Work instructions – don’t paper over the cracks

Patricia Hume, Chief Executive Officer

Research we conducted earlier this year revealed, among many other things, that 28 per cent of US manufacturing firms still use hard copy paper documentation for instructional content such as assembly guides, maintenance manuals, and the like. Anecdotal evidence from our conversations with the market leads us to believe the figure may be considerably higher.

Change can be disruptive and difficult, so it is perhaps not surprising that – despite huge advances in the technology associated with knowledge transfer for these kinds of processes – printouts and laminated worksheets continue to underpin many thousands of critical processes at US manufacturers.

Underpin, but perhaps also undermine. Because academic research proves that, compared to interactive digital work instructions, the use of paper documentation results in more errors, and slower work.  

Let’s take a step back: Data from the latest Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, published by the National Association of Manufacturers, shows that the primary business challenges facing the sector are issues with the supply chain, the cost of raw materials, and the attraction and retention of a quality workforce.

Against that backdrop errors and delays become even more damaging, and the need to eradicate them all the more urgent. Raw material cost and supply chain disruption make it harder and more expensive to backfill product when process errors cause scrap. Meanwhile new workers – many of whom will be non-native English speakers (over 17 per cent of the US workforce is foreign-born) – need to be trained, quickly and effectively, to work in a way that minimizes errors.

Interestingly, we have been told by customers more than once that high error rates lead to workers themselves becoming demotivated and more likely to resign.

Documentation has a key role to play here, because it is the means by which workers learn processes, and understand how to execute them in a way that minimizes error and maximizes efficiency.

A study published recently in the Journal of Operations Management applied scientific rigor to this problem. Researchers devised a study to test their thesis that interactive and animated digital work instructions are a more effective means for transferring knowledge than hard-copy, and text heavy documentation.

That thesis was based on three key points:

  • That learning from moving images frees the individual from having to imagine a movement depicted by text descriptions or images, allowing them to dedicate their cognitive capacity entirely to fulfilling the task.
  • That digital, animated instructions are able to show objects from all angles, and allow the individual to control the viewing, which increases success and motivation
  • That learning is enhanced when information is presented in a combination of visual and verbal (audio) formats, so it can be processed simultaneously

The study involved three groups of students at a university manufacturing center having to assemble a relatively simple pencil holder four times in succession, having not performed the task previously. The first group were given paper instructions, the second group paper and digital instructions, and the third group digital instructions only.

The results were comprehensive. On the first attempt the users of digital instructions performed the task almost 20 per cent faster and with 60 per cent fewer errors than the group using paper instructions. And at the fourth attempt, when all groups were more familiar with the process, the digital group was still 13 per cent faster and made 55 fewer errors than the paper group.

Moreover, the group with both paper and digital instructions performed worse than the digital-only group, even becoming slower as the experiment progressed.

The researchers attributed this to what they called the “split-attention effect”: Too much information increases mental effort and processing time.

This is important because it led them to the following conclusion:

“…this study reveals that firms should implement digital instructions radically by replacing paper-based instructions, rather than incrementally by adding them to paper-based instructions…”

The evidence in favor of a decisive, aggressive shift towards interactive digital documentation is compelling. Of course it won’t be for everyone, because change is simply too intimidating for some organizations to embrace.

But as the global supply chain disruption and the workforce shortage continue to bite – and bite harder – US manufacturers will have to find every means of protection they can. Improving how their workers learn and execute critical processes is both achievable and high-impact.

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