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Procedures & Small Business: Part 5

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Tips for Mimicking ISO in a Small Business

Kevin’s Blog series about writing work instructions in a small business, based on the ISO quality management philosophy.

Many small business operators choose to write their own procedures and work instructions. This is perfectly acceptable and quite common. The main issue with this approach is usually a lack of clarity in the writing.

I was a process operator at a large chemical production facility when first exposed to writing procedural documents. My involvement was only to provide input from the operator point of view, but I got to see how a work instruction is developed.  Of course this was at a large, well-financed company with an engineering department driving the development process. A small business probably doesn’t have these resources.

I eventually moved on to become a full time technical writer and I can assure you it is easy to be confusing when trying to explain exactly how to do a task. I’d like to share a few tips to help improve your own work instruction writing.

It’s only a Name

Managers use various terms for an in-house instructional document. I like to use the ISO term Work Instruction, but you may choose to call it a Work Procedure, Detailed Task, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), User Procedure, Business Process Procedure (BPP), or other term. If you’re not expecting to seek ISO certification, call it whatever you like.

However, I try to give each Work Instruction an effective name associated to the task being described. I stay away from beginning with How to because all Instructions are How to.
Instead of How to change the Oil Filter Work Instruction, use Changing the Oil Filter Work Instruction.

Don’t forget the Purpose

Always remember you’re writing an instruction to explain how to perform a specific task. It should be restricted to what you want the reader to do. I stay away from possibilities, such as if needed, if desired, could, etc., as well as information such as design or system information.

A Work Instruction is not a training document meant to inform the reader about how or why a process works the way it does. It is meant to instruct a trained employee in how to perform a specific task. There is a fine line between adding useful supporting information and cluttering instructions.

Instructions are basically sequences of individual commands, usually presented as numbered steps. I like to write each step as a direct command, or imperative statement, capable of standing alone while still making sense. I’m prone to adding an extra step rather than including two actions in one step.

Instead of

How to Fill the Softener Tank Work Instruction
Step 1. Open the water valve at 50% to fill tank.
Step 2. Close it at 80%
Step 3. Mix in Softener Salts and set timer


Filling the Softener Tank Work Instruction
Step 1. Open the water valve when the tank level drops to 50%.
Step 2. Close the water valve when the tank level rises to 80%.
Step 3. Add 1 kg Softener Salts to tank.
Step 4. Turn on the tank agitator.
Step 5. Set the tank agitator timer for 10 minutes run time.

Grammatically Speaking

Every command in a Work Instruction has the reader as the subject, i.e. You!  We just don’t write it in because it is understood to be you.

Pick me up!
The subject of this command sentence isn’t “me”, it’s the reader. It is easy to remember this by writing in the second person, with an understood but unwritten “You must” at the beginning of each command.

My last tip is to always stay in the present tense. Instructions are used at the time a task is performed, so write commands to be done immediately.

Try out these tips next time you write a Work Instruction. You may produce a better instruction in less time.

Kevin Fox is a technical writer at Contendo. He is a power engineer with a background in process operations, steel fabrication and military.