Decide on Procedure Format
Businesses are finally realising that the old style of procedure does not work. People simply don’t use them. They are typically long, wordy and repetitive, contain too much information, are difficult to follow and look unattractive. There is no doubt that having good procedures provides a number of benefits, but how do we ensure that they are useful and easy to follow? We need to consider what to include and what to leave out, and have a standardised layout that is not overcrowded. People then know where to look for the information they require.
The easiest way in MS Word to keep a consistent layout is to set up a template using tables, and to specify, using headings, where particular types of information are placed. For each cell you also specify styles for headings, text and bullets and numbering.
A procedure is a set of step-by-step sequential instructions. Anything that is not an instruction does not belong in the body of the procedure. If it is background information, or explains “why”, then it belongs in training materials. Cluttering up instructions with this sort of information makes procedures lengthy and difficult to follow. The instructions need to be commands, with just enough words to convey the meaning.
We do want to include safety and quality information in procedures, but include it in the form of actions or controls, for example, putting on PPE, or checking a temperature. All actions that a person needs to do in the course of performing a procedure should be included, such as filling in paperwork, communicating with someone, or emptying a bin. So while we want only actions, make sure all actions included.
Many organisations are realising that pictures and symbols are very effective ways of communicating information succinctly. With digital technology it is now very easy to include pictures, which can dramatically reduce the number of words required. Commonly-recognised symbols, such as the ISO set of safety symbols, can be used to highlight hazards and critical steps.
Apart from step-by-step instructions, let’s look at information that you may need to design into your standard template:
A company logo identifies the procedure as part of your processes. It does not need to be too obtrusive, just a small logo in a consistent location, in the header or footer.
Document Control Information
A reliable document system needs document control information, such as a unique code, a version number and an authorisation with a date. Most organisations also include an author or owner, who is responsible for keeping the procedure correct and up-to-date, and a revision date, as a reminder to check for changes after a certain period of time. Document control can be managed using a simple database or one of many commercially available document management systems. Without proper document control, people may not have easy access to procedures when they need them, and they cannot be sure they are using the most recent version.
Hazards and Controls
Often hazards, controls and PPE are put at the beginning of a procedure to ensure people are aware of them before they start. If they are hazards that are present throughout the procedure, then they should be at the beginning. However, if hazards are associated with a particular step, then the hazard needs to be highlighted, using a symbol, against that step.
Tools and Materials
Many procedures are not performed efficiently because people get partway through them before they realise they require specialised tools. Hence, listing them at the beginning often saves a lot of time.
Most detailed tasks are made up of groups of steps that achieve individual outcomes. When a person performs a complex task, they break it up in their mind into a number of tasks, which they focus on one at a time. Breaking up a procedure under headings or groups of instructions helps people to understand the overall task from the beginning to end, even before they understand the detail.
Use of pictures, especially action shots taken with your people and your equipment, can greatly enhance the clarity and effectiveness of your procedures. Consider a layout that allows pictures to be right next to relevant steps. If people have to flip over or follow cross-references, they are likely to get lost and confused.
For a consistent company look, you need to standardise not only your layout, but styles for headings and paragraphs. Maybe your company already has a Style Guide that you can apply to your procedures. If not, you should agree upon, and stick by, a set of styles, colours, symbols and abbreviations.
Sections to Omit
Some of the sections in traditional procedures can be omitted, as they do not add value for the user. Sections such as “Scope” and “Roles and Responsibilities” and repeated basic safety information are often skimmed over. Before writing a procedure you should certainly consider the scope and who is responsible for the task and that will guide the information you include. But once the procedure is written, an apt title will convey the same information so there is no need to include them as sections in the procedure.