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Writing Standard Work Instructions for Manufacturing: 6 Principles, 3 Examples

April 16, 2021

 by Renaud Anjoran

Man in suit holding a pen up

Over the years, I have visited hundreds of Chinese factories, but I rarely see good manufacturing work instructions at the disposal of production operators, maintenance technicians, and quality inspectors.

If your New Product Introduction (NPI) engineers haven’t prepared a standard work instruction sheet already, you’ll need to start writing them up. When writing your manufacturing procedures, you should follow the 6 principles outlined below to ensure that your instructions are easy to follow.

1. Standardize the Work

The core idea behind manufacturing instructions is to follow ‘one best way currently known in this organisation’ so that if 5 people work on a particular job, they do it in the same way. If every operator has their own processes, it can make improving the way they work quite difficult. By following the standard manufacturing processes, one improvement to the work instructions can be applied immediately across the board and increase productivity, quality, and safety.

Before you standardize the process, think of ways to simplify each step. If you can set up fixtures, gauges, and other tools to make the work easier to do, it is a huge win. If you have the engineering resources to do that now, don’t delay it!

2. Write It With People Who Do the Work Every Day

The people involved in the manufacturing process day in and day out often know how to do a better job than most engineers sitting in your office. They might not try to do a good job in certain instances, for example, when they are paid by the piece and never have to do rework on the mess they have made. But, usually, they know how to do it.

Why not pull them out of production for an hour and work together to determine the optimal manufacturing process? It not only gives you a better insight into the procedures, but it also trains them to think in a better way. And who knows, maybe they’ll keep thinking of it at the back of their mind, and in a week, they may think of a better process.

You should even involve the production line or group leaders to push them to think outside the box. And, over time, they’ll learn how to solve problems too.

3. Get Employee Buy-In

Most China factories treat their low-level employees as disposable resources. They tell them what to do, provide them with no training, and hope to replace them as fast as possible with automation. Don’t fall into that trap! Getting your employee’s feedback during the decision-making process can be a determining factor of your company’s success.

Involving the workers when writing work instructions leads to sustainable improvement as you are getting their buy-in. Even if they disagree with an aspect of it, you’ll give them the opportunity to share their opinion and discuss it with their teams. And in the end, they might still be unhappy, but it is better to have received their input, and it may lead to less resistance from them.

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4. Visualise Standard Work Instructions

Once work instructions are written up, they need to be enforced. A leader or supervisor needs to be able to walk around and identify at a quick glance if the standards are being followed. Drawings can reflect the manufacturing instructions much better than text paragraphs.

I have seen many work instruction sheets written on bland templates with no graphic element to visualise the manufacturing process, and unsurprisingly, nobody reads them.

Drawings, pictures, and, when possible, videos, are much more likely to be followed by operators. Think along the lines of the IKEA instruction manuals:

Make writing work instructions visual

Note: IKEA also has other excellent examples on mistake-proofing.

5. Include Other Elements

When people think of standard work instructions, they think of a work sequence – first do this, next do that, etc. Having this is quite useful, especially if it also includes material movement and transformation as well as inspection and testing activities.

But that’s not the only thing your manufacturing work instructions should encompass. Try to include a standard timing, i.e. how long is a particular process supposed to take to keep the line balanced. This shouldn’t be used to penalize workers or single out those who are too slow. Rather, it should put some healthy pressure and indicate who needs specialized training.

In lean organizations that try to get as close as possible to one-piece flow, including the minimum and/or maximum number of pieces in the process at any given time is crucial.

Finally, make sure to include other focus points, such as quality or safety risks.

While we can’t share some instructions we’ve helped our clients develop, here’s an example of standard work instructions for toasting bread:

Example of writing work instructions

Here’s an example of a real work instruction sheet from a global automotive supplier:

work instruction sheet from the auto industry

6. Train Your Process Engineers

Do you want to develop your junior engineers? You can get them to work on projects to increase productivity based on the work instructions and other data they gather.

Developing a combination table is useful when you want to go deep into the details. It shows the details of manual cycle time, automatic cycle time, walking time, and waiting time for 1 operator. Here’s an example of a combination table with dummy data:

CMC-Writing-Work-Instructions-ExampleAnother great tool is a process chart to show how balanced, or unbalanced, a production line is. These two charts are good starting points for an analysis of what changes would gain productivity.

But the first thing you’ll need to do is write up standard work instruction sheets. Don’t skip this step or delay it as it’s often one of the first priorities to ensure a certain quality level.

Have you got positive or negative experiences with writing work instructions? Do you see them as an essential element or as decoration for auditors and customers? Let us know in the comments below.

Looking to improve your manufacturing processes while cutting costs?

Download our complimentary eBook on 'How to Cut Costs in Your Factory Through Quality Improvement Activities' below:

How To Cut Your Factory Costs Through Quality Improvement Activities eBook Download


Topics: Quality

Renaud Anjoran

Renaud Anjoran

15 years experience in China.
Partner, China Manufacturing Consultants.
Worked with hundreds of factories in China.
Certifications: ASQ CQE & CRE; ISO 9001 & 14001 lead auditor.
Author of well-read blog, Quality Inspection Tips.

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