A Brief History of Procedures

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

The Power of Using a Great Procedure

There is a line from a song that I like that goes “You know where it ends – Yo, it usually depends on where you start.” Such is the case when it comes to procedures, and yet, we fail to question how that lineage just might have contributed to the unfortunately high percentage of procedures that are wrong, hard to use, and/or are written to please the likes of Sheldon Cooper (but not the average user).

Well-written, easy to use work instructions are requisite for high performance. They form the foundation for standard work at any organizational level, serve as the basis for a sound ISO-based registration effort, and most importantly, help people do their jobs in an effective manner each day. In some cases we have them, but they serve more as a foundation for a bookshelf full of notebooks. In other cases, we avoid using them because of challenges we have experienced in the past trying to follow a poorly written procedure.

The greatest irony here is that too many of us know this. We have been there ourselves. I’ve grown to have an appreciation for good procedure design, but I have been fortunate – I have seen the procedures used by NASA, major airline operations groups, and nuclear power plant operators. Their consistency in design, and de facto usability, is amazing. One can only wonder why we don’t see more work instructions that are so simple to use?

A Brief History of Procedures

That is where we need to look towards the history of procedures for insight. Insight is one thing that is born out of aging if one is willing to look for it. Work instructions began as lists on paper – their intended use in all cases was not to always guide the successful performance of a task but to instead, determine how long it should take, and cost, to perform that task. Job elements are procedure steps, or at least they are in well-written procedures.

Jobs were simpler when procedures were born however – as the breadth of a given employee’s job scope grew, so did the length of the average procedure. As new laws, regulations, and customer requests crept into the product and service mix, procedures had to expand in breadth to accommodate all of the “special conditions.”

We eventually reached a point in procedure maturity where we had to split the stock’ so to speak – we created procedures AND work instructions. Work instructions became what procedures used to be. The problem was, companies were falling beyond. The power of work instructions was not appreciated, and in turn, resources were not being invested in their upkeep or their generation, let alone their improvement.

Which is More Reliable – Memory or Procedures?

Think about your own organization. What percentage of the time do people work from memory? What percentage of your people work from memory ALL of the time? What percentage of processes have well-written work instructions – grade six reading level and single action (element) steps, for example?

At the same time as procedures were growing up (roughly over the last 85 or so years), people were becoming busier (or at least more things were being created to occupy their time). As a result, they were sleeping less. They were also eating more as the variety of foods grew. In some cases, drugs were being used to counter the adverse effects of these new behaviors. In all cases, cognition and memory were being adversely affected. The need for great procedures was increasing, but we were (and still are) failing to provide the preventive maintenance our work instructions need.

LEARN More: Frequently Asked Root Cause Analysis Questions

My Case for Using More Procedures

Now, there is a bit of conjecture in the above story, but a lot of evidence does exist to support the hypothetical story line. Correlation does exist between correct task performance and procedure use. Where we tend to get lost is when we think procedures are only for new hires and rocket scientists. Job complexity continues to increase while we can argue that our cognitive capacities, including memory, are not increasing at the same rate.

That’s my case for using procedures. Call me an old dude who is making excuses for forgetting things – I need to use checklists more now, so everyone must. I’ll close with a couple more things for you to consider. Do you really know what your human error rates are? Do you know the potential consequences for the different mistakes people can make? If not, how do you really determine where great work instructions are needed?

Keep your procedures and work instructions young, and keep improving. – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

If you would like more information about the process improvement and error proofing tools I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at kevin@greatsystems.com.

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