What is a Work Instruction? Definition & Step-by-Step Guide | Scribe

Work instructions ensure your co-workers know exactly how to perform their tasks. They provide clear guidance to improve operational efficiency.


Have you ever tried to assemble a piece of furniture without going through the instruction booklet? Chances are you’ll end up with a wobbly structure and a handful of nuts and bolts (that should've definitely been secured somewhere), only to have it disgracefully collapse on itself.

The furniture came with instructions for a reason: to help you assemble it correctly, faster—and avoid getting hurt because of toppling furniture.

Likewise, work instructions are a prerequisite to ensure your co-workers know exactly how to perform their tasks. They provide clear guidance on task-related steps to improve operational efficiency and safety and reduce errors, downtimes, and workplace accidents.

What Are Work Instructions?

Work instructions are step-by-step, detailed guidelines on how to perform a specific activity—the sequence of steps to follow, the tools to use, and how to use the said tools.

When written well, work instructions can result in faster and more efficient training, quality improvements, fewer disruptions, and increased staff satisfaction. But when drafted poorly, they can lead to serious consequences, including errors, injuries, delays, and quality issues.

Work Instructions vs. SOPs

A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is a top-level document outlining what needs to be done and by whom under various circumstances. It addresses everyone involved to perform a specific business process(es)—and while it may outline one or more jobs, it doesn’t provide any detail on how to work the different phases.

Contrarily, work instructions show an individual who will do the actual work exactly how it’s done, step by step, and with supporting visuals where necessary. It only addresses the personnel responsible for executing the task and assumes they need detailed step descriptions since they’re new on the job (even if they are not).

We can say work instructions detail how to execute SOPs.

Work Instructions vs. Processes vs. Procedures

When documenting a quality management system, you need to identify ideal processes, procedures, and work instructions to meet the requirements of ISO 9001:2015. Each of these terms, although interconnected, has subtle differences you need to appreciate.

Process instructions are a set of activities that utilize available resources to transform inputs into outputs. They have defined objectives, resources, activities, inputs, and outputs.

A procedure is a uniform method that outlines how to perform a process and includes slightly more detailed sections. Think: What are the definitions, terminology, explanations? What needs to be accomplished to execute the process? Who performs what actions? What tools, information, or resources are required?

Note: SOPs are not the same as procedures. The former looks more towards standardized ways to get work done, while the latter gives you more flexibility to improvise. It’s why procedures create more likelihood of a standardized product or service, whereas SOPs ensure a product or service comes out the same every time.

On the other hand, work instructions show the exact way to perform a task within a process, which is why it’s the more detailed part of the procedure. Many companies use work instructions to give step-by-step details of different tasks outlined in a procedure to reduce mistakes.

To reiterate:

  • A process states what needs to get done and why
  • A process asserts how the process should be completed
  • Work instructions illustrate how to carry out the said procedure.

Understanding the Importance of Work Instructions

Work instructions serve as a critical focal point for both workers and the management.

They help workers understand the management’s minimum expectations for them and get detailed direction on work tasks for daily operations, non-standard tasks, and urgent circumstances.

So—the better your work instructions are, the more efficient your workplace will be.

Work instructions guide workers in four key quality areas: training, reference, problem-solving, and continuous improvement. These areas directly relate to the Deming Cycle that identifies fundamental quality planning as “Plan-Do-Check-Act.“

Here’s how this works—you create (plan) instructions you want the workers to execute. The references then need to be effectively implemented (do) to make them accessible to all personnel. Then documentation has to be verified (check) to ensure the established instructions support your problem-solving methodology. Ultimately, what has been identified should be used (act) to ensure continuous improvement.

Keeping this in mind, here are the two reasons why work instructions are important:

  • They help reduce variation, enabling workers to improve quality and meet demand. Also, since work instructions are explicitly detailed, work instructions are a great training tool for new employees.
  • They enforce consistency when performing tasks and set expectations to measure quality and task time. Based on it, the management can determine whether workers are meeting the organization’s expectations for them.

Work instructions create a foundation for processes to continue running smoothly and, therefore, influence your organization’s success.

How to Create Effective Work Instructions

In his article Four Essentials of Effective Work Instructions, Explainer founder Patrick Sweeney says work instructions should meet four primary criteria to be effective:

  • Credible: Workers “believe that they define the one, single, proper way to perform a task.”
  • Clear: The instructions “can be quickly understood by the worker with minimum effort.“
  • Accessible: The instructions “can be located quickly and easily.”
  • Consistent: The instructions “conform to a style developed specifically for procedures and work instruction“ to match worker training.

Below is a step-by-step guide to help you check off all the four requirements to create crystal-clear work instructions for your workforce:

Step 1: Write Document Title

Introduce workers to the document. Choose a title that gives context and directly refers to the task at hand.

For example, “How to Use Google Docs“ is a good title of work instructions explaining a company’s Documentation Procedures.

Step 2: Explain Document Purpose

There’s no point in writing work instructions if there‘s no purpose behind it. There has to be a reason why you’re documenting detailed task-related steps.

Think about what you’re trying to achieve for your business. Asking questions will help you step back and go beyond what you already know, deepening your understanding of the topic at hand.

Continuing with our example, a clear purpose for a document titled “How to Use Google Docs“ would be “To help the user become comfortable with the software and explain how to use it properly.“

Step 3: Describe Instructions

This is where you’ll explain how the user should complete the task.

List all the information and approved materials the worker needs to do the task in the document. Use clear, detailed language, and include relevant references (images, flowchart, videos, tables) so that the user understands what to do with minimum effort.

For example, to use Google Docs, the user will need an internet connection, a computer, and a Google account. Then, to explain how they can use the word processor, explain each step with supporting screenshots, showing the user how to proceed from start to finish.

Having a standard design format to maintain consistency throughout the document is important, too.

Break down steps into numbered or bulleted sequences, with each step representing a single action. If you’re using images, refer to them within the text so that the user understands the content more effectively.

We also recommend using bold, italicized, and UPPER-CASE text to emphasize important pieces of information.

Step 4: Rewrite for Simplicity

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Use this line as a guiding principle in this step.

Here are a few additional rules tips to simplify your work instructions:

  • Use short, simple sentences that are no longer than 15 words.
  • Avoid clauses and multi-syllable words.
  • Pick a word or term to describe a procedure and stick with it. Don’t use synonyms or different words for the same processes. For example, if you decide on MS Excel, use the exact same term throughout—not Ms Excel or Excel.
  • Only use acronyms when you absolutely have to. If you do, spell it out for the first time and enclose the acronym in brackets beside it.
  • Include a list of abbreviations for the reader to refer to in your document.

Step 5: Provide References

Share additional resources and source materials to enhance the reader’s understanding. You can add footnotes or an appendix at the end of the document for additional reading.

Step 6: Test Effectiveness

You need to assess the effectiveness of your work instructions before making them available company-wide.

Ask a colleague or employee to follow the given directions to perform the associated task. Carefully observe and take note of how they do the job. This will help you identify instructional gaps that need further clarification and understand what needs to be changed or added.

Once you’re 100% sure the work instructions are easy to understand and follow, add them to the associated SOPs.

Visualize Your Work Instructions With Scribe

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Many people are more comfortable with visual media compared to text-heavy documents. Considering work instructions are only effective when employees can understand and use them to improve business processes, creating digital work instructions makes more sense.

With Scribe, you can visualize work instructions and related documents and ensure they’re always accessible, relevant, and editable. Get started for free and write visually-pleasing work instructions by adding videos and images with little to no effort.

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