Tag Archives: Document structure

Effective, less risky procedure documents

Far too often policy manuals, standard operating procedures, work method statements sit on the shelf and are hardly ever used. They are read by quality system auditors every few years, but they are hardly ever used by people in the business.

This is a problem for two reasons:

  1. Developing these documents is costly in both direct writing costs and the time lost by people diverted from their normal work to provide the content. Manuals are an expensive asset – it is important to get a return on investment.
  2. There is often a mismatch between what is written and what is done. Over time small changes are made to processes that are not reflected in the manual. Whether by laziness or an over cumbersome approval system, the end result is a mismatch between what managers think and what workers do – a very risky situation for any organisation.

There is no magic bullet to solve the problem. However, one thing that can help is to change the way documents are written and formatted.

Make sure policy and procedure documents are useful.

Manuals must provide relevant information to those who will use them. They must contain information that is important for doing the job without lots of extra fluff.

Make sure policy and procedure documents are usable.

People must be able to find the information they need quickly. And once they find it, they must be able to extract meaning quickly. So, a few things that can help;

  • avoid pages of document control information at the start – the user is not interested
  • keep line lengths short to make them more readable
  • use consistent styles so that users easily recognize information types
  • use photos instead of always relying on text descriptions
  • try starting all action steps with a verb

Make policy and procedure documents attractive

Entice people to use manuals by making them pleasing to the eye. There is no reason why work documents should be ugly. Form and function should come together.

Action

Find out which documents are being used and which just sit on the shelf.

Find out who is using them and how they are being used.

Check the written practice against the actual practice.

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Building the best structure for your document

Placing your content in the correct order makes a big impact on the effectiveness of your document.

Before designing a structure for your document

  1. define the purpose of your document – what you want to achieve
  2. understand your readers – what they want and need

If your purpose is to persuade or share information and your readers are likely to give you a fair hearing, then a ‘point first’ structure is often the best. (sometimes called a pyramid or telescoping structure.)

A ‘point first’ structure starts with your key point. You follow this with explanation, reasoning and detail that justifies and expands the point.

Readers find this structure easy to follow; it’s always easier to grasp an argument when you are told the conclusion first. It also allows readers to stop reading when they have had enough without missing your main point.

But if your readers are likely to resist your message, then you may need to walk them through your reasoning and research before telling them your conclusion.

Documents aimed to persuade, a business case for example, are often structured by talking about the problem or opportunity first. This highlights the motivation for change and sets the scene for your solution.

When writing procedures, consider starting with the overall aim or intent of the procedure (to give clear context and purpose) and then present the steps in chronological order.

An effective document structure is one where readers can quickly understand and use the information you provide.

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