I have visited hundreds of Chinese factories, and I have seldom seen good work instructions at the disposal of production operators, maintenance technicians, and quality inspectors. In this article, I will list 6 important principles to follow when writing work instructions for China factories...
I am assuming no work instruction sheet was prepared by your NPI engineers, and you need to start writing them up.
Let's take a look at the 6 principles I suggest you follow:
1. Standardize the way work is done
Have all operators and technicians follow the “one best way currently known in this organization,” which helps improve productivity, quality, and safety. This is the basic idea behind work instructions. If 5 people are working on a particular job, they should do it in the same way.
If you can, think of a way to simplify each process before standardizing it. If you can set up fixtures, gauges, and other tools that make the work easier to do, it is a huge win. But only if you have the engineering resources for that right now. Don’t delay it!
2. Do it with the people who do the work every day
These people often know how to do a better job than most engineers sitting in your office. They might not try to do a good job (for example if they are paid by 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 do this exercise? It trains them to think in a better way. Who knows, maybe they keep thinking of it ‘in the back of their mind,’ and in a week they will think of a better way.
Also, involve the line/group leaders. It pushes them to think out of the box. And, over time, they learn how to solve problems.
3. It makes improvement possible
If every operator follows his or her own routine, how do you improve the way they work? It is quite difficult.
If the way they work is uniform, one improvement in a work instruction can be applied immediately and across the board.
Involving the workers when writing work instructions leads to sustainable improvement as you are getting their buy-in. (If they don’t agree with an aspect of it, they can discuss it with their teams and in the end, they might still be unhappy… but it is still better to have received their input.)
Most China factories treat their ‘lower level people’ as disposable resources. They tell them what to do, provide them no training, and hope to replace them as fast as possible with automation. Don’t fall into that trap!
4. Make it visual
Drawings, pictures, and when possible videos, are much more likely to be followed by operators. Think Ikea instruction manuals:
(I have shown other excellent examples from Ikea in a previous article about mistake-proofing.)
I have seen many work instruction sheets written without any graphic element on a bland template… And, not surprisingly, nobody reads them.
Once work instructions are written up, they need to be maintained. A leader/supervisor needs to be able to walk around and see in a few seconds if the standard is being followed. Drawings are much better than text paragraphs.
5. Don’t forget to include some elements
When people think ‘work instructions,' they think ‘work sequence’ (first do this, second do that…). That’s quite useful, especially if it includes material movement and transformation, but also inspection/test activities.
Try to include a standard timing (how long is it supposed to take to keep the line balanced). Don’t use it to penalize workers or single out those who are too slow. But 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,' the min and/or max number of pieces in the process at any time is crucial. Finally, make sure you don’t forget focus points, such as quality or safety risks.
For confidential reasons I can’t share examples we have helped some of our clients develop.
However, here is a straightforward example (how to toast bread):
And here is a real work instruction sheet from the auto industry:
6. Make good use of your process/industrial engineers
Do you want to develop your junior engineers? Get them to work on productivity increased projects, based on the work instructions and other data they gather.
Here is an example of combination table, filled out with dummy data:
This is a useful tool to go deep into the details. It shows the details of manual cycle time, automatic cycle time, walking time, and waiting time (all of that for 1 operator). Another great tool is a chart that shows how balanced (or unbalanced) a line is. These are good starting points for an analysis of what to change to gain in productivity.
The first thing to do is to write up standard work instruction sheets. Don’t skip this step or delay it. It is often one of the first priorities to ensure a certain quality level.
What do you think? 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?