Tips and Insights

Always Revising Work Documents?
You Can Get Rid of the Headache!

“We've yet to see a workplace that honestly accounts for the many resources involved in revising work documents.”

Work documents, especially in factories, need constant revision - or do they?

In many factories, the task of revising work documents is a constant and costly effort that’s accepted as the norm – it’s just the way things are. Our early research shows that the cumbersome job of revising work documents is often a continuing effort of trying to repair flawed wordy instructions. In principle, work documents should only require revision in response to changes in the product or the manufacturing process. Instead, precious factory resources are being spent to revise fuzzy, ambiguous, and unclear work documents in the mistaken belief that the new writing will solve the problems that are blamed on the old writing. There’s a better way: start with a good set of documents.

 Why Are You Revising Documents?

In early discussions with prospective clients, the subject of document revision usually comes up quickly - often before we've even started to talk about money. The job of revising work documents is often considered a bigger issue than creating the documents in the first place. Especially in regulated industries like aerospace, defense, food, drug and medical products, potential clients resist introducing a new system that might add to the burden of document revision. Client questions usually concern the "who" and "how" of document revisions and they are reluctant to consider adding anything to further complicate the document management process.

We have recently started to focus on an overlooked element of document revision: instead of asking "who" and "how", we urge prospective clients to consider "why" their documents require revision with such frequency. We're finding something very significant and potentially of great importance to document systems: most document revisions are clarifications, edits and rewrites of existing documents that have been found to be unclear. In other words, document revisions are mostly document fixes.

 The Typical Path of a Document Revision

Consider the following list of activities that might typically surround a document revision:

  • In meetings, phone calls and emails, quality and engineering people assess a quality problem.
  • There are more formal and informal meetings and communications to discuss the problem and track the cause back to the offending operator, department or work cell
  • Still more discussions show that the source of the error was some sort of a disconnect between the source of the problem and the applicable work instruction.
  • The team agrees that the document needs to be updated or revised (i.e., fixed)
  • Somebody starts the revision and circulates it to the various approval points
  • A bunch of folks read the draft, add comments and circulate it back around
  • There’s additional staff time involved in subsequent drafts and getting to final agreement of the approved revision
  • Somebody produces a formal revision and distributes it to other people who check it and send back approvals
  • Finally, there’s staff and supervision time implementing the revision in the target plant department or work cell.

How closely does your document revision cycle match this scenario? If it’s anywhere close, take a try adding up the time and effort required. We've yet to see a workplace that honestly accounts for the many resources involved in revising work documents. And, of course, the above list does not include the quality cost of the error or product flaw that triggered the revision process in the first place.

Almost comically, a typical document revision adds a chunk of text or inserts a new section in a futile attempt to explain what the previous text authors really intended to write but failed to effectively communicate or else the problem wouldn’t have occurred.

 Auditing Your Document Revisions

A typical work document system includes a built-in audit trail. This is the revision history that’s maintained as part of the document. Every time a document gets revised, date and reason for the change get added to the document. An easy, early step in examining a document system is to catalog the stated reasons for revisions.

  • Justifiable Revisions
    Appropriate revisions are document changes made in response to technical or engineering changes. Examples of justifiable revisions are process changes prompted by a modification to the product or the production equipment such as changed machine settings, product specifications, tooling or cycle times. These are the sort of technical issues that are usually straightforward and should be easy to document.
  • Questionable Revisions
    A questionable document change originates from a quality issue that gets traced back to an operator or a department and is attributed to a flaw or failure in the work instruction itself. Such a suspect change is invariably related to the text in the document. Either some information is missing or what's there may be poorly worded, unclear or otherwise wrongly interpreted. These are the sort of revisions that should prompt a review of the document system as a whole.

 Credibility of the Document System

There’s another issue to consider in workplaces that are issuing frequent instruction or procedure revisions: the risk of the document system itself losing credibility. Quality, Engineering and Compliance people know they must have documents available for auditor review. But the operators – the users who should be the real focus of the instructions – usually regard the revisions, as well as the document system as a whole, as having minimal value.

[Making sure work documents are credible is one of the “Four Essentials of Effective Work Instructions”]

 Reducing Revisions: What's Possible?

Your objective should be to lengthen the intervals between revisions with the overall goal of reducing the total amount of revisions. And ideally, the only basis for a revision should be to document a change in the product or the manufacturing process. Of course, the opportunity for improvement is related to the health of the present document system. Based on observations from numerous client facilities, we have seen typical reductions of 40 to 60%. In one case, a quality manager estimated that their improved document system cut revisions by 80%. More importantly, the revisions that remain are meaningful and are no longer related to rewriting words and phrases that are subject to interpretation.

 Pros and Cons of Visual Work Instructions

While Visual Work Instructions offer many compelling benefits when compared with conventional text documents, there are some offsetting costs. Here’s a brief look at both sides of the issue:


  • Information is faster to grasp and easier to understand
  • Done properly, graphics have minimal chance of ambiguity, confusion or misunderstanding
  • Don’t require reading comprehension skills
  • Workers tend to regard them as credible, effective and usable tools
  • Are appropriate for workers with language complications because graphics are language-independent
  • In developing multi-lingual versions, minimal text makes for lower translation costs


  • Developers need training in graphics
  • Developers need appropriate software
  • Will be more costly to develop than standard text instructions
  • You can’t get by with poor graphics, unlike poor text that few people look at critically


This article has focused reducing the cost and effort of revising work documents. We can’t close without considering the broader and more important issue of product quality. Reducing revision costs must be considered only a secondary benefit of an improved work instructions system. The primary benefits will be the tangible improvements of reduced errors and increased productivity that results from providing workers with proper instructional tools.



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Patrick Sweeney

Patrick Sweeney, the founding Explainer, is a noted consultant, writer and speaker on the topic of procedures and work instructions. He has presented at national and local meetings and conferences of professional organizations, forum keynote talks, college-sponsored workshops and similar events across a broad range of industries and applications.  Learn more about the services Explainers offers at