Manufacturing Execution System • March 8, 2016

How to Write Clear Work Instructions in Manufacturing – 3 Tips

Can you follow these instructions?

  1. Go get two pieces of tasty, fresh bread.
  2. Spread some peanut butter onto one slice of bread.
  3. Spread some jelly on the other piece of bread.
  4. Put the two pieces together and put it on a plate.

Now, that’s easy right?  Everyone knows how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Now, reread these instructions with the thought that if you do it wrong, you may lose your job.  You will want to probably make sure you understand the instructions to make the sandwich to be perfect.  You are probably asking yourself; what is meant by tasty and fresh.  If something is fresh to me, is it fresh to the person evaluating the sandwich? What is meant by tasty?  What qualifies as tasty?  Is there a particular way to spread the peanut butter and jelly onto the pieces of bread?  How do I know how much to spread onto the bread? To what criteria is my sandwich going to be judged?

Now, I want you to apply these same questions to your process planning shop floor work instructions.  If you were to read your instructions you author today, would they be clear for the reader?  Do they give definitive information?  Do they let the reader know how to validate their work?  These questions, among others all play into a best practices approach in process planning.  Every set of process plans, work instructions, routings, and routing detail sheets should adhere to technical writing standards, environmental factors, and include a style guide.

These are the top three tips I would give for writing clear work instructions:
  1. Start the sentence with a present tense, action verb.

Most of our process planning authors have never taken a course or have read information about writing work instructions.  Technical writing is a very different type and style of writing.  More specifically, it is an abbreviated type of writing.  Starting with a present tense, action verb, a technically sound set of instructions gets right to the point of the instruction.  It makes some assumption in the reader’s ability and limits words that do not add value.  For example, rather than a sentence, “Use the laser marker to mark the product number and serial number onto the part.” Write; “Mark product and serial number on part with laser marker.”   The sentence is concise, clear and to the point.

  1. Consider the readability on your shop floor environment.

Our manufacturing environment changes somewhat frequently.  Rearranging value streams, implementing new software, changing hardware location all affects how the reader will reference, read, and ultimately execute their work instructions.  By considering all the environmental factors when authoring the instructions you may quickly realize what was efficient for the technician yesterday is not efficient today.  For example, if the online instructions are in a font that is so small the reader cannot see them from a few feet away, then the likelihood of them catching differences or changes is less.

  1. Use a style guide to be consistent.

Finally, all instructions, across your manufacturing departments should have some level of consistency.  This consistency is driven through the use of a style guide.  A style guide defines the rules and expectations of a process plan.  From determining what font to use, placement of visual aids, and minimum level of content, the style guide provides a work instruction, if you will, for the work instructions.  This facilitates trust in the readers to know what they can expect and helps the author in understanding expectations and criteria for success.

Work instructions and process plans are the backbones of your manufacturing success.  They are the first criteria in institutionalizing lean management – and best practices for them are imperative to ensure that success. If you are still using work instructions on paper, read my other blog, Three Steps Toward a Paperless Culture.