Douglas Clark, Corporate Communications Manager, G2 Ops
Keywords – Procedures, Standard Operating Procedures, Step by Step, How To, audience, instruction manual, concept of operations, accurate, precise, clarity, Subject Matter Expert, Model-Based System Engineering (MBSE)
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
Do you have any idea what it takes to write good instructions? It would be great if it were as easy as saying ‘tab A fits into slot B’ and calling it a day. Oh, but there’s a lot more that goes into it than that.
Have you ever bought the latest gardening tool, kitchen appliance, cool electronic gadget, or some odd doohickey only to find the instructions on how to use it or assemble it are so incomprehensible you’re left scratching your head? Yeah, that’s an example of really bad instructions.
Crafting proper instructions requires deliberate thought, a well-planned strategy, and a knack for the simplistic. With that, there are simple and basic things about Procedure Writing you need to know.
Who is this Procedure for?
Part of my job is turning murkiness into clarity and making the complex simple. So, how’s that done? The first thing is knowing your audience. It sounds simple and obvious, but it gets overlooked more often than you’d expect. Clearly, writing a paper on astrophysics takes on a different tone than a write up on last night’s Yankee game. But that’s the easy distinction. Explaining that astrophysics paper to the person reading the Yankee game highlights is another thing entirely. The point is, focusing the narrative requires using words the audience understands, breaking down the larger concepts into smaller, more cognitively digestible pieces, and most importantly, taking it one step at a time.
It Starts with a Simple idea
Not too many people can absorb high-level concepts full of nested understandings in one shot and just get it. Most people need to have it broken down. Learning how a star fuses hydrogen to helium or understanding the internal combustion engine requires breaking down the larger ideas into smaller ones first so the reader can get the basics and build up to the more complex understandings. Deconstructing the complex doesn’t always mean starting at the beginning, but it often means starting at the simplest (sometimes easiest) concepts first. The entry point toward deeper understanding can differ from one person to the next. But even if a set of instructions starts at a point where one particular reader is already familiar, the flow of information must be clear and easy to follow.
Let’s Get to the Point
Instructions, How Tos, and Step-By-Step (SBS) procedures take the concepts of knowing your audience and breaking down larger concepts to the extreme. I would argue regardless of the audience’s experience level, SBSs need to be approached assuming the reader has never performed this action or series of actions before…ever. Each step must contain one, and only one action. It’s clearly defined, simply worded, and precise.
This precision allows the reader to understand, absorb, and perform, all without requiring someone to look over their shoulder to guide and inform them along the way. Why is that important? Because that work is the job of the SBS. Think about it. What good is an SBS if the reader constantly has to stop and go ask a Subject Matter Expert (SME) ‘what does this mean?’, ‘did this come out right’, or ‘what do I do next?’. The whole point is for the reader to get from the first step to the last step all on their own.
Putting Knowledge into Action
Accuracy is essential. However, after all the research, writing, and testing, the revision process comes into play. Brutal, unrelenting scrutiny of every word is vital. Imagine a reader getting to step 7 of a 15-step procedure, unable to proceed because one word, a turn of phrase, or small detail was left out. Now they are completely stuck. Remember the doohickey you bought with the lousy instructions? Poorly constructed SBS instructions are like stranding a person on a deserted island. It must be avoided at all costs…It’s cruel.
All the fundamental elements of writing procedures came into play while writing SBS procedures for one of our G2 Ops customers. We focused on recognizing what the customer wanted, and also what they needed. Our team’s job was to provide a quality product that solved problems, some of which the customer probably wasn’t aware of. And that’s okay. We talked with our client and knew the audience. We kept it simple and researched thoroughly. In the end, we delivered Step-By-Step procedures that solved our customer’s problems, and totally exceeded their expectations. No one is calling us because they are stuck on step 7.
But so what? How does this help you? Well, G2 Ops functions on the basic principle of developing detailed models of systems. Our adherence to Model-Based System Engineering (MBSE) is predicated on precision, accuracy, and efficiency. But these models don’t just pop into existence from thin air. Experienced modelers painstakingly create them, and part of the process is capturing their effort and recording the findings. Creating something is one thing. Documenting the effort to recreate a product with the same precision, accuracy, and quality of the original requires intimate knowledge and understanding of the process and exacting instructions. In the end, it’s all part of a coherent process beginning with an idea and ending with a controlled source of information capturing the Step-By-Step instructions needed to do it again.
Above all, knowing how to create value added Step-By-Step procedures provides a powerful message of understanding and conveying knowledge. Are your procedures up to task?
Learn more about MBSE, Cybersecurity, and Cloud Engineering at G2-Ops.com.