• Nate Braymen

How to Stop Writing Sucky Safety Procedures: Understanding Edition

This post is the second in my series on writing better procedures

Bill still wants us to do better. How can you argue with the bard?


I miss the ridiculously simple instructions we had in the military. This weekend, amidst construction of the IKEA loft bed from hell, I longed for the days of reading “turn the screw on the left one-quarter turn.”

The bed wasn’t actually from IKEA, but it had enough parts to qualify. The “instructions” were pictures with basic directions such as “connect M (there were 79 of those BTW) to x using bolt #4 (105 of those).” It only took me four hours to get it together. Then a bonus trip to Home Depot to pick up some bolts to secure it to the wall (I am still a safety guy after all).

The agony was worth it though because my son is exceedingly proud of his new furniture. I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my parents for getting it for him, too.

But back to my point about instructions. In the Air Force, we had Technical Orders (TOs for short since everything in the military is an acronym). If memory serves, they were all written at an eighth grade reading level. Not as an insult to service members, but as insurance that no one misinterpreted them. The IKEA bed reminded me of the one time we didn’t have those instructions available. Let’s just say a bit of good-spirited rebellion ensued.

If you’ve been reading along, you may recall from reading THIS EARLIER POST that I was a munitions maintenance technician. Near the end of my first duty assignment (a one year tour in South Korea), I was leading a crew of three other Airmen whose primary job was to maintain air-to-ground tankbuster missiles. One morning a beat up, corroded metal box containing a special missile showed up with an accompanying work order for a complete refurb. The missile was special because it was the last one of it’s kind.

The USAF had plenty of newer models…

The missile was manufactured in 1960. Someone had found it one squirreled away in a warehouse and decided to send it off in style. I don’t remember the exact occasion, but some high-ranking pilot was going to fire the relic. In order for it to be fit for that type of fanfare, it needed a fresh coat of paint (and a full function check, but why sweat that detail if it wasn’t shiny…).

When my crew and I removed it from the ancient casket we saw something extraordinary. It had the same shape as the newer models, but it was… ugly. Ugly to a scary degree since explosives aren’t typically something you typically want to see rusted and broken down. Then we received another surprise.

There were no instructions.

We thumbed through the hundreds of pages of that missile’s TO and came up blank. The missile, as it turns out, was so old that it’s work instructions were retired. All we could find was a tattered picture in one of the appendices.

The four of us stood around it scratching our heads trying to interpret the faded drawing. If you’re not familiar, marking requirements on military equipment (munitions included) are extremely prescriptive. We had to measure out exactly the right width for the color band (an indicator of what type of explosive), place labels and letters meticulously, and ensure that the exact mil-spec colors were used. I’m oversimplifying the process to boot.

“Should we paint it OD (olive drab) like the others,” one of the guys asked. I looked up at him and then back at the black and white sketch.

“No,” I said. “I’m pretty sure this one’s pink.” Another of the guys looked up at me and grinned. He paused for a beat before chiming in.

“It does look pink,” he agreed. “And I think it has purple tiger stripes on the tail” The other two were fully now fully aware of the plot that was forming.

“I think it has one of those shark faces at the front, too. What do you guys think?” I asked.

With that we were off and running. We started with the function check, then checked all the torques on the bolts. But then… the real work began. When we were finished, the Air Force was the proud owner of a pink polka-dotted, purple tiger-striped, shark face missile. It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a real unicorn.

I know it’s not a missile. But… Shark Face! You get the picture.

The boss was not impressed…

Thankfully his boss was. In the end, the unicorn was shipped to the flight-line and fired with much more fanfare than the pilot was likely expecting. My only regret was that I didn’t get to see it.

At this point I hope you’ve figured out how the story relates to safety procedures. If not let me give you my takeaways.

The first is that people need meaningful instructions. I know that should go without saying, but it never ceases to amaze me how often leaders (safety or otherwise) assume that people know what’s expected. They might have a basic idea, but assuming they understand how to get the job done is a dangerous proposition. Plain and simple, if you want someone to do something tell them, then explain how to do it.

The second takeaway is that those instructions should be clear and concise. I’ll cover this in greater detail in the next post in this series. Until then, let’s just suffice it to say that copying an OSHA reg and calling it a procedure doesn’t fit the bill. If you want people to do something, tell them exactly what you want (turn the screw one-quarter turn…). No fancy words required.

There’s so much more to be said about this topic. It’s one that I believe is highly underrated. In the coming months, I’ll be developing a “Procedure Mastery Course” which will be available here at Relentless Safety. If that would be of interest to you, send me a note at jason@relentlesssafety and let me know what you’d like to see in a course like that.

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