How to create a Structured Progression System for Manufacturing

When setting up a training system in a factory, you are likely to be asked “What’s in it for me? What’s the point of doing training or learning more tasks? Will I get paid more money?” While the real answer is that it will contribute to job satisfaction, increase their confidence and boost future employment prospects, many workers will also want job progression to bolster their pay packet. The benefits to a business in having trained, flexible, motivated workers are obvious, especially in a world of constantly changing consumer demands. So how can you set up a fair structured progression system that motivates your workers to expand their skills and rewards those who deserve it?

I happened across the answer to this question, with some prompting from the Operations Manager, as I drew close to completing Work Instructions for all of the manufacturing areas in a plant. The puzzle almost assembled itself, it was so logical. Here’s how I went about it.

Create Work Instructions and Assessment Materials for each Area

Assembling the progression system came at the end of three years of work. At the beginning of the project, I identified tasks done in an area. By watching tasks performed and taking photos, I created visual work instructions for each task. Concurrently, I created assessment forms with questions that clarified understanding and required demonstration of the task to confirm competence. I continued this until we had work instructions and assessments for every task done in an area, from the simple tasks given to a beginner through to the more complex jobs performed by team leaders. Then I moved on to the next area and did the same until we’d covered all 5 manufacturing sections.

The work instructions and assessments form the building blocks of the progression system. To progress, operators will need to be trained and assessed as competent on each task.

Create Learning Plans for each Area

Once you know all of the tasks done in an area, you can arrange them in order. I simply asked team leaders what order they usually train people. In this way I was able to order work instructions from simplest, or least critical, to most difficult or most critical. I noticed that the order fell naturally into groups, around a machine or process. A person on the line usually had a group of tasks for which they were responsible. There was also a clear delineation between core tasks and advanced tasks. While the majority of tasks, the more frequent ones, were typically done by all operators, there were a small group of tasks that were done less frequently, and it was usually the team leader’s role to do these.

From the order and the grouping, you can create a learning plan that looks something like this:

Training Plan Example

In the example, the training plan lists the tasks by Work Instruction title and provides a reference number for them in the document management system. The reference number for the associated assessment sheet is also provided. The plan provides a space for the date when the operator is assessed as competent and a signature by the team leader. Each person knows the tasks they are expected to learn for the area, and the team leader can keep track of where each operator is up to. With the document numbers provided, it means they can also easily find the latest version of the documents in the document management system.

You might like to create an additional grouping to encourage employees to take on extra functions, such as First Aider, Fire Warden, a forklift licence or Lean certification.

You would need to create a training plan for each area.

Work Out Relative Difficulty of each Group of Tasks

Once you have a training plan for each area, you can put it all together on a diagram, showing the “units” of learning available across the plant. I used shading to indicate difficulty. Here’s an example.

Example of Units for Progression System, graded according to difficulty or risk

Each box represents a group of work instructions – shown on the Training Plan – for which an operator needs to be assessed as competent.

In my example, entry level tasks are shown as green. These are the tasks you train newstarters to do. Typically, they are the simplest, least critical, and less hazardous tasks, so that if they’re done incorrectly the consequences are not too severe. In my example, new operators start in areas 1, 2 and 3. People are trained in area 4, which is more critical, only when they have proven themselves in other areas. In area 4, some of the core tasks are considered as difficult or critical as the advanced tasks in other areas.

Create List of Requirements for each Pay Level

Next step is to create a list of requirements for each pay level. To do this, you first decide how many pay levels you want to have. Typically, you’d have at least as many as the levels of difficulty of tasks. Then you build requirements based on the Progression System units. Here’s an example in diagrammatical form.

Example of Requirements to reach pay levels

Decide Pay for each Level

Each level will correspond to a pay grade. You’ll need to figure out how much each level is worth to the business and set the pay accordingly.

Set Clear Rules for Attaining Levels

To save yourself grief, before you take the system to the teams, consider clear guidelines on what is expected for people to reach a level and to continue to be paid at that level. For example, you may want to specify a probation period for new employees in which they need to be able to perform all entry level tasks within a certain period, say the first month. You may stipulate that all people are expected to work towards being competent in all core tasks in an area. To continue to be paid at a level, you might require that they must be working at that level and re-assessed as competent on an annual basis.


Finally, you will need to negotiate with the teams and massage the structure until you reach agreement.

There’s a tremendous amount of work in developing a fair, structured progression system, with the groundwork being the development of clear, visual, easy-to-follow Work Instructions and rigorous assessments. But when it’s complete, it promotes a flexible, motivated workforce with clear guidelines for accountability.

Fast Training. Here’s How to Do It

With the ever-changing conditions trying to halt the advance of Covid-19, some businesses are hibernating, or closing down, while others are ramping up at a manic pace. Those ramping up need capable people as quickly as possible, while others need to evolve and retrain to maintain an income. So how do you train people quickly?

Plan First

First, take time to plan and get it right, or at least, close to right first time. It’s far more efficient to tweak a process than to scrap it and start again, or to keep doing things the hard way because that’s the way you started doing them.

Identify Tasks and Essential Background Knowledge

Identify the tasks that you want a worker to do and the background knowledge that they require to do their job. For example, in Healthcare you are going to need cleaners, meal services, nurses and doctors. For each role, you need to identify what you expect workers to do and what the job involves. All of these have specialised skills and general skills. For example, they all need to know how to keep safe in a Covid-19 environment. But each role has specialised skills that are relevant only to that role.

Allocate Repetitive Tasks to New Staff

If you have some experienced staff, leave the difficult or critical tasks to them and identify the simple, repetitive tasks that new employees can learn to do well in a short timeframe. Training for doctors and nurses takes years, and they need vast amounts of background knowledge. But even for them, some tasks are repetitive, and while you wouldn’t take someone off the street and train them to insert a cannula, a trainee doctor or nurse could learn how to do it and free up the more experienced people for less common or more complex tasks.

Create Quick Reference Learning Materials

Once you’ve identified the tasks that you can allocate to new staff, and the background knowledge that they need, create quick reference learning materials for each role. These are comprised of brief, step-by-step, visual work instructions accompanied by learning guides. The Work Instructions function like a checklist. They help people to learn quickly and provide reminders to prevent errors. The learning guide is a list of knowledge or questions that they need to be able to answer to perform the task competently. These learning materials are not meant to replace face-to-face training, but to define exactly what is expected, and be used as tools to ensure that people are trained consistently and effectively.

Healthcare Example

Work Instruction

Here’s an example of what a Work Instruction might look like for training a person to perform Continuous Ambulatory Peritoneal Dialysis (CAPD). (Click link to view)

Sample Work Instruction CAPD

The task may sound complicated, and it is critical, but it’s a process that can be broken into simple steps. If it is followed correctly, it is safe and effective. (Disclaimer: Don’t follow this process without medical advice – best practice may have changed since it was written.)

A few things to note about Work Instructions, both this example and the Work Instructions that you create:

  • Information is provided in the order that it’s needed
  • The task is grouped into main steps that summarise the detailed steps
  • Instructions are brief and written as commands
  • Photos are used to provide information allowing the use of less words
  • Information is limited to what to do and how to do it. It does not try to explain why

Learning Guide

Here’s an example of a Learning Guide to go with the Work Instruction.

Sample Learning Guide CAPD

If you train people but do not obtain evidence that they understand and can perform the task, you never know for sure that they’ve “got it”. If you want to ensure tasks are done safely and consistently, trainers must verbally and visually assess learners before they leave them unsupervised. The Learning Guide doubles as an assessment guide.

A few things to note about the Learning Guide:

  • Start with an orienting and motivating question. Leaners need context.
  • Ask questions about safety or critical aspects of the task, that cover consequences if the task is not done correctly.
  • Always include the need to demonstrate performing the task without prompting by the trainer. How many times you want them to demonstrate will depend on how complex or critical the task is.

The Training

Prepare the Trainer

Select trainers who know the job well, perform well, are motivated and are good communicators. Involve them in creating the learning materials and make sure they agree that the process described is the safest, most efficient way. If you have several trainers, check that they agree on the answers to the Learning Guide. Make it clear to them that they are to train people to do the job exactly as per the Work Instruction. Provide them and each Learner with their own copy of both the Work Instruction and the Learning Guide or place a copy in a prominent position in the workplace.

Do the Training

There’s no time to do a thorough Train the Trainer program here, but make sure your trainers know the basics. They should first develop rapport with the Learner and motivate them. They need to put the job in context and impress on the Learner its importance.

Experienced trainers may know the rhyme:

“Show them fast, show them slow, do it together, now off you go.”

In other words:

  • Demonstrate the task at the normal speed, as per the Work Instruction
  • Demonstrate the task slowly, one step at a time
  • Coach while the learner demonstrates one step at a time
  • Supervise while the learner practices and gets up to speed

Take note that every Learner must demonstrate the task. Ideally do one-on-one training, or at most, small groups of 2-3 Learners, with each Learner doing the task hands-on.

As well as demonstrating the task, Trainers will need to impart the essential knowledge. If you write the Learning Guide well, it will prompt them to provide the right information. Since you want to train quickly, the trick here is to impart essential knowledge and skills and not get caught up in “nice-to-know” information. That can come later, when you have more time.


In a busy situation, the assessment step can often be missed. You need to be sure the Learner has understood correctly. How do you know? A nod is not enough. The Learner needs to answer the questions in the Learning Guide verbally (not written – this is a not a test of writing skills) and physically demonstrate performing the task.

Keep Track

Keep track of who has been trained. This can be done simply on a spreadsheet, or for more permanent situations, in a training database. Give a particular person the responsibility of creating and maintaining a skills matrix so that it keeps its integrity. Supervisors can use the skills matrix to see who is competent in each task when allocating jobs to the daily workforce. Your process will quickly go downhill if untrained people start performing tasks, though if they follow a good Work Instruction you have more chance of them doing it correctly.

Fast Training to Prevent Serious Errors

Fast training can be done in a critical situation and prevent serious errors. It may sound like a lot of steps but provided you keep focused on the main game, they can be put in place quickly and efficiently. You can have a smooth operation in a very short time. Fast training is useful in times of crisis, for seasonal workers or even for long-term complex operations.

Need Help?

If you’d like help to identify tasks and knowledge or to create fast learning materials, or advice on setting up fast learning, call Rosemary at Techwriting on +61 412 302 055. Learn more on

Standard Work or Work Instruction? Which Will Provide the Most Benefit?

How Important is Standard Work?

Standard Work, or Standardized Work is the cornerstone of Lean Manufacturing. It’s the starting point on which to base improvement. If you don’t know the step-by-step process to make a product or provide a service, or that process varies depending on who is performing the work, you can’t do value stream mapping. You can’t work out where your waste is or use six sigma tools to minimise variability. The first step is to understand the processes and tasks and have them performed consistently.

Is There a Difference Between Standard Work and Work Instructions?

Well, it depends on how you go about creating them. They can be the same thing, and can be used for multiple purposes if you:

  • are selective about the type of information that you include
  • provide the right level of detail
  • use a layout that human brains find easy to follow
  • use concise, imperative language

How does this compare to your Standard Work?

In fact, most Lean enthusiasts say a Standard Work document should allow a person following it to perform the work without variation. This is exactly what a procedure (SOP) or work instruction is meant to achieve.

Problems with Standard Work Documents

The unfortunate thing is that most templates that I’ve seen for Standard Work documents don’t apply 5S principles. They use landscape layout, have multiple columns, some of which apply to some steps and not others, and include repetition. Despite claiming to provide detailed steps, they are often not very detailed or specific.

Problems with Work Instructions

On the other hand, although “procedures or “work instructions” are used for training, often they include information that impedes people from following them step-by-step. It may be useful information for training, but not for referencing when you’re trying to perform the task. Hence the background information, or explanations on why things should be done a particular way needs to be separated from procedural information and put into structured training documents.

How to Get the Most Benefit

A lean implementation is most successful if you first stabilise your processes by creating Standard Work documents that can be easily followed in the workplace. It’s also imperative that you train and assess your workforce to follow them. If you write Work Instructions/Standard Work in the right way, they can be used:

  • to train new operators
  • as a day-to-day memory aid
  • as an audit tool
  • for continuous improvement.

Have a look at my procedure samples. I challenge you to compare them to your current Standard Work documents.

Quick Wins

The very act of creating work instructions, with the involvement and discussions that occur along the way as teams collectively identify the best way to perform tasks, results in higher productivity, far less mistakes and rework and a vast boost in morale. You will see marked improvements before you even begin using other Lean tools.

Eliminating your top frustrations

What causes your business the most pain? What really irks you in terms of waste or annoyance?

When we asked small business owners about their top frustrations, there were 2 topics that kept recurring: finding, training and keeping good staff, and getting some time out for themselves. Of course, these 2 topics are related. If you have good employees who know their job well and whom you can trust, you can take time off and let the business run itself for a while. But how do you get to that point, and why do so many business owners find it so hard?

Probably you started your business because you were great at what you do. Even now, you probably can do a better job than any of your employees. You’re worried that if you go away, things will slip. Maybe you’re right, but maybe it’s worth it for the break. Then again, if you lose too much business, maybe it isn’t. So how do we sort these problems?

To be able to take time off and be confident that you will not take unacceptable losses by doing so, you need to be sure that your personnel know what to do and are capable of making good decisions. For now, let’s concentrate on how to free yourself from having to be available all the time and assume your employees are essentially capable and trustworthy.

Employees are forced to depend on you if:

• There are some tasks that only you know how to do
• Their roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined
• Processes are not clearly defined and documented
• You are the expert and your employees have limited technical or product knowledge
• Customers keep asking for you
• There is no one who can fill in if someone is away

Before you can safely take time off, you need to fix these situations.

The tasks only you know how to do

The solution to this is pretty obvious. You need to identify those tasks that only you know how to do and train someone else to do them.

As the business owner, it is likely that you are the first one there in the morning and you open up the place, check stock levels and turn equipment on. At the end of the day you probably close off the till, run reports and do the banking and backups. When things are busy, you usually hop in and get your hands dirty doing whatever your business does. If there is a difficult technical problem, you will probably be the final support person. Whatever it is that you know how to do that no one else does, document and train someone else to do. Write a procedure for start-of-day and end-of-day. If you know you get a rush-hour of customers at a particular time, train your office or accounts people in the rudiments of serving customers. They will probably welcome the break from staring into a computer screen. And as you tackle difficult technical problems, document them and pass on your experience at your next staff meeting so that next time they won’t need you to solve it.

Roles and responsibilities

Do your employees know what tasks they are each responsible for, or do you need to regularly point out things for them to do? Will they sit on their arses if you are not around to point out to them the things that need doing? Do they know which issues they have the authority to make decisions on and which they should defer to you?

One person should have primary responsibility for each regular or intermittent task. That doesn’t mean only one person ever does it, or knows how to do it. It just means one person is responsible for ensuring it gets done.

To define roles and responsibilities, you need 2 lists: a list of people who work in your business and a list of tasks that need to be done. You may like to divide these tasks into daily, weekly, monthly and annual. You may also like to divide them up into categories such as acquiring stock, stock management, marketing, sales, asset maintenance, accounts, personnel services and operations. Some of these categories, such as operations, may need to be subdivided. In an established business, the easiest way to come up with the list is often to simply ask each of your people what they do each day, each week, each month, each year or one-off jobs that they have needed to do.

Once you have your lists, split tasks up amongst your people in a way that makes best use of their talents and their time. Next, give them a bit of freedom to improve the way things are done. Allow the key person for each process to define or modify the procedure, in consultation with others if appropriate, to come up with the best way of doing it. For some responsibilities you might give them a budget to spend how they feel most fit. For example, one of your employees may be made responsible for maintaining the building. This may include keeping the premises (including the kitchen and toilet) clean, reorganising shelving and stock and ensuring equipment is well-maintained. Sit down with them and work out a realistic budget, listing all of the things that you’d expect the budgeted amount to cover. Ensure you break the budget up into, say, expected monthly spend, so that it doesn’t all disappear at the beginning of the year. From then on, the only time your staff need to consult you is if they foresee it going over budget. To reassure yourself, you can ask them to report monthly to you so that things don’t get out of hand without you realising.

Documenting processes

Once again, it is pretty obvious how to solve this one. Often the hard part is knowing where to start. Most businesses write a procedure either when someone goes on leave (or leaves the business) and they realise no one else knows how to do it, or when there is an incident. This is not the ideal way, because you will end up with gaps and overlaps. The best approach is, as already mentioned, to take a structured approach when you define roles and responsibilities. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. If a piece of equipment comes with good, clear instructions and there is an external training course available at reasonable cost, you probably don’t need to write an internal procedure on it. Or if you do your accounts using a well-known software package, you may need only a checklist to ensure all tasks are completed. However, if there is a complex process that only one person in your business (such as you) does on a regular basis, then you definitely need a clear, detailed procedure and you should train at least one other person to be able to do it in their (or your) absence. When working out what procedures you need, in addition to tasks, you need to consider what can go wrong and how you want people to handle those things. For example, you will need emergency procedures, even though, with good procedures you plan not to have emergencies. You should also consider things that can go wrong that are outside of your control, such as power outages.

Set up a folder for procedures, organised in a logical way, and ensure people know they are available and where to find them. Also, review them regularly. They are no good to you if no one can find them when they are needed, or they are not up-to-date.

You are the expert

If you are the expert and you do not pass on your knowledge, you can forget having time off. Somehow, you need to pass your knowledge on. You will probably do this randomly through the course of your work. Your employees watch you and listen to you and learn your product knowledge, if they happen to see or hear you. But there will always be gaps, and in any case, if you’re a smart cookie, you’ll be continuing to learn.

To overcome this, you need to define what a person needs to know to do the job. If they are selling products, they will need to know the products and be familiar with their uses. Once again, we can do this in a structured manner. Categorise your products. Perhaps you deal in pumps, pipes and fittings. What are the different types of pumps you sell? How are each of the different pumps used? What are the pros and cons of each type? What sizes do the pipes come in, and what materials are they made of? What are their typical uses? What fittings are available? Look at each category and work out what your employees need to know about each of the categories.

Then start training your people, and when you think they are trained, check their knowledge. Send them to supplier training courses then ask them to present what they learnt to the rest of the staff. Run regular training sessions yourself, then listen to them talk to customers, or get them to train other staff. Run regular toolbox meetings and pass on what you’ve learnt this week. Ask each of your staff to come up with one new thing they’ve learnt since the last meeting. Make all of your people experts.

Customers keep asking for you

Naturally you are passionate about your business and about customer service and you have developed fantastic rapport with your customers. But if you are the only one your customers will deal with, you might as well remain a sole trader. How do you wean your customers off you and get your staff to take care of them? First, make sure you introduce your staff to your customers. After a friendly chat, ask your staff to look after them and head for the office, looking busy. Make some phone calls if necessary. You can even hide when you see them coming, or get your staff to tell them you are tied up with another customer and can they help them? Continually tell your customers about your wonderful staff, so that your customers feel confident with them. And if you’re away for the week and truly unavailable, and they are well looked-after while you are away, chances are they won’t ask for you next time.

There is no one to fill in

It doesn’t make sense to be away during the busiest times of the year, so you may have to plan your holidays around the quieter times. You need to plan ahead and train up your regular staff to be able to do your jobs, and organise some casual staff to cover the simpler jobs. In a small business, think about relatives or friends who may like a bit of extra pocket money. In some cases you may need to use the services of a labour hire company, but if you do, ensure you have adequate procedures and training for them to get to know your processes. Allocate them the simpler tasks, so that you don’t need to do too much training, plus a regular “buddy” to train them and keep an eye on them.

Overall, the key to getting time off is having a structured, well-documented business with reliable, well-trained employees. Then, even if you don’t take a holiday, you can free up time to work on strategies to grow and improve your business.

If you’d like some help or advice call me: Rosemary O’Donoghue +61(0)412 302055 or email me