Assembling a better widget vat, or, Excel is not a verb

Last week, I had a Twitter conversation with Jane Bozarth and David Glow. All three of us, I think, started by having fun with the, um, suboptimal material Jane had been given to start with. I briefly described a spectacular example of a wrongheaded job aid, but we moved pretty quickly to the idea that mockery (however well deserved) wasn’t enough.

So rather than post this fictionalized version as a candidate for the Worst Job Aid Ever, I thought I’d try doing two things: talk about why this attempt works so poorly, and suggest some things I’d do differently if invited. I’m grateful to David and Jane for encouraging me in this.

It’ll be a bit wordy, so  I’ll break it into two posts. This is the first.

Here are two pages taken from a set of assembly instructions for a piece of industrial equipment. I’ve edited the pages, but only to conceal the source. The layout is exactly the same as the original. (You can click the images to see them full size in a new window.)

QAC 02 page 1 1
Assembly instructions, page 1 – 1

 (By the way, when I said the layout is exactly the same as the original, I also meant that fifteen of the seventeen pages have an identical layout. Each page has space for three dropped-in photos; each has three borderless boxes of instructions [centered vertically, with text almost always in ALL CAPS]; each has the six boxes you see for safety, tools, quality, and so on.)

Assembly instructions, page 1 – 5

You may have noticed that the assembly instructions were created in Excel. I confess that I’ve kept this unique document for selfish reasons: it’s one of the most bizarre attempts at guiding performance that I’ve ever seen.

I’m not here to talk about bizarre–at least not today. I’m here to talk about why these instructors fail so badly.

What’s not working, and why

It’s true that never before nor since have I seen an assembly guide written in a spreadsheet, but that’s more a symptom than the underlying problem. A more important question: what’s Quasimodo’s problem? In other words, what are they trying to get done?

I’d say their goal is to have assembled widget vats that pass inspection and meet cost guidelines.

I’ve covered a lot of territory with “pass inspection,” but the second-last sheet makes reference to a number of Quasimodo standards. (Click this image to open it in a new window.)

QAC 05 inspection
Inspection guidelines and standards

Although I never saw the actual equipment, it’s clear from photos that the finished product is about the length and width of a roomy parking space. Two or three people assembly it in a factory, from start to finish (meaning, not on an assembly line–the parts come to the assemblers). Assembly involves over 50 steps, several of which are variations of “repeat steps 1-5 for all four edges.”

So what?

Well, mostly these steps are sequences of actions with few decisions:

  1. Position center end wall panel CAD on assembly fixture.
    • Use two people or a jib crane to lift panels.
    • Check submittal for end wall connection and bottom connection orientation.
  2. Fasten center end wall panel CAD to floor plane using 5/16 x 3/4 LG tappers.
  3. Fasten center end wall panel CAD to floor support channel ZCA using 3/8 x 1-1/4 LG screw.
  4. And so on and so forth…

I imagine these instructions were printed, pages slipped into sheet protectors and stored in a ring binder at the assembly area. They’re like a recipe from an industrial cookbook. So the fact they were created in Excel, while non-typical, is less relevant than the barriers created by their overall layout and especially by their approach to guiding behavior.

What else do we know about assembling the widget vat?

  • Workers need safety equipment like hearing protection and safety glasses.
  • Parts of the task involve specialized equipment (like that jib crane).
  • Some ways of working are more efficient or more effective than others (“start at the center and work your way out to the ends”).
  • Detail often matters (as in the note above to check the submittal, a kind of specification for one specific assembly job).

And why doesn’t this attempt work well?

QAC 05 1 5 detailTo shoot the biggest fish in the barrel: Excel isn’t a word processor. It’s not a publishing tool (unless you’re publishing numbers and charts, or else tables of data). Creating this guide in a spreadsheet needlessly complicates the task of updating and revising — and even searching.

This isn’t even well-done document publication via Excel. Here’s a portion of page 1-5 (the second image above).  Note that the photo includes two callouts labeled CA while the accompanying text refers to panels CAA, CAB, and CAF. If you had the Excel file, you could enlarge the two CA callouts in the picture, and then you’d see that one of them actually reads CAA while the other reads CAB.

So Doctor Spreadsheet may not have been a proofreading whiz.

But who cares? The reason Excel is a poor choice is that nothing calls for Excel. There isn’t a single calculation in the entire document. You might as well have produced this in PowerPoint. Or taken photos of alphabet magnets you arranged on your fridge.

From a graphics standpoint, the lockstep layout assigns equal weight to two areas (task photos and procedural steps), and the same total weight to six blocks, one of which (quality) reads “n/a” on all but one of the 15 pages.  Most of the time, a third of the space on a page is sitting around doing nothing. Nothing except confining the actual performance steps to their all-cap prison.

From a job-aid standpoint:

  • Before you begin information (like equipment and parts to have) should appear before the steps in the procedure.
  • Visuals, when necessary, should appear next to the step they illustrate.
  • Information that’s not needed on a page should not appear and shouldn’t have a reserved parking space that does nothing but delineate whether the information might show up on a subsequent page.
  • Steps should be clearer delineated, not crammed into a trio of one-size-fits-all holding pens:
Detail from page 1-6
Detail from page 1-6

The vertical centering manages to complicate reading even more, a remarkable feat for such a small amount of text. Another complication: in this example, step 5 says to repeat steps 1 through 5–a good recipe for an endless loop. I think the assemblers would figure out what the designer meant, but it’s no thanks to the designer.

So, as it exists, the QAC assembly instructions are hard to update, hard to read (from a graphics standpoint), and hard to follow (from a getting-your-work-done standpoint). It doesn’t seem like they’d easily get Quasimodo to the goal of assembled widget vats that passed inspection at a cost acceptable to the company — at least not until the workforce managed to build enough of these things to not need the instructions.

In my next post, I’ll show some possible revisions and talk about why I think they’d help. But I don’t have to have all the fun: add your comments. Ask your questions–if I’m able to, I’ll answer them. Let’s see if we can get to IPI sign-off a bit faster. You know, so we can excel.

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