4 mistakes to avoid when writing work instructions

Mila Budeva
Mila Budeva
Oct 8, 2018

In our daily lives, we come across examples of work instruction all the time - we follow cooking recipes, search for ‘How to’ videos online, try to understand the  user manual when setting up a new home appliance.

What are work instructions?

A work instruction provides step-by-step detailed guidance on how to perform a specific activity – what sequence of steps to follow, what tools to use and how to use those tools.



Why are work instructions important?

Have you ever tried to assemble a piece of flat pack furniture, confidently casting the instructions booklet aside? Chances are that you have ended up with a handful of nuts and bolts that don’t go anywhere, only to see the thing collapse on itself (and possibly your feet).


Work instructions are a pre-requisite for efficiently and safely making products of high quality. They help to significantly reduce risks of incidents, human error and poor practices by providing workers – whether experienced or new joiners – with ‘one best way’ to execute a task.


The way work instructions are written, distributed and maintained is crucial to their usability. When creating work instructions, there are four ‘Don’ts’ you should avoid.


Don't create work instructions that are:


  1. lengthy and unclear.
  2. hard to access at the point of action.
  3. authored by a non-expert.
  4. difficult to keep up to date.

Let’s look at those work instruction don'ts in more detail.

  1. “Job instructions: A mystery novel in three volumes”

If workers need to go through an archive of ring binders to find a seemingly relevant paragraph and then come up with their own interpretation of what they’ve read, work instructions are failing them.


As work instructions systematically prove unhelpful to workers, workers stop consulting them and instead implement their own best practices and ‘shortcuts’. As a result, deviations from standard become the norm, affecting safety, quality and productivity.


To prevent that, work instructions need to be in a format that facilitates rather than disrupts the execution of the task; a format that leaves no room for doubt or interpretation. For example, replacing the hefty ring binder with a series of bite-sized videos that the worker can access at the point of action can help to improve engagement and process adherence as well as on-boarding and knowledge retention.



  1. Finding the relevant job instructions: A game of hide and seek

The less accessible work instructions are, the higher the risks of non-compliance, losses and incidents. No worker should be left wondering:


Where are the work instructions? Are they in the ring binder-novel or in an Excel sheet, well-hidden in a folder within a folder somewhere on SharePoint? Or maybe the job instructions are in an email attachment that was sent out months ago, or worse, in the head of that person who retired last December?


Instant access to the relevant information, on the other hand, means that any worker has the necessary guidance to perform the task right the first time and every time, helping to drive efficiency and productivity. Let’s take the example of a broken-down machine on the shop floor.


Rather than adding to the costly downtime by having to search for the relevant instructions, the maintenance engineer can pull the guidance relating to the asset on the workstation tablet or her smart glasses and implement the required actions within minutes.



  1. Instructions are written by someone who has no subject-matter knowledge

You wouldn’t take a surfing lesson from a person who doesn’t even know how to swim. So why should workers who perform the tasks daily follow instructions written by people without the necessary expertise?


Writing the work instructions should be engaging the people performing the task first-hand, harnessing their knowledge and experience. Such a collaborative approach is particularly valuable in the context of an ageing workforce where, if not documented, valuable knowledge is lost every time an experienced member of the workforce retires.



  1. Instructions are never revised

Imagine you bought a new TV. You’re not going to use the old TV’s instructions to set the new one up. So why should workers stick to outdated instructions?

While work instructions are key to ensuring consistency, that does not mean that they’re set in stone. On the contrary, their accuracy and effectiveness should be continuously monitored and improved.


Collaboration and active communication between management and the firstline is key to the successful maintenance of the job instructions. The people implementing the job instructions every day are the first to notice any oversights in the instructions.


For example, operators at a packing facility might discover that swapping step 3 with step 4 of the sealing procedure helps to improve speed without any quality and safety implications. The instructions can then be updated to officially implement the improvement.



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Featured image credit: Photo by Sear Greyson on Unsplash