6 Tips for Simplifying Digital Work Instructions

by Jason Bullard, on Feb 11, 2022 11:18:22 AM

The power and potential of simplifying digital work instructions

From the earliest days of modern manufacturing, work instructions have played a part in helping operators complete their work correctly and efficiently. As manufacturing tasks and environments have grown exponentially more complex, work instructions have become correspondingly more complex—and significantly more important.

Operator viewing work instruction

Even as growing numbers of manufacturers introduce new technologies and new production platforms, the evolution of work instructions has lagged behind. That’s a problem, because the inherent limitations of traditional hard copy instructions have become even more glaring when set against the demands of an industry where manufacturing has become more sophisticated, fast-paced, and highly customized.

From basic logistical challenges like the expensive and time-consuming process of printing and replacing paper-based work instructions at the station level to accommodate a change in parts, products, or processes, to the bad habits and inefficiencies of excess information and overly complex instructions, many work instructions are in dire need of an update.

New digital work instructions are exponentially easier to modify and update, but to fully realize their potential, they need to be streamlined and simplified to optimize operator efficiency and performance.

What follows are the principles and best practices for simplifying digital work instructions to help improve operator understanding and maximize productivity. 

Use (the right) image

An image is worth 1,000 words. But the wrong image can be almost as confusing as no image at all. An all-too-common mistake is to recreate complex engineering drawings or schematics in the work instructions. But those are typically far too detailed for operators looking for clarity and concision. The goal should be to present operators with a simple, powerful image clearly displaying the task at hand. Look no further than the average LEGO instruction manual for the kind of easily understood images that are extremely effective at conveying a great deal of information that readers can grasp clearly and quickly.

Child following lego instructions

Value simplicity and clarity

It isn’t just the imagery that should be clear and concise. Each step in the work instruction should be discrete and complete: a brick in the wall of the completed tasks. Including multiple steps at once or on the same page can be overwhelming or confusing and lead to errors. A simple and sequential breakdown allows you to define and control the sequence of events based on how you want them to flow. Even the most complex processes can be made easy when broken down into individual steps.

Give operators what they need (and only what they need)

To facilitate that simplicity and clarity, make sure to give operators only what they need in that moment. Limit instructions to one image for each process step. The goal is for an operator to be able to look up and know at a glance exactly what it is they’re supposed to be doing.

Get rid of fluff

Eliminate all nonessential information. Get rid of the fluff the operator doesn’t need or care about. Searching a screen or processing extra information wastes valuable time. Far too many work instructions are tough to interpret or include lots of extra information on the page or screen that isn’t relevant to the task at hand.

Build in no-faults-forward functionality

No-faults-forward functionality—technology that confirms each step has been completed correctly before proceeding to the next page or step in the process—is enormously beneficial in building the kind of step-by-step procedural clarity that distinguishes the best digital work instructions.

Include automated data collection

Automated data collection throughout the assembly process frees up operators to focus on their most important task—instead of having to perform secondary documentation for each step and metric.

While every process, product, and facility is unique, these principles can be applied to work instructions for virtually any task or process in almost any assembly or production environment.

To illustrate the impact and importance of simplified work instructions, consider the simple- but-powerful real-world example of three groups of middle-school students provided with three different versions of work instructions for how to construct the same LEGO house. The students working with visual instructions and a modest amount of supporting text clarity were nearly three times faster completing their task than the team working solely from text instructions.

At a time when lean manufacturing principles are proliferating, simplifying digital work instructions is an often overlooked but critically important piece of the efficiency puzzle. It’s also a key pillar of setting up operators for success—a topic that will be explored in more detail in a follow-up post in this space.

Topics:OpinionIndustry 4.0Digital Work Instructions

The Blog

Our team is a creative bunch that loves learning and pushing the limits to find the best solutions for today's lean manufacturers.  Internal discussions at the office might range from new features that manufacturing process control software should have to machine learning, blockchain technology, or what the future of AR on the plant floor looks like. Check out our blog for opinions, news and trends that we find interesting and think you might too!