What is the Difference Between a Process and a Procedure?
By: Simon Spencer
April 28, 2020
Believe it or not, you are involved in processes, procedures and work instructions every day. From the simple act of getting up and dressed in the morning, to something as complex as launching a rocket. These ideas are big factors in our interaction with the world around us.
That being said, there are striking differences between these three types of documentation, and they often cause confusion in their application. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on each of these types of documentation in terms of manufacturing or operational applications by comparing and contrasting them.
Finally, we’ll also discuss what makes work instructions unique, and in some ways, the most important of the three. Let’s start simple, by defining each term.
What are Processes and Procedures?
The International Organization for Standardization or ISO, as you may know, it, describes a process to be a "set of interrelated or interacting activities that use inputs to deliver an intended result." This makes the process the first step that describes how a certain goal is to be achieved.
The procedure, on the other hand, is the following step towards a proposed goal. It is a more detailed description of the steps to be taken by the operator reading it. It is usually referred to as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) or simply a Guidebook.
What are Work Instructions?
When looking at work instructions vs SOPs and figuring out which you may need, it's clear that SOPs answer the questions of WHO, WHAT and WHEN. Meanwhile, work instructions provide the filling of the pie: the HOW. Usually, a work instruction will explicitly describe the tasks to be carried out by one operator for a certain job.
Of course, organizations have developed their own internal definition and application of each of these terms, but generally, the descriptions above are a safe, generic way to approach this conversation. In terms of real and actual standardization capability and value, it’s not the names of each that really matter, but the individual application and implementation. In other words, a CEO will only waste valuable time if she/he interacts with work instructions to make strategic decisions simply because that task-specific level of detail is excessive for her/his specific role. Similarly, a shop floor operator receiving a plant level process, which lacks task-specific detail will struggle to correctly perform her/his job.
Comparing and Contrasting
To prevent mismatches in documentation and audience, organizations must clearly define the depth and detail that will be included in each document and align that with the specific audience.
Processes generally describe the big picture, and in manufacturing likely involve many people in multiple roles and departments. They also typically span much longer periods of time, compared to procedures and work instructions. Additionally, processes will require multiple procedures and many work instructions to detail every task.
Procedures will be more detailed than processes, providing specifics around the sequence of tasks or activities that make up a process. As mentioned before, procedures will be explicit on WHO (Departments, Functions, Job Titles), does WHAT (Task), and WHEN they do it.
The most detailed document in the series is the Work Instruction. This is arguably where the rubber meets the road, particularly in this manufacturing-focused use case. Work instructions provide the finest granularity of HOW to perform every task, typically deployed in a step by step fashion to the shop floor.
Work instructions are distinct in their ability to directly impact, for better or worse, the final product delivered to your customers. This customer impact is unique to work Instructions, mainly because processes and procedures likely have more internal and strategic consequences.
Work Instruction Implementation
Given the unique ability of Work Instructions to directly impact customers and their broad, plant-wide usage, we’ll now focus on some simple guidelines for deploying them in your facility. Implementing work instructions using these key points will provide increased value for your customer by helping you deliver better quality, more cost-effectively.
It goes without saying that implementing work instructions in a way that does not follow these guidelines will fail to recognize these benefits. You’ll likely notice a theme in the benefits listed below every guideline here.
Customizable - Allow certain user groups to access specific work instructions.
Feedback - Collect valuable input right on the spot from your operators to leverage lean manufacturing and continuous improvement principles.
Work instructions done well are simply easier when it comes to doing everything. From creation to management and deployment to accessibility, defining and prioritizing work instructions in your organization’s documentation hierarchy is critical and will provide value and ROI to your shop floor and customers.