Create, Use, and Continuously Improve Written Guidance


Each organization’s projects, whether internal or for others, are likely to be unique. However, many of the tasks and processes, that is, series of tasks, included in projects are repetitive in that they appear in many projects. This article advocates documenting, using, and continuously improving how you and your organization do each repetitive task or process. Written guidance yields many and diverse benefits for an organization and its personnel. Examples are eliminating valueless activities, increasing efficiency, avoiding “reinventing the wheel,” facilitating interdiscipline and interoffice projects, training personnel, invoking the novice effect, reducing liability, mitigating negative effects of personnel turnover, and supporting marketing. Although experience and studies support the value of written guidance, many individuals and organizations strongly resist its implementation arguing that preparing the written guidance takes too much time and that written guidance stifles creativity/innovation. These objections are addressed, partly by drawing on experiences of the medical profession.


While each of your organization’s projects, whether internal or for others, is likely to be unique, many of the tasks and processes (series of tasks) included in a project are repetitive. That is, they appear in many projects.  Examples are delineating watersheds, designing circuits, sizing members of trusses, preparing proposals, or developing annual budgets. Consider documenting how you and your organization currently do each repetitive task or series of tasks and reap many benefits.

Written Guidance Explained

What do I mean by written guidance? Written guidance has many names and comes in many forms. Examples of other terms are best practices, bulletins, checklists, guidelines, mini-manuals (Galler 2009), tips, templates, protocols, and standards. See the caveat later about using the term “standards.” The label or format aside, the intent of written guidelines is to capture the current cumulative knowledge and experience of an organization’s personnel. Write it down and widely share it and then, once understood and applied, continuously improve it.

Resistance to Written Guidance

Based on my consulting work and management experience, individuals and organizations tend to strongly resist preparing, using, and continuously improving what I refer to as written guidance. Two principal arguments against written guidance typically arise. The first is that preparing the written guidance takes too much time. While an initial significant investment of thoughtful time is necessary, the reward will be a great return on that investment because of the many benefits that flow from written guidance.

The second argument is that written guidance stifles creativity/innovation. On the contrary, implementing written guidance for routine, repetitive tasks and processes frees up personnel to collaborate, create, and innovate. Other objections to written guidance include concern with maintaining job security, encountering writer’s block, and not fully understanding the why and how aspects of a task or process.

Nevertheless, my experience as a manager in government, business, and academic organizations and as an independent consultant convinces me that written guidance yields benefits way in excess of the “costs.” Consider the experience of Michael LaVista, CEO of the Chicago-based firm Caxy, a technology and web applications development company. Organizational inefficiencies motivated him to start corporate procedure documentation or, in other words, written guidance. Listen to him (LaVista 2010): “The written procedures have helped things run much more smoothly. Now when something happens, people turn to the document first. And if that gets them 80% of the way to a solution before they come see me, that’s time I don’t have to waste. And then I can go back and add a little more information to get the procedure closer to 100%.”

Henry Ford experienced opposition to what he called “standardization.” He said: “If you think of ‘standardization’ as the best you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow, you get somewhere. But if you think of standards as confining, then progress stops.”

Benefits of Written Guidance

A 2006 Project Management Institute (PMI 2007) survey of 1365 non-trainer/non-consultant PMI members from around the globe indicated that only 24 percent of the surveyed organizations use written guidance throughout. My experience resonates with these survey results. However, the survey demonstrated that those who do use written guidance perform better. If you and/or your team, department, or organization do not use written guidance and are not receptive to the idea, is this one study sufficient to cause you to at least experiment with written guidance? Probably not.

Speaking of experiments, in 1927, the Western Electric Company at its Hawthorne plant in Illinois attempted to discover the effect of incentives on workers’ production. At first, to their delight, as incentives were increased production went up. But, somewhat to their dismay, when incentives decreased production still climbed. This later became known as the “Hawthorne Effect.” Production increased because workers were being made aware of what they were doing and, naturally found better ways to do it. Their point of view was changed; they were not just working but participating in a worthwhile experiment (Nierenberg 1996).

Being more aware of what we are doing and then ways to improve, is one benefit of preparing, using, and continuously improving written guidelines. Perhaps the PMI data and the introduction to the Hawthorne Effect and further evidence presented near the end of this written guidance section, even though they may not pertain directly to whatever you and your organization do, will cause you to give further thought to implementing written guidance for repetitive tasks and processes.

As a result of creating, using, and continuously improving written guidance, an organization and its members will derive the following nine long-term benefits (Walesh 2012):

  1. Eliminate Valueless or Marginal Activities: Unnecessary, redundant, outdated, and other marginal or valueless tasks and steps are likely to be identified and then updated or removed. The process of thinking about, discussing, and then describing, in writing and possibly with graphics, steps to be taken in doing a task or tasks to be completed in a process inevitably identifies valueless or marginal activities. Finding and eliminating tasks reduces expenses and frees up staff for more productive tasks.

  2. Increase Efficiency: More efficient approaches typically arise as a result of thinking through steps that comprise a process. For example, some tasks previously done in series may subsequently be done in parallel, thereby reducing elapsed time. Tasks formerly done by personnel with high hourly rates may subsequently be accomplished just as effectively by personnel with lower hourly rates, thus reducing costs. On reflection, some tasks may not be needed. Delegating tasks is simplified because ready reference can be made to written descriptions. Tasks previously done manually may, as a result of the insight gained by analyzing a process, subsequently be executed with software thereby reducing costs and saving time.

  3.  Avoid “Reinventing the Wheel”: Knowledge acquired and experience gained by an organization’s personnel, assuming it is reflected in the written guidance, can be readily shared with other personnel. As a result, much less time is wasted in redeveloping methods. Don’t “reinvent the wheel” each time. Instead, make existing wheels roll even better (Weiss 2003).

  4. Facilitate Interdiscipline and Interoffice Projects: The multidiscipline, multi-office organization should be structured and operated to provide its clients, owners, customers, and stakeholders with the optimum mix of personnel and other resources regardless of the physical and organizational “homes” of personnel. Written guidance that captures best practices applicable across discipline and office lines facilitates the desired corporate team approach. The lack of guidance frustrates interdiscipline and interoffice cooperation even when personnel want to work as a team.

  5. Train New or Transferred Personnel: New personnel and personnel transferred from one office, division, or unit to another can receive the appropriate written guidance as part of their on-the-job education and training. This approach requires less supervisor and colleague time than relying on verbal descriptions and the shared ideas and information are more likely to be understood because they are written. 

  6. Invoke the Novice Effect: When new or transferred individuals use written guidance to do a task that is new to them, and are asked to suggest ways to improve those guidelines, the novice effect (Gross 1991) is likely to occur. They read the guidance and think of better ways to explain what is to be done or improved ways to do it.  

  7. Reduce Liability: Negligence, the principal cause of liability claims in the consulting engineering business, is reduced. Errors and omissions are less likely to occur when work is influenced by tested, written guidance.

  8. Mitigate Negative Impact of Personnel Turnover: Some personnel turnover is inevitable, even in the best-managed and led organizations. Contributions that departed personnel made to an organization are more likely to remain with the organization if some of those contributions were captured and documented in the form of written guidance prepared by the now-departed personnel. In his book about the growing importance of intellectual capital, Stewart (1997) defines such capital as having three components: knowledge embedded in an organization’s processes, knowledge emanating from its clients or customers, and knowledge held by the organization’s employees. The last portion of intellectual capital can go down the elevator and out the door at any time. Accordingly, proactive organizations try to capture some of the knowledge held by their personnel, especially some of those soon-to-retire “gray hairs” who “have it all up here.” Written guidance is one way to do this.

  9. Support Marketing: External and internal clients, owners, customers, and stakeholders are increasingly concerned about the quality of the services and products they receive. The test is: do or will these services or products meet their wants and needs? Using written guidance is one way of demonstrating a unit’s or organization’s commitment to quality and especially a desire to do things right the first time.

Medicine’s Experience

If you are still not convinced of the value of written guidance, then consider the results of a study from the medical profession in which checklists (one form of written guidance) were used in surgery (Gawande 2009, Wilson 2010). Under the sponsorship of the World Health Organization (WHO), medical professionals developed a 19-step surgery checklist. The three parts were: before anesthesia, after anesthesia but before incision, and at the end of operation before the team wheels the patient from the operating room. They tested the checklist at eight hospitals around the world and compared surgery results before and after its use. The amazing results: major complications down 36 percent, deaths down 47 percent, and infections decreased by almost half!

In a similar manner, 100 Michigan intensive care units experimented with a checklist for handling catheters because of concern with deaths caused by bloodstream infections. The results: Infections were reduced by two-thirds and 1500 lives were saved in 18 months (Saelinger 2012).

Atul Gawande (2009), the author of The Checklist Manifesto, the book that describes the surgery checklist study, stated that “The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with.” This prompts me to ask two questions:

  • Would you and your colleagues like to get “the dumb stuff out of the way” so that you could use your brains for higher level thinking?

  • Do you occasionally, or maybe frequently, experience counterparts of the medical profession’s “major complications,” “deaths,” and “infections” and would you like to markedly reduce them?

If your answer to the two questions is even a tentative yes, give checklists or, more generally, written guidance a try.

Gawande also notes that checklists improve outcomes with no increase in skill. That’s a thought for those of us who, when an operational problem arises, may immediately focus on the need for more education and training or other costly remedial efforts. Maybe, instead we should make more use of checklists or other forms of written guidance. The author shared an anecdote from surgery which indicated members of a surgical team favor checklists because “they improve their outcomes with no increase in skill.”

Pilots Do It

By the way, aircraft pilots routinely use checklists. This includes Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles on January 14, 2009 when they safely landed an Airbus with 155 people on board in New York City’s Hudson River. They routinely ran through checklists at LaGuardia Airport before starting the plane’s engines. And, after takeoff as soon as the impact with geese stopped the plane’s two engines, First Officer Skiles reached for the how to “relight” the engines and “ditching” checklists (Gawande 2009).


A word of caution is in order. While written guidance has many benefits, as described above, they could increase liability exposure in litigation. Therefore, be prudent. For example, if you and your organization are using, or will be experimenting with, written guidance, don’t call them “standards.” Instead, use one of the other terms noted earlier in this section. Reason: Possible confusion, if litigation occurs, with the “standard of care” concept.

Assume your organization does call the written guidance “standards” and that your organization is the defendant in a liability case and you are testifying. The plaintiff’s attorney says, “Are these your standards?” You answer “yes.” “Did you use them on this project?” Your answer: “Not entirely, they are guidance.” The attorney’s assertion: “Oh, so you did not adhere to the standard of care.” Written guidance should include appropriate disclaimers and be used prudently. If intelligently applied, the benefits of written guidance greatly offset the disadvantages.

Closing Thoughts about Written Guidance

To conclude this discussion of creating, using, and continuously improving written guidance as a means of achieving quality, consider an observation from the book If Only We Knew What We Know (O’Dell and Grayson 1998). The authors write: “You would think… better practices would spread like wildfire to the entire organization.” And then they follow their observation with this blunt contrary statement: “They don’t.” Why? According to the authors, because the better practices are not systematically documented, widely shared, and continuously improved.

Is your team, group, or other organization making optimum use of its best practices? You know you have them. However, having them for the benefit of a few and leveraging them for the benefit of many are two very different situations.

Interested in exploring a written guidance system for your organization? Then please contact me at or 219-464-1704.


Galler, L. 2009. “A Mini-manual Guides Training.” e-newsletter, Larry Galler & Associates, January 25.

Gawande, A. 2009. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Done Right. Metropolitan Books, New York, NY.

Gross, F. 1991. Peak Learning. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Los Angeles, CA.

LaVista, M. 2010. “How to Get Out of the Role of Chief Fire Extinguisher.” MoneyWatch, August 27.

Nierenberg, G. I. 1996. The Art of Creative Thinking. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, NY.

O’Dell, C. and C. Jackson Grayson, Jr. 1998. If Only We Knew What We Know: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice. The Free Press, New York, NY.

PMI. 2007. “Standard Issue.” PMI Network, June, p. 18.

Saelinger, D. 2012. “The Worst Place to Be If You’re Sick.” Bulletin, AARP, (, March, pp. 10-14.

Stewart, T. A. 1997. Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations. Doubleday Currency, New York, NY.

Walesh, S. G. 2012. Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering. Chapter 7, “Quality: What Is It and How Do We Achieve It?” John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ and ASCE Press, Reston, VA.

Weiss, A. 2003. Great Consulting Challenges and How to Surmount Them. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA.

Wilson, R. W. 2010. “Value of Simple Checklist.” Indiana Professional Engineer, March/April, pp. 4-5.


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