One of the more common mistakes in practical manuals is the lack of understanding of what is a process and what is a procedure and how to document them. This posting focuses on procedures. (See also the previous blog, ‘What is a process?’)
A procedure is a set of steps that one person performs in order to obtain a specified outcome. Clues for identifying that something is a procedure are:
- text or graphics that tell someone ‘how to do something’
- ‘…ing’ words that imply action
- a set of steps or tasks to be followed
- ‘if-then’ or other similar decision words.
Some examples of procedures are:
- How to set up a mailing list
- How to set the alarm on your clock radio
- How to change the bandage on a wound.
Basics of a procedure
1. There are two types of procedures:
- linear procedures (sequential in time, no decisions to make)
- decision procedures (some of the actions require a decision).
2. A procedure comprises three elements:
- a starting point or input
- a set of steps
- a goal or output.
3. There are three types of steps in a procedure:
- action steps
- decision steps
- repetition steps.
How to write a procedure
1. The heading
Common heading types are:
- How to (verb) (object), e.g. How to update an employee file
- Verb(ing) the (object), e.g. Operating the blood pressure machine
- Which (noun) you should (verb)? e.g. Which medication should you use? When should a blood sample be taken?
- (Noun) procedure, e.g. Bedtime procedure
2. A table
A procedure must have a table of some type. It can be either a straightforward set of sequential steps to achieve the end goal or a ‘decision’ table where decisions have to be made at one or more steps.
Step–action table (plain)
Action steps tell readers exactly what actions to perform, rather than having to make decisions. Use brief, direct language and state specifically what action is to be performed.
Step–action table (with decision steps)
Decision steps are steps within a procedure where readers must take different actions depending on specific conditions.
If/then (decision table)
Two columns, ‘If’ (the condition) and ‘Then’ (the action) define how to carry out the procedure.
The step–action–result table is a good option for a more complex procedure where successful completion of a step may not always be obvious and more guidance is needed.
A table may also have repetition steps. A repetition step is a point within a procedure that tells the reader to repeat a set of actions and/or decisions until some desired condition occurs. A repetition step must:
- specify exactly which steps to repeat and
- define the condition that will end the repetition.
Example: Repeat steps 1 to 4 until all the bandages have been changed.
3. Supporting text
This could be information such as ‘Introduction’, ‘Background’, ‘Before you begin’, ‘When to use’, ‘Assumptions’, or ‘Rules’, which is set out before or after the procedure table.
There may be need for a diagram, photo, illustration or example as part of documenting the procedure.
Specialised procedure tables
A specialised procedure table could be a checklist for an activity, a worksheet, or an expanded procedure table that organises a larger task by using a task/description table as an overview followed by several procedure tables associated with each task.
A flow chart can be used for a graphic presentation of a procedure. It is composed of a series of actions and decisions framed in boxes and linked by arrows. There may be instances where a flow chart is a better option for presentation of the procedure.
- Limit each step to one logical action or decision.
- Limit the number of steps in the procedure to a maximum of 10. If the procedure has more steps, break it into two tables.
- Limit the amount of information in each step to what is the most relevant information to the reader. Place additional supporting information before or after the procedure.
- Begin each action step with a verb (active word).
Photo: The largest Christmas tree in California Adventure Park, Disneyland Resort, Anaheim, California.