What is a Work Instruction?

A Work Instruction is a document that provides specific instructions to carry out an Activity.

A Work Instruction is a step by step guide to perform a single instruction.

A Work Instruction contains more detail than a Procedure and is only created if detailed step-by-step instructions are needed.

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What’s the difference between Policies, Procedures, Processes, and Work Instructions? If you find these documents slightly confusing, this tutorial will help explain the difference. First, let’s start by defining what is a work instruction and where it’s used.

It’s not easy to tell the difference as there is no official definition for Work Instructions. While the ISO has defined Procedures and Processes very clearly, it doesn’t define what is a Work Instructions, which gives rise to some of the confusion.

Definition of a Work Instruction

Here are some definitions from the web. Some are from ‘authorized’ sources. Other are from ITIL, QA and SOP forums.

A document describing specific activities and tasks within the organization. It contains the greatest amount of detail.
As a component of a process, “defines how one or more activities in a procedure should be executed in detail, using technology or other resources. See: blog.hbhtech.com
A written description or instruction covering each simple detailed step. See: www.infotech.monash.edu.au

ITIL & Work Instructions

ITIL, which is used to manage service and support services, defines it as:

Work Instruction (ITILv3): A detailed set of instructions that describe exactly how a low-level activity must be carried out. For example, describing precisely how a Request For Change record is created in the Change Management software support tool.

Hierarchy of Procedural Documents

Another way to look at this is to consider all procedure documents, from SOPs to Work Instructions, as part of a pyramid.

  • Work Instructions are the “how you address satisfying the SOP” documents.
  • Standards state that you must have a documented procedure for conducting audits.
  • SOPs/Procedures outlines how/when audits will be performed. Work Instructions go one level down and show the exact steps required to train the auditors, prepare the documents etc.

Difference Between Work Instructions and Procedures

Another way of looking at Work Instructions v Procedures is that:

Procedures describe:

  • What is the activity is
  • Who performs it
  • When it is performed

Work instructions describe:

  • How the activity is performed.

Purpose of Work Instructions

Explainers.com state:

‘A work instruction is a tool provided to help someone to do a job correctly. This simple statement implies that the purpose of the work instruction is quality and that the target user is the worker. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, today’s work instructions have little connection with this fundamental focus. Factories have encumbered work instructions with content that has been added to satisfy auditors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and yes, even quality managers. We’ve piled on so much extraneous material that we’ve lost sight of the intended purpose of work instructions.’ See: http://www.explainers.com/Articles/Four-Essentials-Effective-Work-Instructions.htm


My two cents are: don’t get caught up in the  name of the documents. Policy, Procedure, Work Instruction?

Consider the reader’s needs first.

Write material that is accurate, easy-to-read and useful. And try to keep them short.

Learn More: How to Write Work Instructions