Creating effective system procedures
I’ll come at this topic by firstly describing three faults we commonly see in quality, environmental and safety management systems and then offer some tips that may improve the quality and usability of your procedures.
What is a “system procedure”?
Firstly, let me explain what I mean by a “system procedure”. In the context of this article, a system procedure is a document that defines how the requirements of (usually) a single element of a management standard (eg. 14001, 4801, 18001 or 9001) are implemented in an organisation.
For example, the “Emergency Preparedness” system procedure covers the actions needed to maintain, review and test the site Emergency Plan. (Note: the system procedure is not the Emergency Plan, it is a document that helps maintain an effective Emergency Plan that complies with legislation and the requirements of the appropriate standard.)
The three faults in HSEQ management systems
The procedure describes how to set the system up. It may surprise you to learn this is a fault, so let me explain. While set-up information is certainly needed, it is used only once and so should not be part of the system procedure.
Why? Because the reader will have to keep skipping over the initial set-up instructions each time they use the procedure. The procedure should contain a process for updating, reviewing, maintaining and testing the system. If you really want the set-up information in the procedure, consign it to an appendix.
The procedure includes actions for different roles intermingled together. The problem with this is that the people will have to search through the procedure to find the actions relative to their role. Actions should be separated by role so they are easy to find. And don’t include responsibilities for “all staff” in the procedure because most staff will never read the procedure.
There is repetition in procedures. Amendments will need to be made to the procedure over time. If repeated information is not updated correctly, inconsistencies will occur. So, avoid repeating information in a procedure and try to structure procedures so that information and instructions are given only once.
Tips to improve the quality and usability of your procedures
The most important requirement of a procedure is that it walks the reader through a process – step by step – this is what distinguishes a procedure from a policy. I think it is best if each step is written as an instruction using an active voice, i.e. “do this” rather than “this must be done”.
Include no more detail than necessary. Where the purpose of a step (or the reason it is done a particular way) is not obvious, briefly explain this in the procedure so that the reader understands what they are doing.
Use checklists wherever they can add value. For example, when writing a procedure for reviewing a company’s WHS hazards or environmental aspects, guide the review with a checklist including, for example: any new plant, new processes, new chemicals, new contractor activities, new off-site activities, new maintenance activities, new abnormal occurrences, legislation changes etc. Such checklists will significantly improve the quality of the review.
Do not include information in the procedure that is likely to change in the short term. Procedures are controlled documents; every change needs to be checked and authorised (and any controlled copies updated). It is better to put such information into a separate register or other uncontrolled document. Don’t use staff names in procedures, use their role names.
If the procedures are part of a certified system (and even if they are not), it is important to create records each time the procedure is executed. These records (simple notes – even hand-written) can verify in a surveillance audit that the procedure has been executed, and the outcome recorded. You may even wish to simply write, if appropriate: “reviewed and no action needed”. Records can also be useful information when the procedure is next executed. The requirement to create these records should be included in the procedure.
Article by Tim Hamilton – Copyright 2015