What is a Work Instruction?

johnwood, 11/20/2019


Many of us have heard the terms "Policies and Procedures" or "Standard Operating Procedures", but another term that is often used in this regard is a "Work Instruction". The ISO 9001 standard for Quality Management differentiates a work instruction from a procedure like this. A work instruction will provide far more detail in a step-by-step form, what exactly the worker should perform in order to execute that process, whereas a procedure will provide a general overview of a business process, and may leave the specifics up to the staff member to determine, at their discretion. By removing ambiguity, work instructions are often more helpful, more efficient and more valuable for an organization to have documented.

Why document work instructions? 

There are many reasons that companies document their procedures and work instructions, not least because of their importance in safety - given the vast majority of industrial accidents occur because workers were not following the organization's work instructions.

Another important consideration is business continuity.  A problem that often confronts organizations is when operational procedures are only known to one or more employees, often because they devised the procedures themselves. This presents itself as an operational risk because should that employee leave the organization, fall sick, or even take vacation, the organization is left partially inoperable - which can seriously compromise business continuity.

To mitigate against this risk, organizations often seek to document those procedures. By documenting the procedures another staff member would be able to take over their responsibilities, so long as the documentation is comprehensible and can be picked up in a reasonable amount of time.

Beyond safety and business continuity, having fully documented procedures can increase efficiency in your organization, because you will be ensured that all staff are carrying out their work according to the approach deemed to be most efficient. In the same manner, it can positively impact quality, also, and the consistency and level that quality is delivered.

What are the characteristics of a work instruction?


Any written instructions for operating procedures should be absolutely clear to all those who will be following them. Any use of jargon should only be used if it's certain that the worker will know the term without any ambiguity. Additions of links to explain the use of technical terms can be useful, especially if trainees may have to follow the instructions.

The length of the instruction is important too. If the instruction contains too much content, readers will likely skip parts and scan it for the important content. And that can be dangerous, because they can miss important safety information. So ensure that the content is short, and to the point.


The layout should be consistent from one procedure to another. That way the reader won't be confused, or left wondering where they should actually start. For instance, you should try to include information on:

  1. Who the work instruction is aimed at.
  2. What tools they will need before hand.
  3. Anyone they should notify before starting work.
  4. Any kind of testing they should do after the work, to ensure the system still functions as expected.


Perhaps most important is the accessibility of the work instruction. It's not very useful to document work instructions if nobody can find them. Not only should they be readily available, in a well-advertised location, ideally there should also be only one copy of the procedure in existence. That way you can be sure that nobody will get hold of an older version of the procedure accidentally. This is perhaps the best reason to have all of your procedures stored digitally, in one central location. Having a single source for your Policies and Procedures can be critical to effectively running your organization.

One feature available in many Policies and Procedures systems is a search feature, which works similar to Google where you can enter in keywords and it will locate the policies or procedures throughout the whole system related to those keywords. That can be a very convenient way to make policies and procedures easily accessible to all your staff.

Change Requests

Earlier we mentioned that procedures should preferably indicate who needs to be notified before the procedure is carried out. For example, before work is done on changing a hard drive in a server, you may need to get approval from whomever is using that server. If the work causes a service outage, then end-users may also need to be notified and given adequate notice.

To accomplish this you can direct the user to a Change Request form. This is a form that was described in detail in the ITIL and ISO 20000 standards. It would typically include information on what was being changed, when it is changed, how long the change will take, why it is being done, what tests will be conducted after it is complete, and a list of the risks of performing the change. This type of thing can easily be added to your procedures using Staff.Wiki's Checklists with custom forms feature.

Procedural reviews

It may sometimes be necessary to conduct a procedural review within the organization, in which someone oversees the day to day operations of each staff member to ensure that:

  • The operations they perform are fully documented 
  • And, if not, whether this is because the documentation is deficient or the staff member is erroneously deviating from what was prescribed.

Tip: If you have enough resources in your organization, why not assign a staff member each month to team up with another staff member to perform this review? Sharing knowledge can always help reduce dependencies in the organization, fix any holes in documentation, and provide the opportunity for critical feedback.


We often hear about Policies and Procedures, along with Standard Operating Procedures. Work Instructions are simply more detailed procedures, often described step-by-step so that any skilled worker can read and follow the procedure without any ambiguity or questions. In this article we detailed the characteristics of a typical work instruction, along with some useful tips you can use to document your own.

(Published Sep 15, 2018)

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