Tech Writing Handbook
Every employee has a slightly different way of doing things. Each has a different background, different experience, different depth of skill, and a slightly different work process—and that introduces variation into a company’s workflow. The larger your operation, the more variation works its way into the production line.
“Standardization,” explains K. Smith of KBC Advanced Technologies, “is the process of developing, agreeing upon and implementing technical or program specifications, methods, processes and practices throughout an organization.”
The goal of standardization is to do more with less resources, less time, and less effort. You’ve probably already identified your best practices—the ones that preserve value while eliminating waste. We’re going to show you how to capture those best practices, document them, and roll them out across your workforce.
Good question! Here are a couple points that might help you make your case:
Work instructions are key to reducing variation, allowing manufacturers to improve quality and meet demand. Even better, written work instructions are a great training tool for new employees.
Standard work instructions enforce consistency when performing tasks. They allow engineers to measure quality and task time. Knowing those two variables is key to determining Takt time, which gauges how effectively manufacturers are meeting their production goals.
If you can document the improvement with fewer errors or reduced Takt time, you won’t have to ask your manager for resources next time—they’ll be happy to do it.
The better your work instructions are, the more efficient your workplace will be.
Great work instructions use most of the same techniques that we’ve already explored in the previous chapters. But there are a couple more things you’ll want to keep in mind.
Manufacturing is complex. Building a car, assembling a cell phone, and manufacturing a medical device are huge tasks. Each step along the way has to get done quickly, safely, and with reproducible quality. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the process.
We already touched on the importance of prerequisites: reusable procedures that are used in a number of different processes. This concept of breaking work into repurposable chunks is important for managing work instructions.
Think of it this way: Processes have to be done in a certain order. You can’t put together a hamburger without first cooking your beef. So, grilling your burger patty is a prerequisite—a dependent task. Prepping veggies—slicing the tomatoes, washing the lettuce, cutting the onions—is also a prerequisite. As is toasting the bun.
Organizing your procedural information into prerequisite tasks is a great way to create modular instructions.
Continuing with the burger theme, here’s an example: In busy restaurant kitchens, the work process is separated into modules. No single person makes the burger from beginning to end. Instead, there’s a grilling station for burgers; a toasting station for buns, and a preparation station for vegetables. The modular layout allows the restaurant to respond to orders quickly and easily.
The same principles keep shops running smoothly—whether you’re building power tools or refurbishing plane parts. But what if Yvonne is running behind on the prep station? You might give some of her work (slicing tomatoes) to Stefan to do before he toasts the buns.
You can use your documentation system to level out your workload (and balance your line) by moving processes from one station to another. Your team can react quickly by transferring discrete processes to underutilized workstations, thereby eliminating bottlenecks.
Flexible, easy to rearrange work instructions provide a powerful tool for reducing overall takt time.
The best work instructions make complex processes feel simple—even when they really aren’t. Break each step in the process to its most basic elements. Here’s an example from a repair procedure for an Xbox:
Step 8 of the guide describes how to remove the Xbox’s faceplate. Each bullet in the step details individual actions that are part of that step.
We try to keep each step pretty short, because short feels simple. If there are five “do this” bullets in a step, it’s probably better to split that step into two separate steps.
A clear, concise style is always important. But work instructions are a little different than a product manual: you have a captive, careful audience. That means you can provide more detail than you would for a public-facing audience.
Work instructions don’t just standardize work, they also prevent accidents. Give your team members all of the information they need to keep themselves safe.
Here’s a direction from a CNC machine operating procedure:
Remove the cutting tool.
Short, sweet, and to the point. Good enough, right? Well, it might be a little too short. How does the cutting tool come out of the machine? Should the technician apply force? Should he twist? Does it pull right out? Cutting tools are sharp, so it’s a good idea to be specific. Here’s a revision:
Pull the cutting tool straight down to free it from the machine.
To remove any doubts about how to perform this step, include photos or videos. Illustrating a movement with a couple hand-featured photographs, or a short video, eliminates confusion. And that’s important when it comes to safety.
Visual instructions are important—as we discuss at greater length in Chapters 6 and 7—but as you’re crafting operational procedures, it’s important to find a balance between words and images. The two should be complementary, but each should be descriptive enough to stand on its own.
For each step, if you cover the text with your hand, the images should provide enough reference for the technician to follow the task from beginning to end. If you cover the images with your hand, the text should be good enough to stand alone as a set of instructions.
Written instructions are never done: effective, continuous improvement means constantly integrating feedback from the people on the floor actually doing the work.
Don’t wait for the quality team to flag the issue further down the line. Deal with problems before they become shop stoppers. Put a system in place to capture feedback.
Giving your workers tablets is a great way to bring them into the loop. Then, you can empower workers to comment on and suggest improvements to the procedure.
Workers know which instructions are confusing. Deputize them as adjunct members of your team. Once they know you’re listening, they’ll feel empowered to help you revise and improve your documentation.
Implementing standardized processes can be a tough sell on the line, particularly when people have been doing the same procedure for years. Let them know that you’re not shoving a new procedure down their throat—you want to standardize the best procedure. Giving them a part in the process and integrating their feedback into your documentation is the best way to get everyone on board.