Seven attributes of effective procedures for manufacturers

Many businesses struggle to create good procedures (or work instructions) and struggle even more to get workers to follow them.

Is it really worth the effort? And what makes a procedure effective?

Some manufacturers have procedures just because “they have to.”

In other words, they need to comply with standards and legislation and the requirements of their customers.

They do the bare minimum so that they can dig out documents at audit time and wave them at the auditors.

But if you have really good procedures, and a structured, robust system to manage them, and your workers follow them diligently, you can have a world-class profitable business that runs like clockwork.

Good written procedures are great for training. It makes it easy for the trainer, and also for the trainee, who can simply check the procedure, rather than keep asking “How do you do that again?”

They are also useful as refreshers for experienced employees who haven’t done the particular task in a while.
When employees have been trained to follow best-practice procedures, they can be confident they are doing the job in the best possible way.

This is gratifying and motivating, so an added bonus is confident, motivated employees. But the real benefit is that, when everyone performs tasks in the same way, regardless of which shift they’re working, you’ll make consistent product and provide consistent service.

Check out this sample operating procedure for a clean muffin depositor and pump.

If there is an injury at work, what’s the first  question Workcover ask? You know it, they ask “Where are your procedures?” Incidents are far less likely if the safest way of working is captured and communicated to employees.

So, as well as covering yourself if someone did get injured, you are more likely to avoid the hassle, heartache and expense of incidents in the first place if you have effective procedures.

Another great benefit of good procedures is that, just by creating them, you can evaluate every step of the process.

You can ask of each action:

  • Do I need it?
  • Does it add value?
  • Is it safe?
  • Is there a better/safer/cheaper way?

So what makes a good procedure? I’m sure you’ve all seen the longwinded ones that tell you nothing.

Here are seven attributes of highly effective procedures.  Test yours against them:

  1. They provide useful information, presented in a logical sequence. Procedures that are vague, so that they cover all scenarios, just annoy everyone. Instructions need to be specific and tell people exactly what they need to know to do a job. The information needs to be presented in a logical sequence, in the order that the job is done.
  2. They’re short. Procedures are about how to do tasks. Some companies stuff them so full of  background or training information or rules that are covered elsewhere, that people with practical skills would rather figure out how to do it themselves than wade through pages and pages of information. The ideal procedure will fit on a single sheet of paper. Some may require two or three, but any more and people will not read them.
  3. They have a layout that is easy to scan. Often people are looking for specific information and need to scan the procedure. Just like browsing the internet, if people can’t find the information they need quickly, they give up and move on. There are a number of factors that make a document easy to scan – too many to mention here. But the key is starting with a good template, like the ones illustrated.
  4. They are written as commands. Because procedures are about tasks, they are easiest to follow when they are written as actions, or commands. For example: “Unplug the pump,” “Remove the hose”, “Open the valve.” This also helps to make them short, especially if you select the right verb. We don’t need “The operator should remove the hose.”
  5. They use clear, concise language that targets the audience. Once again, this helps to keep procedures short. You’ll often find procedures sprinkled with words that don’t add meaning, such as “appropriate.” You need to consider who will use the procedures and target the language and the level of detail at the user. For example, you’d need to provide more detail for mechanical tasks performed by an unqualified operator-maintainer than you would if you were writing instructions for the same task for a tradesperson.
  6. They use photos and symbols to communicate effectively. Most people who work in a manufacturing environment are practical people who respond to visual cues rather than words. With the easy availability of digital cameras, you’d be crazy not to include photos in practical procedures. You can make them even more effective by taking action shots and pointing out the key points in each photo.
  7. They tell how to perform the job safely. A procedure needs to include operational controls for hazards that may be associated with any step. This is where some people get carried away and turn the procedure into a full-on risk assessment. Every task should be risk-assessed, but only the controls relevant to the person performing the task need to be included in a procedure. If your instructions are littered with warnings, then the risk needs to be managed further up the hierarchy of controls.

Check out this sample operating procedure to perform prechecks on gas forklifts.

Apart from these seven attributes, to be effective, procedures must be used. No matter how good they are, if no one looks at them, they won’t help your business perform better.

As well as the above attributes, you need to make sure your procedures are accessible by managing them with a structured, logical, controlled system.

And last of all, make sure your managers and supervisors are on board and ensure people perform tasks according to procedure.

So how do your procedures stack up?

[Rosemary O’Donoghue from TechWriting has many years of experience writing procedures across a range of industries. She offers two-day practical procedure-writing courses at your workplace.]