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


Transparency in organizations generally falls into one of two categories: proactive and demand-driven.

  • Proactive dissemination refers to information that the organization’s leadership makes known about its activities and performance. Practical expressions can range from strategic and tactical goals, third-party evaluations, and organizational risks.
  • Demand-driven access refers to an organizational commitment to respond to employee requests for specific kinds of information or documents which otherwise would not be accessible.

The idea of transparency can also be unpacked in terms of its directionality. Disclosure cuts both ways, channeling information upwards as well as downwards in the organization. Leadership sharing insight into decisions is an example of downwards, where idea management processes are upwards.

The type of transparency also matters:

  • Opaque or fuzzy transparency involves the dissemination of information that does not reveal how organizations actually behave in practice, whether in terms of how they make decisions, or the results of their actions. The term also refers to information that is divulged only nominally, or which is revealed but turns out to be unreliable.
  • Clear transparency sheds light on organizational behavior, which permits interested employees to pursue strategies of constructive change.

This distinction between clear and opaque is grounded on the premise that if transparency practices are going to meet their goals of transforming organizational behavior, then they must be explicit in terms of who does what, and who gets what.

Transparency requires not only a willingness, but processes to drive it.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

Information Gaps

An information gap is a known unknown, a question that one is aware of but for which one is uncertain of the answer. It is a disparity between what the decision maker knows and what could be known The attention paid to such an information gap depends on two key factors: salience, and importance.

  • The salience of a question indicates the degree to which contextual factors in a situation highlight it. Salience might depend, for example, on whether there is an obvious counterfactual in which the question can be definitively answered.
  • The importance of a question is a measure of how much one’s utility would depend on the actual answer. It is this factor—importance—which is influenced by actions like gambling on the answer or taking on risk that the information gap would be relevant for assessing.

Information gaps often dwell in the land of knightian uncertainty.

Communicating these Known Unknowns

Communicating around Known Unknowns and other forms of uncertainty

A wide range of reasons for information gaps exist:

  • variability within a sampled population or repeated measures leading to, for example, statistical margins-of-error
  • computational or systematic inadequacies of measurement
  • limited knowledge and ignorance about underlying processes
  • expert disagreement.