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The Science behind creating better documented procedures

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

Step one, no alarm needed my body automatically wakes at 5:00 a.m., step two, regret. Not because its 5:00 but wishing I would have started the coffee on automatic the night before. Step two, slowly get out of bed walk to door and gently open door with two hands. Door sticks so without two hands it will make more noise and wake up my sleeping wife. Step three, walk to kitchen. Its pitch dark but I have made the walk so many time no need to turn on lights I know exactly where everything is located. Step four, empty the coffee carafe of left over coffee and add fresh water. Step five, pour fresh water into cylinder. Step six, remove old coffee filter and put in new fresh filter. Step seven, add exactly six semi large scoops of coffee to the filter. Step eight, press start large start button twice to start the coffee making process.

There you have the perfect procedure to make coffee at my house. No need for detailed operating procedures on the how the coffee machine works or types of different coffees that may improve the experience or water temperature requirements or why when you push the button the machine starts. Just steps that are so automatic assuming all the other variables are in place (i.e. water comes from the tap; there is actual coffee remaining in the container) it would be impossible for me to not consistently follow the process.

Don’t feel the first example is business related enough? How about a documented procedure that describes how to add a dropdown box list to an excel sheet.

  1. Step One: Create the list of acceptable responses in another sheet or on an active sheet

  2. Step Two: Choose validation from the data menu

  3. Step Three: Choose List from the Allow option's drop-down list. Make sure the In-Cell dropdown box is checked.

  4. Step Four: Click on source control and copy/highlight the list of acceptable responses

  5. Step Five: Click Ok

Click your new box drop down and see if it works. Go ahead and try it if you want to test the theory.

Great procedure for an individual who just needs to quickly make a drop down box. No discussion on the logic behind the code or variations that can make the experience better just basic steps that if followed will provide a result that meets expectations.

The Science

Habits become so ingrained they happen automatically. Driving a car for an experienced driver takes almost no thought, golfers practice a swing so the motion becomes automatic, pianists’ have practiced scales so often it is as natural as breathing when reading a sheet of music. What are the consistent patterns of these habit forming techniques and how can those techniques apply to improving the development of operating procedures.

The key to building a habit is creating a structured routine. In 2018 a study from the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research, indicated there are three components that make up a habit forming loop (CAR):

The cue is a trigger that prompts you to take a specific action. The action is what you do as a result of the cue.The reward is what comes as a result of taking the action. Rewards can be positive and avoidance of negative. (i.e. receiving a bonus or not getting fired)

A simple example could be the processing of a customer order. The cue is the receipt of the order. The action is the steps that are taken to review and process the order and the reward is the order being successfully processed so production personnel can scheduler.


The concept of creating routine steps in operating procedures follows the thinking of the Kata principles practiced in Japanese martial arts. The word Kata means "form" referring to a detailed choreographed pattern of movements made to be practiced when training. It is practiced in Japanese martial arts as a way to memorize and perfect the movements being executed. Kata creates a form and routine of action that can be practiced to develop the skill to the point where it becomes second nature.

Toyota Kata has taken the same concept and created a structure or “way of doing” which creates a culture of continuous learning and improvement at all levels. It is an organization’s daily habits or routines forming its "muscle memory" for continuous learning and improvements. Proper ways of doing are defined and improved to the point where it can be done without excessive thought.

Making better procedures

The first step is to ask the key question, is there even a need for a documented operating procedure? Will the absence of a documented operating procedure impact the overall effectiveness of the process? If you cannot answer that question with a definitive yes than stop and focus on another priority. Too many companies overwhelm personnel with endless documented procedures. Every detail of work life is documented and creates instruction clutter. Apply the same lean manufacturing techniques to the creation of work instructions.

Some may say isn’t better to be safe than sorry and write a procedure for everything. The answer is a no. We are bombarded as a society with too much information so when you present information the mind needs to know it is relevant. It becomes impossible to differentiate important information from the general. If you have determined there is a need for a documented operating procedure consider the following steps:

  1. Step One: When creating a new operating procedure the first step should be to identify the goal or expectation of the process being defined or what problem are you trying to solve with this procedure. A clear expectation of outcome is just like a clear root cause analysis it ensures the action steps adequately address the expected outcome.

  2. Step Two: What is the reward for successfully completing the defined process? Don’t think of rewards as a piece of candy or a pat on the back when someone successfully completes a task. The reward is the positive outcome (or elimination of a negative outcome) that takes place when the task is completed. For example: “Review the contract against the quote to ensure the price, revision level, delivery dates and payment terms. Once completed, sign the order. This order review is now complete and can be forwarded to production control for scheduling.” The reward is the order is now complete and can be scheduled. The reward helps the user better understand why that step is important. It also lets them now until that step is complete production control will not be able to schedule the order which could impact delivery schedules.

  3. Step Three: Identify the key steps that must be taken to achieve the process expectations. I emphasize the word key. Try to avoid obvious steps that an adequately trained person would understand. Typical operating procedures are documented in a standard manuscript structure which adds words and concepts to aid in understanding. Unfortunately the additional detail can add clutter and interpretation. A student driver instructor understands there is an infinite amount of information needed to avoid all hazardous driving conditions but most of that knowledge comes with experience. Imagine creating a driver instruction manual for a sixteen year old that includes every scenario you have learned over twenty years to avoid a collision. The amount of information would be overwhelming and would probably cause paralysis. Small specific actions are more likely to become habitual.


Management Review Meetings

Goal: A management review meeting will be held the first Monday of each month at 9:00 am (Cue) to ensure consistent communication among the executive management team concerning the overall effectiveness of the quality management system. The meeting is designed to identify improvement opportunities and to address significant areas of concern (reward). The Steps= (Action)

Good documented operating procedures should create a routine which ultimately builds muscle memory like making coffee in the dark.


Joel Pecoraro

Director of Operations

American Certification Group

January, 2020

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