What are the benefits of Visual Work Instuctions?

Mila Budeva
Mila Budeva
Sep 6, 2018

Do you have a bunch of cookbooks in your kitchen and yet, whenever you cook, you search online for a recipe with step-by-step images? Have you ever fixed a home appliance, or resolved a plumbing disaster, or revived your car in the middle of nowhere by following a YouTube video rather than the paper manual? Have you ever video-called a friend who knows how to fix or do something that you’re struggling with and followed their guidance? What you’ve searched for in any of those situations are visual work instructions.

What are Visual Work Instructions?

Visual work instructions (VWIs) provide the relevant information at the point of action, in an easily digestible, visual format, replacing text-heavy and often outdated paper-based versions. VWIs can help to perform any task that requires following a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) – from fixing a machine part on the shop floor to preparing the perfect cup of cappuccino.


Manufacturing and Visual Work Instructions – a perfect match             

Any manufacturing plant with operators on the shop floor can benefit from Visual Work Instructions, whether:

• operators work with the same piece of equipment and product every day or shift between production lines every few hours.


• production is high-mix and high-volume, or low-mix, or of a large and complex product that would take months to build.


• there are 40 or 1,400 pages of regulatory requirements to comply with.


• the workforce is made of local, 25+ years of experience operators or of temporary, multi-lingual workers.


It is then surprising that fewer than 30 percent of all manufacturers have adopted visual work instructions and the majority choose to maintain paper-based systems1.


Why is reliance on paper problematic?

Paper procedure distribution is timely, costly and inefficient and can have a wide-reaching negative impact on anything from product quality, through training, to worker productivity and engagement.


Duplicate data entry and manual work analytics are time-wasting and prone to error. Updating hundreds of pages of SOPs and distributing the new versions is time-consuming and expensive and makes version control a challenge. Paper copies are easy to misplace or damage and offer little traceability on who has seen and implemented the instructions.


Unproductive time accumulates as operators often need to make additional minor stops and search for the relevant information. The unfriendly format of the instructions drives procedural non-conformance as operators choose to save time and implement their own practices which can jeopardise safety and quality standards.


The lack of clear and accessible instructions slows down onboarding, increases time to productivity and hinders in-line training. Newly joined operators are often ‘re-trained’ by more experienced workers on the shop floor as formal training and guidance can be irrelevant or outdated.


Transitioning from paper-based to digital, visual work instructions can appear an overwhelming task, especially if there are thousands of documents that need to be digitized. However, it doesn’t have to be complicated and costly. Gone are the days of cumbersome legacy systems that require the support of an entire IT team. With modern, mobile, social, multi-media capabilities manufacturers can start reaping the benefits of visual work instructions within days.


Let’s look at those benefits in more detail.

What are  the benefits of work instructions?


Reduce time to productivity

Manufacturing is a high workforce churn industry, meaning that manufacturers need to continuously train and onboard new workers with varying skillsets and different native languages.


On-the-job guidance in the format of a 100-page technical handbook in a language that the operator doesn’t speak is of little help. To then receive different instructions from managers and conflicting advice from co-workers on the shop floor means that new joiners are often left to figure out and create their own procedures.


The lack of clear, comprehensible instructions means that workers will inevitably need more time to reach the required quality and productivity standards or might not even reach them at all. They are likely to then be replaced by another worker who will need to undergo the same inefficient on-boarding process.


A tablet, a smart phone or watch, or a pair of smart glasses can easily break that vicious cycle. Imagine a workstation tablet that is playing a step-by-step video of how the task should be executed – language barriers are instantly overcome, and operators have an easily accessible one source of truth that they can follow straight away.


Reduce training costs 

Manufacturers can invest $ tens of thousands in e-learning platforms, classroom training and conferences and not get the desired engagement, knowledge retention and implementation. Visual work instructions can help to make the content more engaging and encourage continuous on-the-job learning. For example, instead of two weeks of classroom training or e-learning on health and safety every year, manufacturers can provide bite-sized, interactive content that workers can access anytime, anywhere. Mobile, visual, easily digestible content can also complement other training and upskilling initiatives.


1. Reduce losses and improve 'First Time Right'

A recent study sponsored by ServiceMax and GE Digital has found that 23 percent of all unplanned downtime in manufacturing is the result of human error2.


By standardizing and digitizing work instructions, manufacturers can ensure that all operators on the shop floor are performing tasks right the first time and every time. Visual work instructions leave no room for doubt or interpretation. Unlike lengthy and complex, text-heavy manuals, VWIs help to uproot poor practices and eliminate manual errors and the associated losses.


2. Real- time Short Interval Management

A piece of paper (laminated at best) can display the SOP but provides no way of checking whether the instructions have been read and implemented. To perform a quality check or a safety audit, operators need to print out a batch of paper-forms to then fill out. The information captured on paper then needs to be transferred to a spreadsheet – a task deflecting operators’ time from value-adding activities.


Digital provides manufacturers with the capability to bring the visual work instructions, process controls such as checks and audits and the log of issues and corrective actions all in one place. This enables real-time Short Interval Management which improves visibility, collaboration and problem-solving.


For example, the operator needs to clean the water tank. On the workstation tablet, she can view the work instructions and after watching the video, submit her ID number so management has evidence that she has undergone the necessary in-line training. While performing the task, the operator might discover a fault with a valve, attempt the recommended fix and, if that fails, take a picture and signal the maintenance team of the issue.



3. Institutionalise tribal knowledge

U.S. manufacturing alone is anticipating 2.7 million baby boomer retirements by 20253. This poses a serious risk of losing valuable knowledge and expertise as operators with decades of experience leave the workforce. Some manufacturers implement ‘buddy-up’ programmes, encouraging experienced operators to work closely with new members of the team and transfer their expertise before they retire.


A system which allows workers to share best practices in the form of multi-media One Point Lessons can help to better document and distribute the shared knowledge. Such a system ensures that visual work instructions and SOPs are kept up to date in a way that is driven by and helps to retain the valuable process knowledge in the organisation.


4. Improve process flexibility

The manufacturers of high-mix, high-volume, high-complexity products require a flexible, adaptable workforce that can shift between production lines, products and equipment with equal speed and productivity.


The Pfizer Rocky Mount plant is a fitting example with over 500 products being manufactured on 26 manufacturing lines, meaning that every day, every line will be running a different product. That means different SOPs, regulatory, quality and maintenance requirements and machine set-up every day. As a result, each produced batch generates 200 to 400 pages of documentation4.


A mobile, digital, easily maintainable and searchable system of operational knowledge and guidance can help to improve process flexibility and enable operators to confidently take on a variety of tasks. Such a system facilitates the maintenance of documentation and enables the instant communication of updates. For example, operators can receive a notification on their smartwatch or the workstation tablet about an updated SOP and watch a brief video of the new procedure.


5. Better worker experience

Imagine an operator experience of little clarity and guidance, penalties for the resulting manual errors and hours upon hours of printing off, carrying about and filling out paper documents to then transfer onto a spreadsheet.


By providing operators with devices and user interfaces that:


• are designed with the nature of their work in mind;


• provide the relevant content in the right format;


• enable the capture and sharing of information in real-time,


manufacturers are providing a better, more fulfilling worker experience. Operators can focus on value-adding tasks that will have positive impact on the production line and plant and can dedicate more time to on-going learning.


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