Documentation

How to Write Work Instructions That Actually Help Your Team Win

Find out the seven steps to write work instructions that successfully guide employees on performing a job and getting it right the first time.

Introduction

Leaders expects employees to demonstrate confidence, expertise and competence at work. 

Unfortunately, this means a lot of team members don’t feel like asking for help is an option. Add the fear of rejection and vulnerability to this mix, and you’ll find most employees  trying to forge a path of their own instead of getting the help they need.

Enter work instructions

Work instructions lay out documented guidelines on how to perform assignments. They’re precise descriptions that help reduce human error and potential setbacks, especially in the manufacturing, hospitality, transport and healthcare sectors.

Knowing how to write work instructions can bridge the expertise gap, so employees can execute all job-related tasks accurately and effectively.

What are work instructions?

Work instructions are formal documents that provide step-by-step instructions on how to perform an activity. The instructions are generally in-text but can also include images, pictograms and videos to clarify how to ensure reliable, efficient and correct outcomes.

Work instructions vs. Procedures vs. Processes

This might be a shocker for a few, but you can’t use work instructions interchangeably with procedures and processes. The three terms represent related but different concepts.

A process is a set of interrelated activities that outlines what needs to be done to achieve the desired outcome. On the other hand, a procedure is a prescribed way of executing a part of the process by explaining how to do it. 

Work instructions go into deeper detail about performing an activity within a process or procedure.

We know, it can sound a little complicated. Essentially:

  • Procedures describe a process 
  • Work instructions clarify how to carry out the procedure. 

You can read our procedure vs. work instructions guide to decode the differences in more detail.

Why do organizations need work instructions?

Work instructions clarify, dictate and describe the steps employees take to carry out tasks. Without work instructions, you might run into inconvenience or damages. 

They put your employees in a better position to perform and execute tasks effectively and accurately.

Unsurprisingly, this document is a major component of a quality management system (QMS). By implementing work instructions, you can guide your workforce in four key quality areas: 

  • Training
  • Reference
  • Problem-solving
  • Creating employment opportunities.

Here’s how this works.

Work instructions for employee training

Trained and competent employees are a prerequisite for growth. But to build a workforce of talented and capable workers, you must define how to train each department. 

Assign employees to a process expert who will teach them job-related tasks. Set up detailed training discussions and hands-on activities between the expert and the trainee so the latter can observe how to perform the process. 

Work instructions can help in two big ways. 

  • Give the trainer a predetermined process, including the improvements made to the instructions. They can use this to remove any confusion and ensure standard training for everyone. 
  • Help employees better understand their tasks, which will make them more proficient at what they do.

Following this process creates an opportunity for additional review of the work instruction content, where: 

  1. Trainers can reaffirm the defined steps 
  2. Employees can confirm the validity of the tasks.

Work instructions for future reference 

Work instructions are only as effective as their formatting and accessibility.  

After training, it’s normal for employees to have follow-up questions. Draft user-friendly work instructions so employees can quickly scan and review them for reference.

Write down the instructions for each core task briefly and concisely. Remember, you don’t have to explain the why — only the how. If you want to explain the reasoning behind doing a process, keep it separate from the main work instructions and create additional reference documents.

In addition, make sure the work instructions live in one place (like a knowledge base) so that employees don’t waste any valuable time looking for them.

Work instructions for problem-solving

Problem-solving is another quality activity that ensures all supporting processes work toward the desired outcome. 

Employees typically use relevant documentation when carrying out tasks. Work instructions help identify internal or external mishaps. 

Encourage everyone to review the work instructions as a part of the corrective action procedure. Ask for feedback on whether the work instructions clearly define the process, and then refine instructions to confirm the proper definition based on their feedback.

Work instructions for continuous improvement

Work instructions shouldn’t be stagnant. Make them “living documents” by using them regularly and developing a process for identifying improvement opportunities. 

Use the current document as the starting point. As things evolve you’ll be able to demonstrate to top management that work instructions are more than just a quality management requirement. 

Regularly document reviews, audits and expert input to redefine the work instructions. This will also make employees more adept at using them. 

Work instructions that serve the above four quality areas create an environment of advanced quality planning. You’re preparing yourself and your team to put your best foot forward. 

It also leads to several other benefits for your organization, including effective employee onboarding and training and fewer human errors. Employees will become more knowledgeable about how things work in the company, making them more productive in their day-to-day. 

7 steps to writing amazing work instructions

how to write work instructions

Work constructions shouldn’t leave room for interpretation. They need to be crystal clear, brief and simple.

Here are the most vital elements of an effective work instruction template.

  1. Title and short task descriptions. 
  2. Task objectives or expected results.
  3. Purpose of the task.
  4. Scope of the task.
  5. Tools, skills or materials required for the task.
  6. Safety requirements.
  7. Step-by-step instructions for the task.
  8. Expected outcome for each step.

Keeping this in mind, here are the seven steps to writing clear and actionable work instructions:

Step 1. Choose a task and a tool for creating your work instruction

Decide the task you’ll write the work instructions for. Define it and its steps.Make note of the tools, materials or references employees need to perform the tasks themselves.

Next, pick a tool for creating your work instructions. Opt for options that would be most accessible to users, with plenty of formatting and editing options. 

Scribe is an excellent tool to create and standardize your organization’s work instructions, no matter how complex or long the task. 

The step-by-step guide generator does the work for you, creating detailed work instructions in seconds. 

Not only does Scribe reduce the time spent creating process documentation (we're talking 15x) — it also makes sure your documents are consistently high quality. 

Just turn on the extension or desktop app to capture your processes. Scribe will automatically generate a visual, step-by-step guide you can share directly, download or embed. 

Step 2. Write a clear title and introduction

The title and introduction for your work instructions is an easy but crucial part.

Give a background of the process the task is a part of, briefly explaining the purpose and output. Mention the employee or function that’ll carry out the task. 

Here’s a quick checklist for writing a clear title and introduction:

  • Provide brief context of the task. 
  • Mention the owners — both the process owner and the task owner. 
  • State the purpose and output of the task. 
  • Choose a title directly referring to the job. 

Step 3. Be clear on the purpose — the why — of the work instruction

What is the purpose of your task and why are you writing instructions for it?

Knowing the answer before drafting the work instructions will give you more clarity on what you're trying to achieve. And no, the answer isn’t simply the output mentioned in Step 1; you have to dig deeper. 

Get a more in-depth understanding of the task and what goes into it. For example, if the title is “How to store data safely,” the purpose would be to “Prevent unauthorized people from getting access to sensitive and confidential data stored on your devices.”

Do something similar for your document.

Step 4. Break the entire task into smaller steps

This is another aspect of writing work instruction you need to be extremely careful about.

Define the steps to complete the task at hand, describing each one in detail (without rambling). You’ll also need to list the materials required for each step. 

Remember, one step is one action, so if more than one action is involved, write it as other steps. A good tip here is to list all task actions as bullet points. 

Take a cue from this work instruction example.

how to write work instructions
(Source)

Order your bullets logically and include any relevant or useful references as hyperlinks. In case your work instruction is too long and goes over 10-15 steps, consider subdividing them into different topics or creating multiple guides. 

Don’t worry too much about brevity here. Just focus on including all critical information to do the task. We'll simplify the text later.

Next, choose the right format to explain the bullets. 

Team leaders frequently use three options: the decision table, the cookbook format and the flowchart. But you can experiment with different formats for different assignments based on employee preferences and task complexity.

Step 5. Add more visual appeal  

Now that you have the whole body of your work instructions ready, let's make the document more visually appealing. 

This is important as human beings respond strongly to visuals, with a past study terming us as 90 percent visual beings. Naturally, visual work instructions are more effective than text-heavy documents. 

Choose powerful images that fit the text. A good rule of thumb is to place images on the left-hand side and text on the right. You can also refer to the image in the text to be extra clear. 

Using bold, italicized and uppercase text will also lend more character to your document and emphasize important information. Consider using top tip boxes as in this Scribe for drawing your employee’s attention to best practices.

how to write work instructions
(Source)

Step 6. Rewrite and format for better readability and consistency

This is the step where you go snip, snip, snip.

The best work instructions are short, simple and precise. Keeping this mantra in mind, here are a few pointers to guide your editing/rewriting process:

  • Change passive voice to active voice. For example, instead of saying, “This task must be done by the employee,“ write “The employee must do this task.“
  • Use short, conversational words. Imagine you’re writing the work instructions for a five-year-old. Use jargon or technical words only when you’re sure employees will understand it. If you are using abbreviations, include a glossary. 
  • Keep sentences short and simple. They should be no longer than 15 words and preferably without clauses.
  • Avoid using acronyms. If you must use them, spell it out first and then add the acronym in brackets next to it. For example, FYI (For your information). Stick to the acronym for the rest of the doc.
  • Maintain text uniformity. Pick a word to describe something, and use that throughout. Don’t use different words for the same thing. For example, if you use “computer,” don’t change it out with “desktop” or “laptop” later. 

You also need a consistent format. For example, if you use middle alignment in one document, the rest should be centered too. Display the steps in a logical sequence, preferably in numerical order.

Finally, proofread your work instructions to catch and remove any mistakes or gaps. Provide more details for any ambiguous information. Trim down unnecessary details. 

Step 7. Get employee feedback

Congratulations! Your work instruction is complete and all that's left is to test whether it’s easy to follow. 

Ask a reliable employee to draft and give feedback. Do they:

  • Find any section confusing or need more clarification? 
  • Think the document should be shorter or longer? 
  • Have issues with clarity?
Scribe top tip: Have an unfamiliar colleague perform the task using the work instructions. While they test the document, don’t give them any further explanations. Simply observe. 

This will help you understand what to add or change to make your work instructions more effective. Subsequently, apply your notes to your existing copy and share with your employees.

We know, this all feels like a long process. But it doesn’t have to be. Take advantage of automation tools to cut your process documentation time in half. 

Write effective and visual work instructions with Scribe

Work instructions help employees perform tasks and processes correctly — the first time around. 

While drafting successful work instructions isn’t usually a cakewalk, a reliable work instruction software like Scribe does it faster and easier than ever before. 

Scribe can turn any task into a step-by-step guide within 60 seconds. With it, you can auto-generate handy work instructions to:

  •  Supplement your onboarding processes.
  • Develop fully-fledged training manuals
  • Provide ongoing support to struggling employees.

It’s time to accelerate your work processes. Sign up for Scribe — it’s free!