Work instructions and the art of meter maintenance

In 2019, network operators start installing digital meters for electricity and natural gas. These meters not only allow for automatic data collection, but also aid in the transition to locally generated energy. In Flanders, Fluvius is responsible for implementing the meters. For them, this project is a starting point for also increasing efficiency in the work instructions used by their technicians. Flow assisted in optimizing the approach, structure and use of images in work instructions.

Quality and perception

In the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, author and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig tries to capture the concept of “quality”. According to him, the quality of the object is located somewhere in the middle, in a middle ground between the object itself and the observer.

Page by page, Pirsig explains how observers should capture and accept this quality, rather than test it according to their own situation and environment. In this way, observers avoid frustration and become more zen.

Zen and the art of motorcycle management

Rather confusing, isn’t it?

Things are a little different for technical documents as they are tested according to their environment and specific context. That is why you can measure their quality with repeatable experiments, predefined hypotheses and criteria. For example: Version A is better if users make fewer mistakes than when they use version B. Similar tests can be done for speed, clarity, and so on.

Technical writers ensure that work instructions score as highly as possible in the field and that end users want to use them. This decreases frustration and increases zen.

Work instructions at Fluvius

In 2018, Fluvius embarked on a search for more efficiency and zen in their work instructions. That year, the infrastructure managers Eandis and Infrax merged to form Fluvius and a European guideline paved the way for implementing digital and smart energy meters.

These meters send their data to a central management system and users can access this information to optimize their energy consumption. But new meters require new procedures, new methods and new work instructions. Gradually, the idea developed that this was the perfect opportunity to redesign and improve the work instructions.

Technical writers ensure that work instructions score highly in the field.

Despite the fact that many existing work instructions were objectively good, there was also negative feedback from users: length, clarity and accuracy could be improved.

The challenge: Editing the work instructions without interrupting the normal order of business, as the supply of electricity to homes and businesses, as well as the maintenance and installation of meters had to continue as normal. Moreover, each (new) work instruction has an impact on many different services (such as security and training) and the instructions had to be ready quickly. It was time to carefully plan our approach. This happened on five levels:

1. Structure

The existing instructions were already well-structured, but we refined the approach. At the same time, Fluvius was working on a training flow for writing instructions.

2. Parallel paths

A traditional documentation flow is serial: A document is finished and approved before being distributed and used. Fluvius switched to a parallel approach in which documents were also available as concepts (on SharePoint), so colleagues could already get to work. This created shorter feedback loops and saved time.

3. New approach for illustrations

The existing work instructions contained many illustrations. In the new approach, it became impossible to take clear pictures because not every meter set-up could be built on a test site. Of the new meters, only a number of prototypes were available. That is why we designed a schematic approach: We replaced pictures with schemas and diagrams and we focused on a generic look rather than photographic accuracy. To simplify the reuse and editing of these illustrations, we created a library of reusable images and components in an already existing tool (Microsoft Visio). This made updating and editing illustrations much easier and quicker.

New approach illustrations for work instructions

4. More specialisation and smaller scopes

The new instructions were more specialized and received a reduced scope. This meant we could divide bulky documents with long instructions into shorter documents with specific instructions, aimed at specific situations. This also reduced complexity and ensured a better match for specific situations in the field.

5. New methods and technologies

A work group was created to analyze how instructions could be made available to technicians in the field. Currently, this is done with paper instructions and a digital PDF equivalent. For a smarter use of the instructions in practice, Fluvius launched a pilot project based on a digital platform (Proceedix). With this platform, you can register and publish work instructions, as well as make them available on tablets, smart phones and even smart glasses. The feedback from the field will determine whether the advantages are significant enough to implement this as a global improvement.

Eye for the future

These are only the first steps in a new direction. Who knows which new methods and tools will become available in the future? By taking it one step at a time and with a pragmatic approach, we can find improvements that suit everyone’s work style.

Robert Pirsig would have been happy to know that our end goal is to avoid frustration. So we can all be a bit more zen.