What is Standard work instructions

Guide: Standard Work

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Author: Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

Guide: Standard Work

Standard Work Instructions (SWIs) are vital tools in business and industry, offering clear and detailed guidance on executing specific tasks. Tailored to suit various tasks, machines, or work environments, SWIs are particularly beneficial for processes demanding consistent and reproducible outcomes. In environments like manufacturing, where precision is key, SWIs play a crucial role in enhancing safety and quality by reducing defects and increasing efficiency.

These instructions, often complemented with visual aids, provide workers with the essential “what,” “why,” and “how” of tasks, minimizing error and ensuring smooth operation. Furthermore, SWIs are invaluable for training new employees or for those not yet fully confident in a process, providing a dependable reference that reduces confusion and enhances performance.

What are Standard Work Instructions (SWI)?

Standard Work Instructions (SWIs) are a method used in business to provide clear, detailed guides on how to do a specific task. These instructions are useful as they are tailored to tasks, machines, or particular work environments. The clarity and detail SWIs offer are particularly helpful for processes that require repeatability and reproducibility of outcomes.

For example, in manufacturing, precise assembly of a product, such as a computer or similar device with many parts, and detailed procedures improve safety and quality due to a reduction in defects and efficiency.

Standard Work Instructions (SWI) Example Excel Template - Free to download

The level of detail a SWI offers means they typically go beyond general descriptions. They could also offer specific measurements, settings for equipment, and the time it takes to complete each step. These steps are usually supported with visuals, such as pictures or technical drawings, that support the details of that step. If the process steps mention a specific tool, location, or piece of equipment, the image could support that so you know you have the same tool as the description mentioned. 

This level of detail helps workers understand not just the “what” and the “why,” but also the “how” of tasks, ensuring little room for error or deviation.

These types of work instructions are invaluable in instances where a process is new and has been trained out, but operators are still not 100% confident with all the details of the process, or similarly, where an employee is new to the business and process. This document is a guide that reduces hesitation and confusion and provides additional support without needing the time of an experienced operator to watch over them.

Characteristics of Standard Work Instructions

SWIs have some key characteristics that should be considered to make the most of them in the workplace.

Done by the People Doing the Work

SWIs should be created, reviewed, and updated by those who are directly involved in the work. This ensures that the instructions are practical, relevant, and reflective of the actual work being done. Involving workers in the creation process not only improves the quality of the SWIs but also encourages a sense of ownership and engagement among employees.

Baseline of CI Activities

Within continuous improvement, to make an improvement we need to have an understanding of the current process baseline (current state of the process). We can then use the SWI as a point of reference in which improvements can be made. 

Consider the image below, where Kaizens (continuous small improvements) are continually done and reinforced with standard work instructions, the improvement is then captured with an SWI and then improved again, continually improving the baseline of the process. Without a SWI there is a chance the process returns to its pre-improvement state and then needs the same improvement to be implemented again as it was not sustained. 

A graph of standard work instructions standardising improvements

Only concerned with what Impacts the Work

SWIs should concentrate exclusively on elements that directly impact the execution of the work. This focus ensures that the instructions remain relevant and useful, guiding workers on aspects that truly matter in their day-to-day tasks. By eliminating excessive detail, workers can concentrate on important components of the task, thereby enhancing efficiency and effectiveness.

Evolve Over Time

SWIs must be dynamic documents that evolve over time. As processes change, technologies advance and new insights are gained, the instructions should be updated to reflect these developments. This evolution is essential in maintaining the relevance and effectiveness of the SWIs in a changing work environment.

Helps New Employees Training

SWIs are invaluable tools for training new employees. They provide a structured and clear path for newcomers to understand and learn the essential aspects of their job. This not only accelerates the training process but also ensures that new employees are aligned with established practices from the start.

Accessible and Up-to-date

Finally, it is important the SWIs remain accessible to everyone who is expected to follow them, they should also be complete and up to date to reflect and changes in the process. This could be a change to machinery, tooling, equipment or materials. If the SWIs are not updated to reflect this it could confuse the operators of the process.



Differences between SOP and SWI

SWIs and SOPs can often be confused, and people think they are the same thing. However, the distinction between Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Work Instructions (WIs) lies primarily in their scope and detail level.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

These are more general and overarching. SOPs provide a high-level view of procedures, outlining the overarching methods and principles that govern a range of activities within an organization. They are strategic documents that align tasks and procedures with the broader goals and policies of the organization. SOPs might cover topics like quality control processes, employee onboarding, or compliance with regulatory standards. Their purpose is to ensure that all operations within an organization adhere to a consistent and standardized approach.

Standard Work Instructions (SWIs)

In contrast, SWIs are far more detailed and task-specific. They serve as the granular, step-by-step guide for executing a specific task. These instructions are designed to remove any ambiguity or variation in performing the task, leading to consistent quality and efficiency. Standard Work Instructions are level-level, highly detailed guides for employees, detailing exactly how a task should be carried out. For example, a SWI might detail the steps for operating a specific piece of machinery, conducting a specific laboratory test, or assembling a particular component of a product.

Implementing Standard Work Instructions

Step 1: Identify the Task

The first step is to identify the specific task or process that requires standardization through an SWI. The task selected should be complex enough to need detailed instructions, usually because it is critical to quality, safety, or efficiency. This could range from operating a machine in a manufacturing plant to executing a routine procedure in a healthcare setting.

Step 2: Gather Information

The next step involves information gathering. It’s important to work with subject-matter experts and, importantly, with the employees who regularly perform the task. They can provide insights into the nuances of the task, common challenges encountered, and practical tips that might not be evident from a purely theoretical perspective. This phase is about understanding every step of the process in depth, including the why, how, and what could go wrong.

Step 3: Draft the SWI

With all the required information, the next step is to work with the process operators to draft the SWI. This document should be clear and concise, breaking down the task into manageable and logical steps. Using simple language and avoiding complex terminology is key, and technical terms should be clearly explained. Incorporating visual aids like diagrams, flowcharts, or photographs can significantly enhance understanding, especially for complex tasks.

Step 4: Review and Test

Once the draft is ready, it should be reviewed by various stakeholders, including those who will use it. This review process is important for ensuring that the SWI is practical and understandable. Testing the SWI in the actual work environment is also a critical step. This real-world application can reveal any gaps or impracticalities in the instructions that may need adjustment.

Step 5: Finalize and Distribute

Based on feedback and test results, make the necessary revisions to the SWI. Once finalized, the SWI should be distributed to all relevant employees. Ensuring easy accessibility is crucial, whether through digital platforms, physical copies displayed in strategic locations where the process is being done, or both.

Standard Work Instructions Template

If you are looking to implement Standard Work Instructions (SWI), feel free to use the free documents from the templates section; we have them available in both Excel and Word documents to suit your preferences.


Implementing Standard Work Instructions is a strategic and collaborative process, essential for maintaining quality, safety, and efficiency in various work environments.

By carefully identifying tasks, gathering comprehensive information, and drafting clear and concise instructions with helpful visuals, organizations can create SWIs that are practical and user-friendly. Regular reviews and updates ensure these instructions remain relevant and effective. Moreover, SWIs play a pivotal role in training new employees, ensuring they are quickly aligned with established practices.

In summary, SWIs, distinct from SOPs in their detailed nature, are not just guides but fundamental tools for continuous improvement, operational excellence, and consistent performance in any organization.


  • Florentina Abreu, M., Pereira, A.C., Silva, A., Silva, F., Ferraz, F., Alves, A.C., Oliveira, J.A., Gomes, M., Analide, C., Cardoso, J. and Vicente, S., 2017. Collaborative process mapping to improve work instructions and standardized work. In Recent Advances in Information Systems and Technologies: Volume 1 5 (pp. 603-615). Springer International Publishing.
  • Renu, R.S. and Mocko, G., 2015, August. Text analysis of assembly work instructions. In International Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference (Vol. 57052, p. V01BT02A003). American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

A: Standard work refers to a documented set of best practices and instructions that outline the most efficient and effective way to perform a specific task or process. It serves as a reference guide for employees, ensuring consistency, quality, and continuous improvement in their work.

A: Standard work is important because it provides numerous benefits to organizations. It helps eliminate waste, reduce variation, improve productivity, enhance quality, and promote a safe working environment. Standard work also facilitates employee training, streamlines operations, and enables easier identification of improvement opportunities.

A: When selecting a process for standardization, consider tasks or processes that are repetitive, critical to your organization’s performance, or have potential for improvement. Look for processes that have a significant impact on quality, customer satisfaction, productivity, or safety.

A: To establish standard work instructions, analyze the current process, identify best practices, and document them in a clear and detailed manner. Include specific steps, methods, tools, and metrics for each activity. Incorporate safety guidelines and quality standards into the instructions.

A: Implementing standard work requires ongoing monitoring and support. Regularly review employee performance, provide feedback, and address any challenges or questions that arise. Engage employees in the process, encourage their involvement, and create a culture that values adherence to standard work.

A: Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) aligned with your organization’s goals, such as productivity, quality, cycle time, or customer satisfaction. Track and analyze these metrics regularly to evaluate the impact of standard work. Use the data to identify areas for improvement and make data-driven decisions.

A: Standard work instructions should be periodically reviewed and updated to ensure they remain up-to-date and relevant. As processes evolve or improvements are identified, incorporate those changes into the instructions. Engage employees in the review process to gather their insights and suggestions.

A: Foster a culture of continuous improvement by encouraging employees to provide feedback, suggestions, and ideas for refining the standard work process. Create channels for open communication, conduct improvement workshops, and leverage improvement methodologies such as Lean or Six Sigma to drive ongoing optimization and innovation.


Picture of Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website www.learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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