How to write effective procedures

When human error leads to operational or equipment failure, RCA investigations often reveal that either a process was in place but not followed or there simply was no written process. Technicians and managers generally focus on results and may have limited experience writing procedures. Ineffective procedures complicate tasks and contribute to poor performance.

For some processes, like a complex plant startup, a checklist combined with “skill of the craft” knowledge may be more effective than a wordy procedure. However, it may be beneficial to have both a procedure for training and a checklist to better serve the experienced user. The amount of detail provided depends on the level of the employee for whom the procedure is intended.

At Faribault Energy Park, management shared fundamental procedure-writing skills with plant personnel and empowered them to draft procedural checklists. Once supervisors and technicians understood the value of these fundamental rules, they wrote more effectively which likely reduced the number of safety incidents and forced outages.

Procedure writing was distilled down to the 10 core elements identified below:

1.) Write one step only on each line, generally speaking.

2.) Use a positive action/command in each step; avoid ambiguities.

3.) Write in a vertical format, placing each step below the previous one.

4.) Use “white space” to separate each step, making it easier on the eyes to return to the correct step in the sequence.

5.) Require a check-box or other written confirmation for critical checklists that must be performed in correct sequence—to prevent personnel injury and/or equipment damage, for example.

6.) Place check-boxes to the right of the step, forcing the reader to read the text before signing off.

7.) Select a proper font and size, and avoid using all caps

8.) Use precautions, cautions, warnings, and notes wisely. Precautions are conditions required before starting the procedure and usually apply throughout the entire process. Cautions and warnings typically are “step specific” and must be placed immediately before the step to which they apply. Warnings apply to the possibility of injury or death; cautions to protect against equipment damage. Notes provide amplifying or helpful information and may be placed before or after the applicable step.

9.) Decide if a written control process is needed when reviewing incidents and poor performance issues. Third-party reports—such as borescope reports, lube-oil analysis, etc—may contain many recommendations. Failure to act on them can lead to undesirable outcomes, such as fines and forced outages.

10.) Field-validate procedures before issuing them as “approved” documents. No procedure is ever 100% accurate, especially a brand new one. Test its accuracy and effectiveness in a controlled manner by assigning an experienced person to accompany the user and make corrections.

Human errors have been reduced measurably at Faribault using procedural checklists formatted under these basic rules. The plant is consistently started up and shutdown in an error-free manner.

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