Tips and Insights

The Thingamajig and the Wallabaloo:
No Matter What You Call Things, Work Instructions Need to Work

If you've ever wondered what difference Visual Work Instructions can make in the workplace consider the following scenario.

Suppose that an engineering department was given the task of writing the work instructions that are used on the shop floor. Now suppose that a shop worker needs to refer to those very work instructions for directions on how to replace the thingamajig on the hoosit.

Worker struggles to fix something because of subpar work instructions.

Frustrated with her inability to find the answer, she pulls over her project manager who searches through the work instructions, looking for the term whamajam, since that’s what the hoosit used to be called.

Finally, two perturbed shop employees head on up to the engineering department and ask them where to find it, only to hear, “Gees, it’s right here – ‘How to Replace the Wallabaloo on the Cratshis’!”.

This isn’t so hard to suppose, it is? The fact is, from industry to industry, from company to company, even from department to department, terminology for the same little widget can vary wildly.

Even though what something is called doesn't change what something is (you remember Shakespeare's "a rose by any other name . . ."), when semantics creep into an industry, it can cause serious problems. For instance, I generated this list of possible terms for identifying “work instructions” in just a couple of minutes (and missed how many more?):

  • work instructions
  • standard operating procedure manuals
  • job aids
  • visual work instructions
  • standardized work instructions
  • job planning
  • product design documents
  • technical manuals
  • user instructions
  • procedure manuals
  • policy manuals
  • job skills
  • training tools
  • detailed process sheets

Isn't communication hard enough without having different words mean the same thing? I'm laughing, of course, because we are talking about the English language here, where multiple meanings, multiple pronunciations, multiple spellings is the bane of meaningful conversation.

 At one time the United States Postal Service (USPS) had a similar problem which resulted in machines that were down too long.

Their barcode label printers at bulk mail centers are high-speed, high-volume machines that can disrupt an entire station if they go down. USPS maintenance, which handles dozens of machines and infrequently works on these printers, needed to diagnose and fix them quickly.

Not only did they have to read through the columns of text in the table of contents to figure out which procedure they might need, they also had to determine which term matched the part they needed to repair.

A possible solution to this problem is to replace the traditional table of contents with an image, a.k.a. visual work instruction, that allowed maintenance to quickly identify the part based on what it looked like and/or where it was located on the machine, regardless of what it was called. The user could then turn directly to the page where that part was discussed.

While I don't think using different terms for an object or a process is necessarily a Lean or quality issue when it happens between different companies, when it's happening in documentation within the company, it’s time to upgrade your work instructions, er, I mean job aids. Or were they called standard operating procedure manuals…?



Back to Article Index



Renee Callies

Renee provides training and direction for Explainers clients regarding writing, editing and developing the standards for the development of work instructions. Renee's 12 years in education give her a strong background in teaching writing techniques and developing usable, consistent standards. She served as a Co-Director of the Third Coast Writing Project at Western Michigan University from 1997 to 2006.  View more of her writing at