Tips and Insights

Handling Repetition in Work Instructions

Technical procedures often involve repetition. Whether the sequence is exact repetition or involves successive steps that appear identical but are not, repetition poses potential for error.

Consider some sources of repetition error:

  • Workplace distractions can cause someone to lose track of the place in the sequence.
  • Steps can be missed or improperly repeated.
  • An inattentive worker can easily perform nearly repetitive steps out of order.
  • An overconfident worker can proceed without conscientious thought - and make a careless error

Whenever a procedure involves repetition, either real or apparent, the procedure writer must take extra care to head off error. Here are some tips:

Emphasize the repetition. Don’t hide or simplify the sequence. Make it clear that there is a string of actions. This obvious approach should help alert the user to the need for caution.

 Graphics are better than text. Graphics allow the developer to show repetition rather than merely describe it. If instructions are straight text, it’s easy for a user to count wrong or miss the significance of terms like “repeat” or “again” or “reverse.”

 Clarify the differences between similar steps. Have a clear overall layout and use graphic symbols to show variation in the sequence.

 Consider a checklist. Aviation and aerospace procedures are full of repetitive sequences that require careful attention to detail. As error-reducing precautions, aviation and aerospace instructions often involve checklists. A checklist reduces dependence on fallible human memory and helps focus the user on each individual step.

Sample Work Instructions demonstrate how to eliminate repitition errors.

This sample is from our series of EXPLAINIT® Nursing Procedures. Irrigating Salem Sump Tube is a sensitive procedure for checking the function of a tube running into a patient’s stomach. It requires five separate actions involving a syringe.

The steps are similar but there are very important differences between the actions at each step.

The format we used here clearly shows that there are a series of steps that appear similar but are different. The use of in-and-out arrows, numbered steps, and the general layout are all designed to alert the nurse to a sequence of steps that must be performed exactly as instructed.



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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