The Building Blocks of Work-as-Prescribed

Work-as-Prescribed – how we translate the desired activities into a set of process and procedure – relies on an understanding of how people think and process information.

The format is pivotal. The difficulties we have in quality are really not much different from elsewhere in society in that we are surrounded by confusing documentation and poorly presented explanations everywhere we look, that provide information but not understanding. Oftentimes we rely on canards of “this is what is expected,” “this is what works” – but rarely is that based on anything more than anecdotal. And as the high incidence of issues and the high cost of training shows, less than adequate.

There is a huge body-of-knowledge out there on cognitive-friendly design of visuals, including documentation. This is an area we as a quality profession need to get comfortable with. Most important, we need to give ourselves permission to adapt, modify and transform the information we need into a shape that aids understanding and makes everyone a better thinker.

Work-as-Prescribed (and work-as-instructed) is the creation of tools and technologies to help us think better, understand more and perform at our peak.

Locus of Understanding

Looking at the process at the right level is key. Think of Work-as-Prescribed as a lens. Sometimes you need a high-powered lens so that you can zoom in on a single task. Other times, you need to zoom out to see a set of tasks, a whole process, or how systems interact.

This is the locus of understanding, where understanding happens. When we take this position, we see how understanding is created. Adopting the locus of understanding means going to the right level for the problem at hand. When we apply it to Work-as-Prescribed we are applying the same principles as we do in problem-solving to developing the right tools to govern the work.

We are conducting knowledge management as part of our continuous improvement.

An important way to look is distributed cognitive resources, which means anything that contributes to the cognitive work being done. Adjusting the locus of understanding means that you can, and should, treat an SOP as a cognitive resource. Some of the memory is in your head and some is in the SOP. Work-as-prescribed is a cognitive resource that we distribute, routinely and casually across the brain and our quality system in the form of documents and other execution aids.

Other tools, like my favorite whiteboard, also serve as distributed cognitive resources.

So, as our documents and other tools are distributed cognitive resources it behooves us to ensure they are based on the best cognitive principles possible to drive the most benefit.

As an aside, there is a whole line of thought about why some physical objects are better at distributed cognitive resources than electronic. Movement actually matters.

Taking it even further (shifting the locus) we can see the entire quality system as a part of a single distributed cognitive system where cognitive work is performed via the cognitive functions of communicating, deciding, planning, and problem-solving. These cognitive functions are supported by cognitive processes such as perceiving, analyzing, exchanging, and manipulating.

Cognitive Activity in Work-As-Prescribed

The tools we develop to provide distributed cognitive activity strive to:

  • Provide short-term or long-term memory aids so that memory load can be reduced.
  • Provide information that can be directly perceived and used such that little effort is needed to interpret and formulate the information explicitly.
  • Provide knowledge and skills that are unavailable from internal representations.
  • Support perceptual operators that can recognize features easily and make inferences directly.
  • Anchor and structure cognitive behavior without conscious awareness.
  • Change the nature of a task by generating more efficient action sequences.
  • Stop time and support perceptual rehearsal to make invisible and transient information visible and sustainable.
  • Aid processibility by limiting abstraction.
  • Determine decision making strategies through accuracy maximization and effort minimization.

Driving Work-As Prescribed

As we build our requirements documents, our process and procedure, there are a few principles to keep in mind to better tap into distributed cognitive resources.

Plan for the flow of information: Think about paths, relationships, seams, edges and other hand-offs. Focus on the flow of information. Remember that we learn in a spiral, and the content needed for a novice is different from that of an expert and build our documents and the information flow accordingly. This principle is called Sequencing.

Break information down into pieces: Called, Chunking, the grouping together of information into ideally sized pieces. When building Work-As-Prescribed pay close attention to which of these chunks are reusable and build accordingly.

The deeply about context: How a tool is used drives what the tool should be.

Think deeply about information structures: Not all information is the same, not every example of Work-as-Prescribed should have the same structure.

Be conscientious about the digital and physical divide: Look for opportunities to integrate or connect these two worlds. Be honest of how enmeshed they are at any point in the system.

We are building our Work-as-Prescribed through leveraging our quality culture, our framework for coordinating work. Pay attention to:

  1. Shared Standards – Ways we communicate
  2. Invisible Environments – Ways we align, conceptually
  3. Visible Environments – Ways we collaborate
  4. Psychological Safety – Ways we behave
  5. Perspectives – Ways we see (and see differently)

Principles in Practice

When design process, procedure and task documentation leverage this principles by build blocks, or microcontent, that is:

  • about one primary idea, fact, or concept
  • easily scannable
  • labeled for clear identification and meaning, and
  • appropriately written and formatted for use anywhere and any time it is needed.

There is a common miscomprehension that simple means short. That just isn’t true. Simple means that it passes a test for the appropriateness of the size of a piece of content of providing sufficient details to answer a specific question for the targeted audience. The size of the content must effectively serve its intended purpose with efficiency, stripping off any unnecessary components.

We need to strive to apply cognitive thinking principles to our practice. The day of judging a requirements document by its page length is long over.

Constituents of cognitive thinking applied to Work-As-Prescribed

Perform an Audit of your own Expertise

One of the dangers in any organization is that the hard-won know-how of our experts remains locked in their brains and is not shared. To beat this tendency, knowledge management should be a continuous activity in any quality system. So why not start by documenting your own knowledge as an expert?

SubjectAnswer these QuestionsThings to clarify
Foundational KnowledgeWhat reference materials do you use?

How do you track technical trends?
Should a knowledge recipient own any of these reference materials? What are the best websites? Are there particular journals that you fi nd useful? What about associations?
Technical/ScientificWhat kinds of problems do people come to you to solve?  

What are the biggest risks in the project, process, or system you manage?
Can you describe a problem brought to you recently? What technical mistakes is a novice likely to make in that project or process?
Professional NetworkWhom do you ask about technology trends and innovation?

Whom do you contact for information about government regulations?
What is this go-to person’s complete contact information? What medium does he or she prefer (email versus telephone)? What is his or her background? How do you know this person?
OrganizationalWho are the major stakeholders in the project, process, or system you manage?

What are the biggest mistakes newcomers make in trying to get projects going here?
What are the positions of the major stakeholders? Where are there competing priorities? Can you give me an example of a newcomer mistake and suggest how to avoid such mistakes?
InterpersonalRegarding team leadership, what criteria do you use to select team members?

How do you ensure the team is connected to the overall business strategy?

On a general level, how do you motivate people who report to you?
Why do you use these particular criteria? Have you ever chosen unwisely? What communication strategies are most effective? Can you give an example of what has really helped?

Once you’ve documented this knowledge, identify who else needs to know it, and then ensure the knowledge is transferred.

Competencies in Quality

Competence is the set of demonstrable characteristics and skills that enable, and improve the efficiency of, performance of a job. There are a ton of different models out there, but I like to think in terms of three or four different kinds of competences: professional and methodological skills; social competence; and self-competence which includes personal and activity- and implementation-oriented skills. Another great way to look at these are competencies for inter-personal (maps to social competence), intrapersonal (maps to self-competence), and cognitive (maps to professional and methodological skills).

The ongoing digital transformation (Industry 4.0) leads to changing competence requirements which means new ways of life-long teaching and learning are necessary in order to keep up.

We can look at the 4 competencies across three different categories: Human, Organization and Technology:

  Human Organization Technology
Professional & methodological expertise
System thinking
Process thinking
Results oriented work
Complexity management
Business thinking
Problem solving
Sensitization ergonomics
Structured, analytical thinking
Change management
Qualification/further education
Agile methods/tools
Lean Enterprise
Client orientation
Workplace design
Soft/hardware understanding
Cyber-physical system understanding
Human-machine interfaces
Social Competence
Inter-disciplinary thinking
Managerial competence
Ability to work as a team
Conflict management
Employee satisfaction
Human centering
Social networking  
Lifelong learning
Personal initiative
Independent work
Sense of responsibility
Readiness for change
Process orientation  

When it comes to the professional competencies there is a large spread depending on what our industries requires. As a pharmaceutical quality professional I have different professional expertise than a colleague in the construction industry. What we do have in common is the methodological expertise I listed above.

Understanding competencies is important, it allows us to determine what skills are critical, to mentor and develop our people. It also helps when you are thinking in terms of body of knowledge, and just want communities of practice should be focusing on.