Fix this mess!

Fix Your Work Instructions to Improve Quality and Growth

It’s easy to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if you know how. Describing the steps so someone else can make it to your standards?

Much harder.

Which is how the peanut butter and jelly ended up outside the bread when my junior high school teacher followed my otherwise perfectly written instructions. The class got a laugh. I got a lesson.

Now picture your factory floor, where your products are likely more complex than a sandwich. Are your work instructions correct and current? If they are up to date, do they actually get used—or are your binders gathering dust in a corner?

In manufacturing, ignored, incorrect and inflexible work instructions have two big negative consequences:

  • Products get made wrong.
  • And you avoid offering new features and options because your operations can’t handle complexity.

Nothing funny about those. Inconsistent quality alone makes clear and current work instructions critical.

But you also want instructions workers will use, particularly with the turnover common in production operations. And those instructions need to be visual with the right set delivered to the right place at the right time.

That’s hard to do with paper instructions, especially those with lots of text.

There is a solution: digital work instructions. Done right, they eliminate practically every shortcoming of paper instructions, and give you added value capabilities like time tracking.

The key to consistency

Consistent quality matters. Without it, production is not scalable, which puts the brakes on growth.

Without clear instructions workers use, how do you ensure task consistency?

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Instructions in binders can be a fine and inexpensive solution to achieve consistent quality. Except when no one looks at them. Or they aren’t updated. Or when workers use the wrong instructions or can’t find the right one for whatever it is they’re making.

I’ve visited several manufacturing facilities where instruction binders are in the corner collecting dust or are inaccurate.

Folders of digital documents are a step up. But they are also manual systems prone to error. And it can be difficult to monitor or track whether the instructions were used.

With digital work instructions tied to your barcode reader, you have instant access to the most up-to-date and complete instructions for that step and product variation will be shown. No dust. No missing instructions for options.

Words can overwhelm

Written instructions are a good first step. But today’s workers learn and work better with images rather than words.

Too much text can slow the process. Words are open to interpretation, editing can be difficult, and physically replacing them a chore.

If they’re only available as hard copies, you can’t automatically verify their use. This makes it difficult to hold teams accountable for their work.

With digital work instructions, you can include photos, drawings and even video.

What are digital work instructions?

Digital work instructions are the next evolution in work instructions.

Technically, you could supply electronic work instructions by putting various computer documents in a local directory for your team to access. Give everyone a tablet and they have access to electronic work instructions.

This is a simple and inexpensive method to deliver instructions. But not without its limitations.


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It’s still manual. Workers have to locate and open the right document. And find and open any related ones with additional data or instructions for options.

You could devise a folder structure to make that easier. But it is still less than foolproof. A worker could choose not to look for the files. And you can’t monitor whether they did.

This might be good enough if you have low turnover and processes don’t change much. But when a company plans to grow, this becomes an onboarding issue. Also, employees can’t immediately enter comments and time is not tracked.

How do I ensure work instructions are used and maintained?

Integrate your work instructions with your ERP or MES solution from a job specific barcode. Integrated instructions automate finding the correct instruction for the job.

The worker scans a barcode and gets exact instructions on how to complete the job step. You can see a history of what instructions were reviewed by the worker. This allows accountability, ensures better quality from newer workers, and alerts experienced workers to changes from engineering or any other source.

How do you put this in place? Whatever visual / digital work instruction system you are implementing, initial setup and maintenance is most successful when it is collaborative.

Allow workers to create the initial instructions. They know the processes and including them empowers and invests them. They will know what is being implemented is accurate.

Encouraging feedback and suggested edits allows the team to continually improve and clarify the instructions, preventing the peanut butter and jelly situation.

When creating instructions, it helps to know how many instructions are needed per job and how often the instructions must vary between products. Do you need assembly instructions or quality testing instructions? Do you have solid procedures in place to support implementing work instructions?

Your workers and teams can help you figure it out.

Visual work instructions?

Yes, visual. Because one picture can prevent one thousand errors.

Adding visuals to work instructions helps with language and literacy barriers. Efficient work instructions use the fewest number of words to supplement image-driven instructions.


New workers can follow images to complete tasks. They can see if their work looks the same as the image. Experienced workers can identify areas for process improvement and help standardize tasks.

Use any combination of photos, drawings or video to achieve this goal.

How to transition

If you have digital work instructions, this is a great start. Now take these and incorporate them to be visual and available with a barcode reader.

Look at the written instructions and identify where there is too much text or ambiguity and replace it with a photo or video. These can be taken with your cell phone or tablet.

Associate standards to the length of time each step should take. Only generate instructions that take more than one minute to complete. Anything more granular will be difficult to handle.

Research a software solution that has key features you need or will need as your company grows.

Integrated instructions via a data transfer or within your ERP solution will allow for

  • Tracking job progress
  • Tracking remaining labor
    • By job
    • By finished unit
    • By assembly
    • By work station
  • Consistent quality regardless of how long the employee has been with you
  • Tools to analyze quality, effectiveness, and clarity of the instructions
  • And the same tool for time study analysis

Finally, evaluate what reporting is available out of the box and what extra features might be included that are meaningful to you.

Don’t wait for your staff to retire and your expertise is lost to implement better standards throughout the manufacturing process. Make onboarding an opportunity to convert a liability into an asset.