I think everyone is familiar with procedures, but do we really know what they are?  Dictionary definitions vary, but they typically suggest a procedure is:

  • A manner of proceeding; a way of performing or effecting something.
  • A series of steps taken to accomplish an end.
  • A set of established forms or methods for conducting the affairs of an organised body such as a business, club, or government.

Interestingly none of the definitions refer to written documents. However, in practice it is generally accepted that a procedure is written in a way that describes a task method.

What do procedures look like?

The term 'procedure' is used widely, but there are many other names for documents that describes methods of work, including:

  • Instruction or work instruction
  • Safe or standard operating procedure (often shortened to SOP)
  • Method statement
  • Job method
  • Safe system of work
  • Standing order.

Whilst some organisations may differentiate between these different types of document it is important to realise that there is no universally agreed standard, and the same issues apply to all.

How are procedures used?

Procedures are provided for many different types of activity, including:

  • Operations - To document normal and unusual operating tasks, e.g. start-up, shut-down, normal operation and response to unplanned events.
  • Maintenance - Often divided into the different disciplines, e.g. mechanical, electrical, utilities, computers and control systems.
  • Administrative - To explain how management systems are implemented, e.g. safety, environment, quality, finance and human resources.
  • Health and safety - Generic instructions that ensure regulations and standards are maintained whilst performing tasks, e.g. permit to work, confined space entry, hot work, electrical isolation, incident reporting and investigation.
  • Environmental - Generic instructions that ensure environmental regulations and standards are maintained whilst performing tasks, e.g. energy conservation, waste disposal, discharge monitoring, incident reporting and investigation.
  • Engineering - Methods used that ensure design and modification of equipment conforms to standards.

But this is where the problems start because, although procedures may be provided, how often are they really used in practice?  Unfortunately, a lot of organisations have put a great deal of time and effort into writing procedures that are rarely, if ever used.  What a waste!

The problem with procedures

It is quite easy to look at a procedure and see what may be wrong with it.  Some are to difficult to read or badly printed.  Others are too wordy and complicated.  Some are technically incorrect or impossible to follow in practice.  Others are not in the right place.  However, the overriding problem is that most proceduresGraph showing how the proportion of people who read each page of a document diminishes as the number of pages increases are not used.

Although not scientifically proven, the 80% rule shown by the graph alongside demonstrates the problem.  In any group of people, 20% will probably not read any documents they are given.  That leaves 80% who will read the first page.  However, only 80% will read the second, and8 0% of them the next.  This pattern shows that less than 50% of people will get to page 4.

The conclusion from this must be that:

  • Procedures must be kept as short as possible
  • The first page must show the most important information (i.e. should not be wasted on administrative details)
  • If a procedure is more than one page long people will need to be taken through the contents
  • Action is required to address the 20% who read nothing.

Developing better procedures

Most organisations have some considerable scope to improve their procedures.  However, when doing this it is important to look at the overall system as well as the individual procedures.  The aim should be to make sure the right procedure is in the right place at the time it is needed, and this is unlikely to be achieved by simply writing a procedure for everything, which causes a bureaucratic nightmare where procedures are not used because they are difficult to find, use and keep up to date.

For procedures to be improved it is necessary to accept that:

  • Some tasks are more critical than others, and so their procedures must be a higher priority;
  • People who perform a task frequently will not read the procedure for that task, no matter how critical it is;
  • Different tasks lend themsleves to different procedure formats.  The 'one size fits all' just does not work;
  • You cannot write a procedure for every task, and so should not try.

Ultimately the most important thing to do is to start viewing procedures from the end-users perspective.  If you want them to use your procedures what do they really need.  This may appear to make the job of writing procedures more complicated, but in fact it will often result in less procedures with less detail; and at least they are far more likely to be used.

Identifying which tasks need procedures

The main things to consider when determining whether a procedure is required is what are the consequences likely to be if a task is performed incorrectly and how helpful is a procedure likely to be in avoiding this?

A research from report from HSE (OTO099:092 ) documents a method for applying some objective assessment of tasks that can be used to determine where procedures should be provided.  It is easy to adapt to many different circumstances and has proven to be a really useful tool for focusing effort, whilst demonstrating an effective risk based approach.

The first thing to do is to develop a list of tasks performed within the domain you are interested.  You then score each task against a number of criteria.  The default criteria are:

  • How hazardous is the system involved?
  • Does the task introduce a source of ignition?
  • To what extent does the task result in a change to systems?
  • How does the method used for the task affect the likelihood that the hazard will be released?
  • Does the task involve overriding any safety feature?

These criteria can be adapted to suit.  A simple scoring system is used, typically giving a score of between 0 and 3 for each criteria.  These are added together to identify which tasks score most highly and hence are considered to be most critical.

What should procedures look like?

Having accepted that the 'one size fits all' approach does not work for procedures it is clear that different tasks will have different procedures.  Whilst each should be formatted according to the task requirements, there is a general pattern that emerges:

Procedures for the most critical tasks should be detailed and step-by-step.  However, a checklist is often better for these types of task than more traditional procedures.  Problems with failure to use these procedures should be avoided as critical tasks should not be performed very often.  If this is not the case it is likely that you will need examine the existing risk controls as there may be an unacceptable risk from human error.

The least critical tasks may not require any form of procedure.  If this is too radical a step to take, a simple one-page summary of the task will suffice.

Task that fall between the above will require some form of procedure, but it is unlikely to be needed every time the task is performed.  Instead, the procedure should be used to form the basis for training and a standard for validation.  Hence the end-user for the procedure is more likely to be a trainee than a fully competent person.

Some tasks, no matter what criticality, do not lend themselves to detailed procedures but may require some form of job aid.  Response to emergencies is a good example here because in the heat of the moment people will not be able to handle much text, but will need some prompts to make sure they do not forget important actions.  These job aids needs to be supplemented with good training and validation, refreshed regularly, to overcome the fact that people will not be able to use detailed procedures.

The benefits of better procedures

The benefits of the approach described above include

  • Better consistency in the way tasks are done, using agreed methods that are practical and efficient;
  • Minimising bureaucracy, making it easier to access procedures and keep them up to date
  • Improving understanding of the tasks, hazards and procedures through structured analyses of tasks and improved training
  • Supporting a culture improvement because everyone is clear what procedures are, why they are needed and when they are to be used.

AB Risk can help

There is considerable scope at most organisations to improve procedures.  This invariably requires a change of view of what procedures are there for, embracing an approach that focuses on the end-user needs.

Whilst AB Risk can write good procedures for you, this is rarely an effective use of time and resources.  Instead itis much better to use consultancy to develop the overall principles and systems.  In particular:

  • How to score task criticality;
  • Determine what types of task require what type of procedure;
  • Developing a suite of procedure formats for different types of task;
  • Establishing a procedure checking and authorising process;
  • Developing links between procedures and  training and competence systems;
  • Demonstrating how the approach taken towards procedures achieves good management of risks.

References and links

HSE on procedures

Information sheet on revitalising procedures

OTO 1999/092 Human factors assessment