ATD Links Archive
Issue Map
ATD Links Archive
ATD Links

When All Else Fails, Read the Directions

In manufacturing, in particular, it is critical that employees not only follow directions but that everyone follow them consistently. Most manufacturing professionals know detailed work instructions, policies, standard operating procedures (SOPs), sanitation procedures, maintenance procedures, safety job hazard analyses, and similar documents are vital for performing tasks safely and efficiently. What most of them don’t know is that talent development also depends upon these documents to maintain consistent training for all employees. 

All too often I have seen employees trained by observation. The belief is that if we connect a new or untrained employee with a solid performer over a period of time, the experienced employee will be able to teach the new or untrained employee what to do. I call this the osmosis method. This isn’t a bad training idea, but it lacks support materials that provide clear expectations. What happens when the new employee is left alone on an off shift and the experienced employee is not around to answer questions? Having detailed work instructions not only provides support documentation for training, it also provides reference materials should anyone have a question or need to confirm something they don’t do very often. 

You’d think that having all your company’s processes and procedures well documented is a no-brainer in a situation where the goal is to produce consistent product in a safe and efficient manner. Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. If your company is ISO certified then you will definitely have these documents, but that doesn’t guarantee they are in the most user-friendly format for your end users. 

What do you do if you realize you are missing these documents or they are inadequate? The first step is to determine which functional group or department within your organization owns these documents. Chances are your company has some of the information already, so this is the best place to start leveraging what already works (or improving upon what hasn’t worked). 

  • Safety: Safety professionals often create documents to ensure that all hazards and risks are identified and mitigated. These can also include emergency stop procedures in the event someone becomes trapped by a piece of moving equipment or product jam.
  • Quality: If you are an ISO-certified organization, then your quality department is most often the owner. Quality procedures often include not only product standards but also testing procedures for product quality. These include operating parameters to ensure product safety or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) requirements specifying both processing and storage requirements for raw materials as well as finished products. (Many product standards are also in place to ensure standards of identity for product labeling.)
  • Engineering: Usually in a new equipment installation, the engineering department may write operational or maintenance procedures. These may also be provided by the vendor.
  • Product: Documents detailing product recipes, formulas, or product construction steps are often created by R&D. These documents may also include product testing or laboratory procedures.
  • Operations: Production or the operations group often creates standard operating procedures or work instructions that list the best steps for operating a piece of equipment including start-up and shut-down or completing other production tasks.
  • Sanitation: Products that require stringent cleaning of equipment require sanitation or cleaning procedures to ensure that equipment is cleaned according to specific schedules using cleaners that remove product residues and steps for maintaining product safety. 

If your company has a robust document management system, then documents will be routed for approval through all applicable departments including safety, product, quality, engineering, maintenance, and operations, as documents are created and then again evaluated at some predetermined schedule to make sure they are kept up to date. 
If your company does not have a well-developed system for creating and maintaining these documents, your first step is getting the commitment of all stakeholders. Creating these documents from scratch will require the involvement of the individuals who have the necessary information and who might be tasked with writing and maintaining documentation. 

Creating detailed work instructions, SOPs, or any other such document is a project that will require you to consider all three elements of the project planning triangle—scope, time, and resources or cost. If you have made the determination that these documents are required, you have most likely identified the necessary documents through the analysis of the job steps or completion of a competency model. It would be wise, due to the commitment of time and resources, to carefully select the scope of tasks that will create the highest value first. This will help illustrate to the stakeholders the return-on-investment and allow you to continue working to create all the additional documents required. 

When considering the investments of time and resources, you will need to consider what will best satisfy your stakeholders’ and learners’ needs. As I mentioned before, there will need to be a lead person involved if you expect ownership and buy-in at the user level. You will determine this during the analysis phase when you identify the scope. Framing up the scope by making a solid value proposition (such as reduction of accidents, waste, or improved quality) will ensure the ownership and commitment of the stakeholders. Selling the need based strictly on the resulting text being training documents alone will not help stakeholders see the value, so be sure your analysis clearly identifies gaps in the organization that can be closed by providing better-documented processes. Failure to do so will not support the need and could be viewed strictly as a cost to the organization. 


As far as resources and cost, be sure to consider the culture of your organization and what works best. Relate this back to ownership. People will use and maintain what they own. Documents I have seen used least were created in a vacuum by people external to the tasks. Some of the most used documents are those created by the SMEs. Unfortunately, technical writing is not a skill that everyone can master. There are multiple automated products out there than can help people create their own documents without their being a professional writer. You can still choose to utilize an external vendor, as long as they work well and involve the SMEs. 

During the design phase, be sure the format is not cumbersome and is robust enough to provide for adequate approvals. This will help you with the third project planning element of time. If something takes too long to develop, approve, and maintain, no one will use it. That also means if a document is too long, too complex, or unclear, it will not be used. Make sure each document is concise and formatted in short usable chunks. I would recommend that operating procedures for equipment be activity-based for unique events or tasks (start up, normal operation, shut down, power failure, emergency shut down, cleaning, maintenance, and the like). Lumping everything into a 45-page procedure document will guarantee people will not read it or will simply pull out the relevant pages. Also make sure that procedural steps highlight safety and quality steps and not just task elements. Typically, each step will also include photos or illustrations for easier comprehension. 

You will most likely partner with one of the functional groups listed above and leverage existing best practices when determining not only the format but the location and method by which people will access the documents. Because of the importance of keeping control of out-of-date documents and the availability of electronic devices, paper documents may not be the best format. Documents can be housed electronically and accessed by monitors in operator stations or via handheld devices. Make sure to include document control steps for how to handle paper documents in the event they are printed for editing or training. One way to maintain control of paper documents is by printing an expiration date in the footer or watermark across the page. 

When planning the development phase, consider all of the options available as each will be associated with a cost. Contracting a professional writer will be the fastest but will also be the most expensive option. Most of these contractors base their estimated cost on a per-hour rate. This will include the time spent on the production floor working with the SMEs, as well as writing and editing the documents. Make sure when engaging with a contractor that you have all the applicable protections in place for ownership of the drafts as well as protection for your company’s proprietary information and intellectual property. Considering that rates can range from $100-250 per hour and up, one completed 10-page document could cost around $2,000. Be sure to also check with your local workforce development professionals in your state. This could be a service they can provide for low or no cost depending upon your project. If this is a new equipment installation, definitely check for state or government funded assistance through your local workforce development service provider. 

Take advantage of the fact that people will support and use what they own by developing your internal SMEs to be technical writers. You can do this in a couple of ways. There are a number of automated document writing programs that can provide your people with a library of reusable content. These products can come with a hefty price tag, so be sure to do your homework and compare multiple systems. Don’t overlook the potential of using the software and systems you already have. Spreadsheets, word processing programs, and SharePoint can be very effective if your staff is properly trained and utilized. Regardless of the tools you provide for your internal writers, it is also a great idea to consider teaching them how to write documents. Teaching your people how to write could provide the biggest long-term bang for your buck.

To recap: 

  • Who: Determine the scope by identifying the value proposition around the biggest gap you are working to eliminate.
  • What: Clearly identify the tasks or procedures that will be created through expanding a competency model into a job task analysis.
  • Where: Make sure you have a document management system in place to specify where documents will be approved, as well as stored, accessed, and maintained.
  • When and how: Once the scope has been defined, create a proposal including multiple options (either internal or external) reflecting the different time and cost or resource requirements for each. 

Have ideas to share? Post in the Comments section below! 

© 2016 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
ATD Field Editor Melissa Westmoreland is the training and development leader for the lumber division of Georgia-Pacific Corporation in Atlanta, and is responsible for supporting talent development for 16 locations across the United States. Westmoreland has more than 20 years of production, quality, compliance, and T&D experience in food, packaging, and wood products manufacturing. She has developed or supported talent development solutions for operations, leadership, and craft skills. She has been an active member of ATD since 1995. You can email her directly at
Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.