You may be too young to remember MASH. But I can’t discuss work instructions without mentioning the episode when Hawkeye and Trapper are following instructions for defusing a bomb. Here’s a short clip:
Every day we deal with many types of work instructions. Some examples include recipes, income tax returns, and assembly instructions for a new IKEA table. We know that poorly written instructions can be hard to follow and make for a frustrating (even scary) experience.
We often experience this same frustration in the workplace when following a software user manual, instructions for completing a form, or assembly instructions for a manufacturing line.
How do you write instructions that clearly explain how to get the task done?
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the differences between procedures and work instructions. A work instruction describes in detail (step-by-step) how to accomplish a specific job, task or assignment. It’s a type of technical writing.
Below are some tips for writing effective work instructions:
1. Be accurate.
Ensure each step is included, the steps are in the correct order (see above video!), and diagrams, illustrations, and other visuals are accurately labeled. If an employee follows an instruction and it is wrong, he or she will not trust the documents anymore.
2. Make them easy to use.
A clear, concise style is always important. Instructions must be understood by the receiver. Therefore, they must be written for the user—not to satisfy a superior or an auditor. Graphics and photos can help the user better visualize how to do something in a way that words sometimes cannot. The balance of information—too much or too little information—is important. This can best be determined by observing how users implement the work instructions.
3. Be consistent with formatting and language.
Choose one font and one font size for the main text and stick to it throughout. Work instructions that follow a consistent format are easier to follow. Furthermore, when thoughts are organized in a sequential manner we remember them easier.
4. Break the document up into sections.
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. Use headings and subheadings that are easy to navigate. Employees often don’t have time to read the whole document. If an employee needs to look up a single step or a part of instruction, he or she will be able to look it up and act on it a lot faster.
5. Use action verbs.
Put the action word first and simplify sentences by eliminating extraneous words.
- Use a clean beaker that is dedicated to each ingredient to measure out each weight.
- Verify that the scale is calibrated.
- Measure out ingredient A.
6. Test and revise.
Find an experienced worker as well as a trainee to try out the draft instructions. Incorporate their feedback to refine the instructions. It’s important to remember that written instructions are never done. Effective, continuous improvement means constantly integrating feedback from the people actually doing the work.
7. Keep them current.
Changes happen—new equipment, new software, etc. Work instructions must be updated to reflect these changes. Work instructions that are obsolete may cause more damage than if they did not exist.
8. Make them easily accessible.
Instructions are never going to be effective if employees don’t know they exist or they don’t want to take the time to find them.
Like all technical writing, work instructions take time to plan and create, but great instructions will significantly benefit your workplace through fewer errors and happier employees. Work instructions are the foundation of continuous improvement.
Do you have further tips for writing work instructions that work? Please share them in the comments.