Where work is done, mistakes are made. Human errors account for 9 out of 10 incidents in the workplace. These errors result in loss of production, damage to equipment, and injuries. This costs industries billions per year and with work getting more and more complex this is a growing pain.
A lot of the mistakes in the workplace can be avoided with clearer work instructions that ensure quicker, better and safer performance of tasks. Also, it gives greater flexibility and ensures standardization of output.
Work instructions have been around for quite some time, but their effectiveness is limited due to the form (paper-based), structure (process-oriented), and content (text). We have collected 10 practical tips on instructional design that will help you write better work instructions.
1. User-centric design.
Work instructions are meant to help workers perform their jobs. However, all too often we encounter instructions that don’t focus on that goal at all. They are designed to show compliance with standards. They are made for safety auditors. Created by engineers showing off their technical understanding. Of course, it is important to be compliant, but if you really want your work instructions to be effective you need to start with the employee:
- What is the information they need to perform their tasks?
- What is the best way to get this information to them?
- How can you deliver this information at the moment of need?
This “outside-in” instructional design approach really works wonders when you write work instructions.
2. From paper binders to digital in your pocket.
Now is the time of digital transformation - and in the space of work instructions, there is a lot of room for improvement. In many places, we come across paper binders full of work instructions and procedures that are unhandy and not available when employees actually need them.
Luckily, digital devices are getting common in the workplace and they have the power of bringing instructions closer to where the action is. Especially smartphones and tablets can bring instructions powered by the SwipeGuide software from the desk in the office to the pocket of workers in the factory.
3. From abstract text to crystal clear visuals.
Work instructions often are text-based and thus leave quite some room for interpretation and misunderstanding. If work takes place in a context that is highly visual, why use words to describe what needs to be done?
The brain processes visuals 60.000 times faster than text. Combining images with text in a smart way is proven to make instructions even quicker to process and easier to understand. We see cases in factories, breweries, distribution centers and healthcare institutions that all benefit enormously from visual instructions.
Powerful illustrations, photos, and animations help workers perform their job in a clear and concise way.
4. Write instructions in an accessible style.
In most cases, work instructions include both visuals and text. Text is not an issue, but make sure the text is easy to understand. This requires application of writing guidelines and templates that ensure the clarity and understanding of text. Simplified Technical English has some good pointers and some basic things to keep in mind are:
- Length of noun clusters: no more than 3 words
- Sentence length: no more than 20 words
- Paragraphs: no more than 6 sentences
- Avoid slang and jargon
- Be as specific as possible
- Use simple verb tenses
- Use active voice
5. From ‘’machine-oriented’’ to ‘’task-based.’’
Technical writing for work instructions is often done by engineers and tends to be focusing on the device or machine and its specific parts. In order to improve the user experience, instructions should be task-focused and written from the user’s perspective - not the product-perspective. We call this the “outside-in approach.”.
6. From ‘’everything covered’’ to ‘’minimalist instructions.’’
We come across a lot of work instructions covering all the technical details of equipment and all sorts of exceptions. Keep in mind that our brain is trained to ignore information that is not relevant for ‘survival.’ In the workplace, this means information needs to be relevant and actionable. Avoid information overkill. Focus instructions on the regular tasks performance with some extra attention for critical incidents when writing work instructions.
These are the process steps where a lot of errors occur and/or mistakes have a big impact (e.g. loss of time, unsafe operations). Minimalist instruction theory offers more design guidelines and templates for work instructions and it is valuable to check them out before writing work instructions. They can be so much better!
7. Integrate into training.
In many cases, just walking in and doing your job with work instructions doesn’t work. Obviously, you’ll need some basic understanding of the context you work in before you can start. Often companies offer training programs or e-learning modules to new employees to acquire the basic knowledge and skills.
However, research has shown that the retention of this knowledge is difficult. A large percentage of the knowledge and skills from the training programs are simply forgotten before people even enter the workplace - and that’s where work instructions come in. By integrating them into the training, the retention in the workplace can be improved.
When people get familiar with the work instructions already as part of the training they know how to use them properly in the workplace and guarantees better performance in the job. Read more about the benefits of experiential learning here.
8. Well designed activation.
Employees need to have access to the right instruction at the moment of need. This means you have to think about activating the content. Take into account what needs exist at what point in time or at what location. The need for specific instructions varies.
A new employee starting off at a machine has different needs that a service engineer that performs a troubleshooting task. Technologies like QR codes, NFC, and augmented reality can make a whole new instruction experience possible. With our instruction journey canvas, you can think of better ways of reaching your employees with the work instructions they need in different stages.
9. Track to improve.
Knowing how to write work instructions an important step. But, tracking them to learn about work performance and possible improvements is just as critical. Digital work instructions allow you to follow the action and learn from both the user behaviour, the sentiment and their feedback.
The data collected can be turned into valuable insights for improvement. In a production environment, even the smallest optimization to procedures and/or work instructions can have a huge impact. We advise checking the analytics dashboards in your work instruction software on a regular basis. Discuss with your team what you can learn from them, and then act. Continue to improve your processes and work instructions to beat your competition!
10. Foster sharing and collaboration.
The ownership of the work instructions should lie in the workplace. If team leaders together with their staff have the ownership they will share and collaborate to improve them. They take pride in the instructions they created and collaborate to make them even better.
The multi-space functionality allows companies to share best practices across their global operations. Locations around the world share their best guides with others in order to improve the instructions and the operational efficiency of the processes.
How can you start writing better work instructions? A great way to get started is checking out a work instruction software (like SwipeGuide) that enables companies to create, update, share, and track visual step-by-step instructions in smart apps that fit any device. Get familiar with the features and functionalities of SwipeGuide here.