Why Work Instructions Matter
I vividly remember my first job working at my father’s auto body repair shop. I use vividly in place of fondly because the first few months were downright intimidating. I didn’t know what to do and was provided with only limited instruction. As a result, my efforts were quite lackluster and often required repeat efforts. I remember being frustrated and thinking that I could be more useful if I only had instructions as to how to successfully complete even one simple task.
Jump ahead 10 years and even though the scenery has changed, I still have a desire for work instructions. Odds are your team is too. So why are good work instructions still relatively uncommon? They’re time consuming, potentially costly and above all, they’re presumably tough to create. However, the necessity of your team to complete their tasks in an effective manner depends on your ability to provide them with instruction.
While creating work instructions that actually help your viewers isn’t as straightforward as it seems, that doesn’t mean that it has to be difficult. As with any help guide, it’s important to understand the areas where you can improve to help your audience improve.
Prior to getting started, know that the best instructions are well thought out and take time to compile sufficiently. Know that the investment is worth the reward when it comes to the efficiency and safety of your audience. They’re depending on you to provide them with valuable instruction. Be there for them.
Define an End Goal
When instructing someone to do anything, be sure they know what they’re doing. This seems pretty self-explanatory but it’s often an overlooked aspect of creating work instructions. Be sure to relay to your viewers what their objective is and bonus points to anyone who highlights “why” or the purpose of the job. Remember that “why” statements have the added benefit of being motivating.
For instance let’s say that you ask one of your teams to assemble a table saw. However there will be three different groups working on three different aspects of the assembly. One will be assembling the frame for the legs, one will be assembling the outboard support system for the saw, and one will be assembling the motor components. Each of these groups has a different specified outcome and therefore must understand what their end goal is. Without which, there is limited understanding of when completion occurs.
Examples of desired end goals could include:
- Description/images of a completed product
- Knowledge of safety hazards and emergency procedures
- Ability to perform a specific task
When it comes to work instructions, nothing is as valuable as the details. Equipping viewers with the right information for the job from start to finish is the difference between efficiency and failure. Let’s look at some of the specifics to consider
Prior to Getting Started
*What is the purpose of this task? What is the desired outcome?
*What tools and materials do you require to successfully and safely complete this task?
*What information do you need prior to starting to keep you safe (consider prerequisites)?
*How long will this take to complete?
Outline a Clear Path to completion
Few things are more frustrating than getting to the end of a task only to find out that a critical step was overlooked. It’s especially frustrating if it means that you have to redo any work that you’ve already completed. Because of this, it is crucial that the path to completion is clearly defined and displayed in a manner that limits the opportunity to skip over or avoid a step.
Check out this example for creating a redirect on our website. For reference, this job took someone with experience over 2 hours to do. Once the process was set, it took another team member with no experience 15 minutes.
Provide Alternative Solutions When Applicable
While we’re talking about step progression, it is important to note that some paths to completion require options to match their journey of the viewer. In other words, using if/then situations.
For instance, let’s say that you’re writing a manual for running diagnostics on a vehicle. The issue is that the vehicle won’t start. Your first suggestion is to check the battery terminals. In this case, the problem may be addressed immediately. If the viewer verifies that the terminal connection was indeed the issue, they can stop there. If the viewer determines that the terminals are fine but the problem isn’t resolved, they must continue on with testing.
The same is potentially true for operations within your organization. Identify these scenarios and provide proper redirection for viewers within your documentation.
Provide clarity to key information within each step
Getting back to the details, they’re not just for initial setup of instruction. Prepping your viewers prior to getting started allows them to organize and be aware of critical details. Once they get into the process, details must continue to be highlighted.
Let’s go back to our example above about checking the battery terminals. While the first step in the instruction may seem simple, there’s a good chance that without clarifying details, there’s room for interpretation. How can we minimize the “guess work” so that everyone knows the best practice?
Add Images (preferably with description)
In our case, showing battery terminals and identifying key information for each allows viewers to understand what they should be looking for and what to avoid. This simple addition helps minimize guess work, especially for first time viewers.
Which is more helpful to you?
Using the battery example above, go a step further and show exactly how to correctly check a battery. In this instance, you have the ability to include detail in addition to informative text. Reinforce tools used, material specifications, safety points, etc.
Which is more helpful to you?
Supplement Media with Text Instructions
Adding in media options is a fantastic way to help illustrate or elaborate on written instructions but that doesn’t mean you can ignore text cues. You’ll notice in the examples above, we didn’t simply add in an image and call it good. That’s because users still want to see in written format the information that is critical to them.
As a review, that specification can include everything from tool and material specifics to safety reminders. Keep in mind that the point here is to drive home the importance of every instruction possible.
Verify/Double Check Completion of Important To-Do’s
People make mistakes, despite their best intentions. To help avoid a situation where a critical step is overlooked, add in verification points after instructions. This can be done via a simple checkbox or button (if you’re using a digital platform for work instructions).
Revisit and Revise
Once the initial draft of your work instructions has been created, make sure it gets into the hands of the intended audience. Ask for their feedback regularly. Determine what can improve to help with clarity. And of course, be sure to update your information as necessary.
If you follow the suggestions provided above, you’re sure to create work instructions that will help your viewers complete tasks in a safe and effective manner.