will influence its design and content, you must be very strong to prevent an accreditation body from dictating what it should or should not contain.

Writing a quality management system (QMS) document truly is an art, an art in the medium of quality. As such, why do we allow nonartists to create such documents?

Perhaps my experiences will help you budding artists tasked with developing procedures, work instructions, or forms for your business. Traditionally, these documents live in something called a quality manual, which is part of a QMS.

So there you are with the building blocks of a management system, complete with all the documents within. Most likely you’ve inherited documents, and it’s become your responsibility to “update” them. I don’t like the word “update” in this instance. I prefer “correct” because there is often a great deal of correction needed in this world of ours.

Consider the words in your procedures. Were they written by anyone involved in the process they were designed to support? Unfortunately I’ve seen time and again a 40-page masterpiece an engineer has developed that is incomprehensible to anyone other than a superstar engineer. And the only person who will ever read this document will be a quality professional, and that will be during an audit. What a regretful waste of time and resources. Why not get the people who actually perform the process to document the way that they do things, and get an engineer to approve it if necessary? I've found that this way, process users take ownership of the procedures, with greater compliance to them as a natural result.

Because we live in a world connected by this thing called the Internet, you no doubt also have a global management system, where a colleague 12 time zones away has to comply with the company’s complex instructions. Living and working in a country where English is the primary language, are we ignorant to the fact that English is the secondary or tertiary language for many of our colleagues overseas? Could there be something that is lost in translation?

Take for example South Africa, which recognizes 11 languages. English is spoken by 8 percent of the population: Should we translate? This reminds me of a recent discussion I had over which “English” will be used in procedures: American or British English (or as I like to call it, Americanese or Proper). Being from the UK, I speak and write in “Proper”; however, the team at Quality Digest likes to add the colored stains of Americanese to my columns and translate for you, dear reader. (Guys, did you just edit the “u” out of that “coloured” in the last sentence?)

Why would I think this is an unimportant discussion to have? If you need to describe how you do things around your business, just get it down on paper and worry about the spelling afterwards.

Back to my South Africa example, I believe we should work to ensure that any business information is expressed in a way that is meaningful to its stakeholders, and we should always consider translation. Otherwise I’d be fearful that an engineering instruction, containing important safety information but not translated into Xhosa, might put a colleague at risk in South Africa.

That brings me to another issue of quality management systems: how we access or grant access to the information. I will always strongly argue for having the information you need at the point of use—although the closest point many people have to this information is the computer that serves as the doorway to the Internet. It’s worth considering that you share your documents via an intranet system. However, what are the computer literacy rates in your global business? Using the South African example again, where 4.2 percent of the population have access to computers, will your message get across?

I’ve explained that we need to translate to a language that is meaningful to the user, and that putting it online may not get to the intended user. However, I have not explained how to become an artisan of quality, or the art of writing procedures.

Being mindful that America does rank 10th for literacy in the world, there are some great examples of procedures that have been written in such a way that the user will get the engineer’s instruction and it will be at the point of use for the user. And I want you, my dear quality professional, to see what a non-Americanese-speaking company has done to ensure that important instructions are communicated effectively: the instruction procedure for building an Ikea bookshelf. It is a perfect example of how to write a world-class procedure. Since it offers no guarantee of the user’s abilities to ensure quality in the assembly process, I would recommend some level of adult supervision.

Granted, not all rules or requirements can be expressed visually, and you may have to consider your art of the procedure expressed in a different medium. For each document that you facilitate that describes your business, please be mindful of its intended customer or user, and how it will be available at its point of use. And most of all, “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS). All of which leads me to the parable of the CEO’s procedures:

A fellow had just been hired as the new CEO of a large corporation. The CEO who was stepping down met with him privately and presented him with three procedures, numbered one through three, and in three separate envelopes. “Open these in order if you run up against a problem you don't think you can solve,” said the outgoing CEO.

Business was running smoothly for the new CEO, but six months later, sales took a downturn, and he was catching a lot of heat. About at wit’s end, the CEO remembered the three procedures. He went to his drawer and took out the first envelope. The simplistic instruction read, “Blame your predecessor.” So he called a press conference and tactfully laid the blame at the feet of the previous CEO. Satisfied with his comments, the press—and Wall Street—responded positively, sales began to pick up, and the problem was soon behind him.

About a year later, the company was experiencing a slight dip in sales combined with serious product quality problems. Having learned from his previous experience, the CEO opened the second envelope. The instruction simply read, “Reorganize.” This he did, and the company quickly rebounded.

After several consecutive profitable quarters, the company once again fell on difficult times. The CEO went to his office, closed the door, and opened the third envelope—the last available procedure. The message said, “Prepare three envelopes, reinsert the three procedures, and issue to your replacement.”


About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.


Point of use procedures

Your article strikes a chord with me.  That proceures should be written by the end user for both clarifty and ease of understanding.

A side story... I was in India visiting one of our suppliers.  It was one of the most impressive suppliers in Inida that I had visited, very clean and brightly lite, with clear product flow in the plant.  I was also impressed with the fact that they had standard work instructions at every work location.  I stopped at several of them to briefly read through them,  And then it struck me that I could read the standard work instructions, but I could not speak to the shop floor worked because they did not speak English, rather they only spoke one of India's 27 dialects.  The supplier had placed the the standard work instructions, in English, on the floor to impress their customers, but the workers could not read or use them!