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How to Create Work Instructions for Lean Work Environments

By: Virginia Shram

January 11, 2023

How to Create Work Instructions for Lean Work Environments

How would you describe how to do your job properly?

Standard work instructions are a tool to do just that. There are many different types of work instructions, such as manufacturing-specific, visual, and step-by-step, just to name a few.

If your company follows a lean philosophy, then you may struggle finding the optimal amount of information to include in your instructions.

Even if your company doesn’t subscribe to lean principles, lean work instructions can be an excellent first means of establishing quality throughout your process.

Either way, it’s a fine line between micromanaging and leaving too much up to personal interpretation, and when the ultimate goal is to produce quality, defect-free products on a timely scale, it’s worth your time to get it right.

Luckily, it’s not difficult to optimize your work instructions for lean production.

Let’s get lean!

The 3 Goals of Lean Production

Lean production is a robust methodology, but for now let’s focus on three main goals that it accomplishes:

  1. Minimize waste
  2. Value added
  3. Fewer defects

Together, these three qualities embody something called “quality at the source” – this is a lean catchphrase meaning that quality control is embedded into the process from the start, instead of something that is checked separately afterwards.

The benefit of quality at the source is twofold.

First, it saves time, seeing as quality measures are deployed during assembly and production, and not afterwards in a separate audit.

Secondly, it proves to be a better means of ensuring minimal defects. This is because any potential errors in production are immediately caught instead of remaining unnoticed until a final quality check.

Saves time, money, resources, AND guarantees a higher quality output than just winging it. Helpful, right?

Here’s where the difficulty comes in: sometimes when people want to “lean-ify” their operations, instead of doing the difficult work of analyzing and optimizing, they adopt lean buzzwords. It’s easy to add an Andon marker, but much trickier to establish best practices and opportunities in implementing Andon philosophy.

Lean isn’t just a collection of niche marketing strategies: it’s a mindset. Therefore –

Let’s clear one misconception right away: just because lean methodology preaches cutting waste doesn’t mean your work instructions should be as short as possible!

This may seem a little obvious at first, but you’d be surprised how often people conflate Lean with overly aggressive spring cleaning. Before you know it, your work instructions are too thin to provide an authoritative direction for employees.

Woman reading digital instructions at assembly workstation

Identifying the Lean Perspective Within SWI

To make your standard work instructions follow lean principles, you have to consider each aspect as a part of a whole.

Imagine a robot or automaton, something like the prototypes created by Boston Dynamics: each limb can be optimized separately, but they have to be optimized in the context of the whole assembled unit. You can program a knee to bend, but the robot can only jump or run if all of the parts move in coordination with each other.

This requires a cohesive look at the whole.

Similarly, lean is a philosophy spread over four areas which are kept in careful balance:

  1. Sequence – this is the order of operations, the step by step process in order
  2. Timing – this is the coordination of actions and moving parts involved in production
  3. Flow – workflow or layout is the coordination of different sectors of production within a factory
  4. Inventory – this is mapping and storage of units to stabilize the bursts of production

The key to writing lean work instructions is to tie together these four factors so they coexist in harmony. Lean instructions purposefully tie together these areas as tightly as possible, which lessens wastes like time, money, and manpower.

If you’re having trouble identifying how to make your work instructions lean, then zoom in on one of those four aspects of production and ask yourself if there’s any potential opportunities for standardization.

When to Use Lean Work Instructions

Even if you don’t operate in a lean-oriented business, lean work instructions can still be crucial elements of your production process.

You can use lean work instructions anytime, but here are some scenarios in which they are particularly helpful.


Lean work instructions are especially helpful when moving from the prototyping stage to initial assembly.

By this point in product development, the design has been scrutinized and materials have been sourced; it’s time to test the practical realities of production in real-time.

In prototyping, it’s best to run into as many unforeseen challenges as possible – this way you can tweak the setup and design if necessary to ensure they don’t occur once production moves full steam ahead.

pro tip

Pro Tip: Automation is your friend! Using work instructions software platforms like VKS takes the burden off of manually updating your work instructions for every variation in your production schedule. For example, want to trim down your work instructions so that seasoned employees can save time by not needing to review steps they already know by heart? With features like Expert Mode, you can tweak the accessibility of certain users to best reflect their experience level.

Turnover (loss of tribal knowledge)

When employees retire or change companies, you suffer a loss of tribal knowledge, which is the familiarity your workers have with your processes and materials.

Lessen the negative impact of turnover by writing lean work instructions.

Tie together the sequence of steps and the greater operational workflow. In this way, new employees will have an easier time seeing all the moving parts “at a glance.” It will be quicker to onboard and train if you provide a glimpse at the broader process.

pro tip

Pro Tip: Encourage cross-training and interdepartmental flow to take advantage of spontaneous opportunities. This way you don’t have to wait on approvals or administrative or functional holdups. When team members wear many hats, they can also deploy smarter problem-solving by thinking outside the box.

Man reads digital work instructions while building train cars

New contracts with discrete level of defects ppm

What if you get a new contract to produce an item, and one of the specifications is a more strict threshold for defects? You don’t have to throw out your regular work instructions and rewrite new ones from scratch.

Lean work instructions balance the four aspects of lean methodology by considering everything in play.

In other words, lean work instructions will be able to compensate for the shift in priorities. If changing the sequence of assembly steps will result in fewer defects overall because workers are taking more time and completing extra compliance checks, then it will be reflected in the adjusted workflow of the whole factory.

Workers will be aware of the changes not just in sequence of production, but also flow of production, and there will be fewer stop-gaps between workstations.

pro tip

Pro Tip: Get each member of a team doing a common job a piece of lined paper and a pen. Ask them to write down their work instruction steps that would help orient a new employee. Then, review them all together to see the differences in how they would describe their approach. Are there any steps that people interpret differently which could lead to standardization problems? Are there any steps that some tend to overlook?

Identifying bottlenecks

One last ideal opportunity to introduce lean work instructions is in identifying bottlenecks throughout production. Let’s say your sequence of steps is clear to your workers, the completion time of assembly is within normal bounds, and your workflow has been rearranged for less clutter and movement.

What if your production still halts at the same area and those assigned there are overwhelmed?

It’s a good sign that you haven’t been lean enough – your lean operation is off-balance. Try tweaking the requirements (output, or manpower, for example) in your work instructions to achieve a lean balance and you’ll smooth over the issues for future production.

pro tip

Pro Tip: Develop team leads as problem-solvers to fix problems effectively on the go. When issues arise, leads can deal with them Just In Time with little collateral damage to the greater workflow


Building Lean Growth Into Your Process

These tips and alternative ways of looking at your work instructions will only improve your production. Remember that in order to be lean, you must look at the cohesive whole, the collaboration of forces that go into your entire process.

Be clear and concise, but don’t chop off too much, you may be left with too little to balance all the moving parts of your production process.

Less may be more, but lean is best!