Tips and Insights

Always Revising Work Documents?
You Can Get Rid of the Headache!

“We've yet to see a workplace that honestly accounts for the many resources involved in revising work documents.”

Work documents, especially in factories, need constant revision - or do they?In many factories, the task of revising work documents is a constant and costly effort that’s accepted as the norm – it’s just the way things are. Our early research shows that the cumbersome job of revising work documents is often a continuing effort of trying to repair flawed wordy instructions. In principle, work documents should only require revision in response to changes in the product or the manufacturing process. Instead, precious factory resources are being spent to revise fuzzy, ambiguous, and unclear work documents in the mistaken belief that the new writing will solve the problems that are blamed on the old writing. There’s a better way: start with a good set of documents.

Why Are You Revising Documents?

In early discussions with prospective clients, the subject of document revision usually comes up quickly - often before we've even started to talk about money. The job of revising work documents is often considered a bigger issue than creating the documents in the first place. Especially in regulated industries like aerospace, defense, food, drug and medical products, potential clients resist introducing a new system that might add to the burden of document revision. Client questions usually concern the "who" and "how" of document revisions and they are reluctant to consider adding anything to further complicate the document management process.

We have recently started to focus on an overlooked element of document revision: instead of asking "who" and "how", we urge prospective clients to consider "why" their documents require revision with such frequency. We're finding something very significant and potentially of great importance to document systems: most document revisions are clarifications, edits and rewrites of existing documents that have been found to be unclear. In other words, document revisions are mostly document fixes.

The Typical Path of a Document Revision

Consider the following list of activities that might typically surround a document revision:

How closely does your document revision cycle match this scenario? If it’s anywhere close, take a try adding up the time and effort required. We've yet to see a workplace that honestly accounts for the many resources involved in revising work documents. And, of course, the above list does not include the quality cost of the error or product flaw that triggered the revision process in the first place.

Almost comically, a typical document revision adds a chunk of text or inserts a new section in a futile attempt to explain what the previous text authors really intended to write but failed to effectively communicate or else the problem wouldn’t have occurred.

Auditing Your Document Revisions

A typical work document system includes a built-in audit trail. This is the revision history that’s maintained as part of the document. Every time a document gets revised, date and reason for the change get added to the document. An easy, early step in examining a document system is to catalog the stated reasons for revisions.

Credibility of the Document System

There’s another issue to consider in workplaces that are issuing frequent instruction or procedure revisions: the risk of the document system itself losing credibility. Quality, Engineering and Compliance people know they must have documents available for auditor review. But the operators – the users who should be the real focus of the instructions – usually regard the revisions, as well as the document system as a whole, as having minimal value.

[Making sure work documents are credible is one of the “Four Essentials of Effective Work Instructions”]

Reducing Revisions: What's Possible?

Your objective should be to lengthen the intervals between revisions with the overall goal of reducing the total amount of revisions. And ideally, the only basis for a revision should be to document a change in the product or the manufacturing process. Of course, the opportunity for improvement is related to the health of the present document system. Based on observations from numerous client facilities, we have seen typical reductions of 40 to 60%. In one case, a quality manager estimated that their improved document system cut revisions by 80%. More importantly, the revisions that remain are meaningful and are no longer related to rewriting words and phrases that are subject to interpretation.

Pros and Cons of Visual Work Instructions

While Visual Work Instructions offer many compelling benefits when compared with conventional text documents, there are some offsetting costs. Here’s a brief look at both sides of the issue:

Conclusion

This article has focused reducing the cost and effort of revising work documents. We can’t close without considering the broader and more important issue of product quality. Reducing revision costs must be considered only a secondary benefit of an improved work instructions system. The primary benefits will be the tangible improvements of reduced errors and increased productivity that results from providing workers with proper instructional tools.

 

Bio

Patrick Sweeney

Patrick Sweeney, the founding Explainer, is a noted consultant, writer and speaker on the topic of procedures and work instructions. He has presented at national and local meetings and conferences of professional organizations, forum keynote talks, college-sponsored workshops and similar events across a broad range of industries and applications.  Learn more about the services Explainers offers at http://www.explainers.com

 

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Reprint Rights

This article may be reprinted under the following conditions:
  1. the article must be included in its entirety unless alterations are first approved by Explainers.com through webmaster(at)explainers.com,
  2. article reprints, whether in email or web page format, for commercial or non-profit purposes, must include the resource/bio information at the bottom, complete with live links (and/or HTML with anchor text),
  3. the article may not be used on adult, gambling, hate-related or other questionable sites, and
  4. use of the article is reported to Explainers at webmaster(at)explainers.com.