Nobody likes unclear instructions.
Imagine this: 7am and you’re about to walk into the plant to start your first job of the day.
You gather your tools, pick up the work instructions, but when you started reading, you can’t make sense of anything.
The instructions are vague. Complicated. Way too many pages full of wordy paragraphs and technical jargon. You’re not even sure when these instructions were written or if they are correct and accurate for the job you’re about to start.
Can you safely and successfully execute the task?
Probably – if you’re an experienced technician and the job is not too complex. But what if the job was high risk, would you go ahead with such poor work instructions? Hopefully not.
Look, maintenance tasks can be complex and hazardous so to set up our teams for success we need to provide them with clear and concise instructions on how to do the work. And even for the less complex and less risky jobs we want good work instructions to ensure the work is done as efficiently as possible and always in the same way (more on that later).
In this blog article, we will explore the importance of effective work instructions, the key elements that should be included, and the rules for creating work instructions that work.
Now, first, let's be clear about what maintenance work instructions really are.
Maintenance work instructions are a written set of instructions that specify how a maintenance task is to be performed.
They should be specific and detailed enough that a competent technician who is new to your plant can do the work successfully by reading them. But they also need to be concise, simple, and straight to the point.
A key concept behind the value of work instructions is that there is one most efficient, most effective, and safest way to perform any given task.
However, it may well take some time for you to identify the single best way to perform that task. And therefore, work instructions will naturally be subject to a continuous improvement cycle.
Maintenance work instructions are an essential component of any maintenance program. They guide maintenance technicians through the necessary steps to inspect, repair, and maintain equipment and machinery.
Without them, technicians will struggle to complete tasks efficiently and effectively, resulting in increased downtime, decreased productivity, and potentially hazardous work environments.
With that said, there are 3 main reasons why you need work instructions: safety, quality, and variability. Let’s go over each one in more detail.
The first reason why you need effective work instructions is safety. Work instructions should clearly define the scope of work, identifying and documenting non-routine hazards, and providing required controls for each hazard.
Good work instructions contribute to safe working practices by making workers clear on tasks, hazards, and effective hazard management to ensure that your technicians are safe during execution.
According to Winston Ledet in his book “Don't Just Fix It, Improve It”, up to 84% of all defects are caused by careless work habits. By ‘careless’, what Ledet really means is not giving enough care for the equipment, and in all honesty that happens to all of us at times.
That includes the technician who didn’t tighten that bolt enough, the design engineer who may have specified the wrong material, or the maintenance engineer who omits a critical failure mode when developing a PM program.
In short, most defects in our organisations are the result of the way we work collectively, and not because of equipment aging or basic wear and tear. That’s why without good work instructions, it's just too easy for defects to slip into our equipment and work environment and ultimately cause premature failures.
If you ask 10 technicians to execute at ask, you will likely find the task is executed in almost 10 different ways, using different task sequences, possibly using different tools, but you will certainly have different quality outcomes.
This variability in outcome makes it difficult to determine if the maintenance task you are doing is effective in managing the failure mode. That’s why effective work instructions ensure that tasks are executed in the same repeatable manner, which should yield the same outcome every time it is executed. This role of work instructions is often not well understood or recognised, but it is essential to the longer-term success of your PM Program.
So, what goes in to an effective work instruction? At a high level, maintenance work instruction should contain the following key elements:
Let’s go over each one in more detail.
Your work instructions should have a clear identification of the equipment that you're going to be working on. That includes the equipment number, the tag number, and the description at the lowest level in the equipment hierarchy. Everything you need to know to make sure you're working on the right equipment.
The maintenance task, the actual task that needs to be completed. Simple as that.
You also want to list the failure mode that the maintenance task is aimed at preventing. It really helps for the technicians to understand why they're doing the work and to keep their eyes open while they're doing the work to see whether there is any indication that failure mode might be developing.
You need to have acceptable limits defined. Any task that requires a measurement or a comparison against the desired state should include clear acceptable limits, determining when the condition or the performance of the equipment is no longer acceptable and some kind of corrective action is required.
Work instructions must list the required materials, consumables, special tools, or rental equipment that you need to safely complete the task.
You want to identify non-routine risks. Good work instructions are very clear on non-routine risks associated with the execution of the task at hand.
Work instructions must identify the risks associated with executing the task. But be careful that you don't get stuck in just regurgitating standard safety hazards that are dealt with on a day to day. You want to focus on the risks that are specifically associated with the task at hand.
Good work instructions address access requirements. Special access requirements like scaffolding, the use of an elevated work platform, a cherrypicker, etc.
The work instruction should outline follow-up actions that should be taken if the equipment requires corrective action. And you want to be clear about what that corrective action needs to be.
The corrective action could be carried out immediately as part of the work instruction if it's a simple adjust or replace task. But for other tasks that require additional considerations like safety, resources, tooling, or spares, chances are you will need to raise a new work request that will then get planned, scheduled, and executed.
Now that you know the key elements that should be included inside your work instructions, the next thing you need to know is how to create work instructions. There are 10 rules that you should follow so that you can create work instructions that work.
They are clearly written. They are concise and they use simple and consistent language. That includes using a select group of verbs each with a specific definition within the context of maintenance. The idea is that when somebody reads for example the verb “replaced”, they know immediately that it means a-like-for-like replacement.
They are easy to use. Work instructions are developed for the end user, which is the maintenance technician. So cut down on all the pretty cover pages, table of contents, introductions, and general preambles.
And they are easy to find. Or else they're not going to be used. Typically, you want to make sure that your maintenance planner includes the correct work instructions in the work pack that is handed to the technicians.
Keep your work instructions easy to use with templates that have a consistent layout, content, formatting, and writing style. You also need to ensure that once defined, that template is used across all work instructions.
If an employee needs to look up a single step or a part of instruction, then he will be able to just look it up much easier and act on it a lot faster.
When thoughts are organised in a sequential manner, we remember them easier.
That's why you want to group complex work instructions into phases, where each phase consists of multiple related tasks. It's much easier to remember that I'm at step eight in phase four than it is to try and remember that I'm at step 48 or 49 in an entire sequence.
If certain steps must really be performed in a specific order and there is a risk that they could be performed in a different order, then you need to make sure that is clearly communicated in your work instruction.
Effective work instructions should remind you of important steps and details that you would never remember but are essential for achieving a quality and safe job.
Don't fill your work instructions with lots of generic lump rambling texts that add no value. Technicians already know that they need to wear their usual PPE, so don't tell them to put on a hard hat or wear gloves, unless they need specific gloves because of a specific hazard.
But you do need to include the torque values for those hold-down bolts, as your technicians won’t know those by heart, and you don’t want them to guess. The same goes for set points when function testing alarms or trips (in which case it might be more efficient to refer to an easily accessible trip & alarm catalogue).
When work instructions are not kept current, they will lose their value. And it's not a matter of bureaucracy. It's just a matter of trust.
If a technician out there follows a work instruction and it turns out to be wrong, he or she is not going to trust the next document that's put in their hands.
So don't issue incomplete or inaccurate work instructions because it undermines the confidence in the system.
And you need to use a feedback loop to make sure that when omissions or mistakes are discovered, they are fed back to the maintenance planner or to the engineers and the work instruction is corrected as required.
You know the saying that a picture says more than a thousand words. When it comes to work instructions, that means you make appropriate use of pictures and graphics. Some things are just far more quickly and easily communicated with the use of a diagram or a photo than using lots of words.
The only thing you need to watch out for is that you don't fall into the trap of adding pictures and diagrams everywhere in every step. There is no need for that. You need to make sure your work instructions are visual only when required.
And that means they focus on the key risks that may prevent the job from being performed safely or to required quality standards. So, you want to incorporate appropriate conspicuous reminders to ensure that critical steps are not forgotten.
You could consider using a yellow warning sign, or warning box in text, or maybe a red danger box somewhere in your work instruction to clearly flag specific critical steps.
And if required, you may have physical signs in the workplace that relate back to these work instructions.
You may need to incorporate adequate independent verification steps at key points in the work instruction. Particularly for high-risk tasks, it may be worth ensuring that someone other than the person performing the task verifies that the task has been done correctly.
However, it is important to use verification and sign-off sparingly, as the second person may not be on the job for most of the duration of the task. And they won’t be very productive for that matter.
Work instructions should be formally issued documents with a document number, where revisions are controlled, they're assigned off by someone for approval, and they are subject to formal change management.
This is not about bureaucracy. This is about creating a system that minimises mistakes and errors and creates a system that people can trust. Ultimately, these work instructions are going to drive quality and safety. And so, these work instructions need to be controlled properly.
Your technicians are trained in the use of these work instructions. And when new technicians arrive in your plant, start at your plant, you would want them signed off as competent on the basis of an assessor or a supervisor, witnessing them doing the job as detailed in a work instruction.
That assessor or supervisor is then verifying that they're competent in doing that task. And obviously, you can only start doing this once you have suitably high-quality work instructions in place.
To create work instructions that work, you must include the 8 key elements in your work instructions. Next, you need to follow 10 rules for creating work instructions that work. Before we end this article, there’s one last thing you need to keep in mind in all stages of creating work instructions.
Work Instructions that work are developed for the benefit of the end user and not for the ease of the creator.
A common problem with work instructions across many industries is that these work instructions are written by engineers or planners sitting in an office. And very often they'll be inclined to write something like the following:
“Torque bolts to required setting — [refer toOEM manual]”.
Well, that's easy, right? Job done. But guess what? The engineer or planner has just made life difficult for the technician. Chances are that the technician is not going to look for that OEM manual.
Instead, they will simply tighten the bolts the best they can to get the job done. Which means those bolts would likely not be set to the right torque. And that's a defect waiting to happen.
Make sure you don't let this happen. Don't allow it.
The people writing work instructions should understand the importance of the work they're doing. They are expected to do the hard work to get all the information that's required into that work instruction.
Because if they don't, they are introducing a defect through careless work habits. And remember that 84% of defects are the result of less care than required.
So, make sure that the work instructions that are created are created by people who understand the importance, by people who will put in the effort to do a good job, and people who understand that they are serving an enduser.
Erik Hupje is the founder of the Road to Reliability™ who has over 25 years of experience in managing maintenance & reliability. During those years, he has worked for multinational companies in the Energy sector in the Netherlands, the UnitedKingdom, the Philippines, the Sultanate of Oman, and Australia.
His passion is for continuous improvement and keeping things simple. Through the Road to Reliability™, Erik helpsMaintenance & Reliability professionals around the globe improve their plant’s reliability and their organisation’s bottom line.
He is a Certified Maintenance & Reliability Practitioner (CMRP),Certified Reliability Leader (CRL), Certified Asset Management Assessor (CAMA),a Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng), and he holds an Executive MBA and aMaster’s Degree in Systems Engineering. But it’s Erik’s industry experience and practical approach to the topics he teaches that his students and clients appreciate the most.
A guide on how to write maintenance instructions that work is available for download from Road to Reliability: https://roadtoreliability.com/our_resources/guide-on-creating-work-instructions-that-work/
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