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To restate the overall message from previous installments of this article series, deployed properly, operators can provide the most efficient and effective form of preventive maintenance in a plant. The key is to change our thinking from the idea of operator “maintenance” to operator “care.” Doing so brings a completely different set of tasks and skills to mind. Of course, such “care” must be defined to focus on specific results as part of an overall equipment-improvement strategy. In this concluding installment, we bring those points together in a discussion of standardized and detailed work instructions and the repeatability they can generate in terms of operator care and improved machine reliability.


What we know about equipment reliability is that human errors and inconsistent methods contribute to unreliable equipment performance, machine damage, and workplace injuries. One of the principles of lean manufacturing and Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) is called “standardized work.” In short, this refers to developing and deploying work instructions (also known as procedures) as aids to prevent errors and drive out human variation.

Standardized work instructions also provide a baseline for continuous improvement. Once everyone is following the same procedure and the results measured, the work group can easily look for ways to consistently make the procedure more efficient and more effective, while assuring the same or better results of following the procedure. Remember: “If you can’t standardize it, you can’t improve it.”

We can measure the efficiency and effectiveness of standardized work instructions when they’re used on our equipment. Non-standard work will always have degrees of variation and produce different measurable results.

Standardized work instructions also lead to more efficient and more effective training and qualification on performing the new procedure. In the case of operator care, the entire learning content is outlined in the work instructions. The training process should then include self-study of the work instructions, on-job training and coaching, job-performance- qualification demonstrations, and, ideally, re-qualification at periodic intervals.

One final thought on standardized work: There must be a clear expectation from top management all the way through the organization to “follow the procedures!” Holding all operators accountable for following the standardized work instructions for operator care is an essential responsibility of front-line leadership.


When involving operators in the care and upkeep of their machines, we need to ensure: 1) that they are doing the right things the right way at the right time; and 2) that they are formally trained and qualified to perform the operator-care procedures. Detailed work instructions form the centerpiece of safe, consistent, and results-oriented operator care. In other words,, they’re the centerpiece of reliable human performance.

Detailed work instructions are the most important equipment reliability improvement tool we have. They are fully documented, equipment- and task-specific, step-by-step procedures. They are truly hard to beat. In fact, there’s no substitute for them. Well-written, detailed work instructions provide users with a comprehensive, thoughtful description of proper, efficient, and effective performance that assures consistent results—when followed. They answer all basic questions – the WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, HOW, and HOW WELL to perform a task – as opposed to checklists that typically just list WHAT to do. Think of detailed work instructions as procedures and of checklists as summarized reminders of what needs to be accomplished by the procedures, i.e., the critical steps.

Work instructions should be very detailed and assume that the learner, in this case the machine operator, has never performed the task. While this may seem like a lot of words and paper these instructions should be the ultimate document of the correct (and expected) way the task is to be performed. These types of detailed instructions don’t merely only form the basis of training: They also provide the key points for checklists used by individuals performing the operator-care tasks.

I consider the following to be the top 10 characteristics of well-prepared detailed work instructions:

  • They are EASY to find, understand and use.
  • They are FACTUAL and CREDIBLE (they make sense).
  • They COMMUNICATE a “best-practice standard” the right way.
  • They provide detailed INSTRUCTIONS to drive out human errors and variations.
  • They set AUDITABLE expectations (i.e., a framework for accountability and results).
  • They are used to FORMALLY train and qualify end users.
  • They use VISUALS to communicate effectively (and as few words as necessary).
  • They follow a CONSISTENT format and style across the facility.
  • They are CONTROLLED documents and subject to formal change management.
  • They are SUPPORTED by job-aids, equipment visuals and detailed checklists.

The basic topics covered in a well-prepared detailed work-instruction document should include:

  • equipment/asset name and identification number
  • equipment/asset location
  • procedure title
  • frequency
  • estimated duration
  • skillsets or qualifications required
  • number of people required
  • safety considerations (regulations): MSDS, LO-TO, PSM, PPE, permits, etc.
  • environmental considerations (regulations)
  • required tools and equipment
  • supplies that are needed
  • fluids and lubricant requirements
  • replacement parts and part numbers
  • reference to relevant documents & drawings
  • documentation and permit requirements
  • operational conditions: powered up, shut down, cleared
  • detailed, step-by-step sequential instructions
  • “as-found” and “should-be” specifications
  • document control I.D., revision number, and date.


The importance of checklists can’t be overstated. They are an essential element of operator care and the deployment of most any form of work instructions. They help compensate for variations in human performance and memory glitches. Checklists are very brief, easy-to-follow sequential listings of the steps of a detailed work instruction. In effect, they summarize the procedure and serve as a reminder of what to perform, where, and when. A checklist is not expected to explain HOW to perform a task.

A checklist can also be a record of an operator-care task having been performed. The operators should be encouraged to not only check off each task, but also note deteriorating conditions, fluid levels, and filter conditions that may indicate the beginning of a problem in the near term. If a “problem tag” is placed on the equipment, that too could be noted on the checklist.

We have all seen (and can easily spot) “pencil-whipped” checklists. In these cases, a follow-up audit of the operator care task should be performed with the operator who may have pencil-whipped the checklist. Regardless of the quality of the operator-care task performance, this type of audit is an essential part of setting clear expectations, providing on-going learning, and demonstrating the meaning of accountability.


Putting crucial information right on the equipment, and making the equipment easier to inspect improves operator- care task efficiency and accuracy. Equipment visuals (and visual equipment) can communicate a wealth of information, including important operator-care details, and remove much of the guesswork about the task to be performed. The result is improved safety, equipment performance, and reliability.

Examples of equipment visuals include:

  • labeling lock-out/tag-out points and procedures to follow
  • marking the proper ranges on gauges (temperature, pressure, flow)
  • labeling the equipment component name and identifying number
  • labeling a sequence number for task performance
  • fluid types and proper levels on sight glasses
  • adding replacement part numbers for filters, belts, indicator bulbs, for communication to maintenance staff
  • modifying belt and chain guards with clear polycarbonate or mesh windows to make inspection easier
  • placing match marks on critical nuts, bolts, and fittings to help identify looseness
  • including photos of specific equipment visuals in the detailed work instructions.


What this series points out should be clear. Operators are the front-line defense of equipment problems, one of the best forms of preventive maintenance. Why? Generally, there are more operators who are closer to the machines than maintainers.

Operator care tasks should focus on specific results that target the sources of problems and improved equipment performance and reliability. Operator care is one of the five proven interdependent pillars of TPM, rather than a stand-alone program. This type of “care” should be part of an overall, ongoing, and hands-on equipment reliability improvement team effort. And lastly, standardized detailed work instructions provide the foundation to assure the proper care by the operators.

While detailed work instructions can significantly improve operator care and machine reliability, they also provide a huge benefit when used by technicians for routine equipment-maintenance. Next week, I will begin a new, but related series on how to develop, format, deploy, and maintain detailed maintenance work instructions.

For more information on work instructions, see my Oct. 10, 2020, article , “The Challenges of Work Instructions.”

For more information on equipment visuals, see my Oct. 4, 2019, article, “Are Your Machines ‘Talking’ to You?”

For a detailed “How To” guide on equipment visuals, refer to my book at this link, Lean Machines for World-Class Manufacturing and Maintenance, or email me directly at bwilliamson@theramreview.com.TRR

Click The Following Links To Read Previous Columns In This Series:

“Operator-Performed Maintenance (Part I): Benefits And Barriers”

“Operator-Performed Maintenance (Part II): Focus On Results”

“Operator-Performed Maintenance (Part III): Enabling ‘Care’ With The Five Pillars Of TPM”

“Operator-Performed Maintenance (Part IV): The Power Of Equipment-Improvement Teams”

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or bwilliamson@theramreview.com.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM,  operator care, maintenance management