Procedure vs. Instruction

What is the difference between a procedure and an instruction? And, does it matter?

A procedure is a specified way to carry out an activity. An instruction provides detailed directions on how to perform a task.

Procedures and instructions can be documented, or not. If the activities and tasks are being carried out by competent people, written procedures and instructions may be unnecessary.

The confusion between what is a procedure and what is an instruction is magnified when organizations refer to them by different names. For example, a procedure may be referred to as a method or plan; an instruction may be called directions or guidance.

In some organizations, work instructions are named “standard operating procedures”, which adds more confusion. The key to distinguishing between procedures and instructions is to look at their level of detail. Procedures describe “what” is done and instructions describe “how” it is done.

A quality management system can be decomposed into processes, activities, and tasks. In other words, a system consists of multiple processes, each of which includes multiple activities. Each activity can be further decomposed into tasks.

For example, a quality manual describes policies across the entire system. Within that system are multiple, linked processes, each with a defined, perhaps documented, procedure. If an activity within a procedure needs more of an explanation on how tasks are performed, an instruction can be written.

So, a procedure is the specified way to carry out activities making up a process. An instruction describes the sequence of steps to perform the tasks making up an activity. For documented procedures and instructions, we should be able to look at the text to see if it is a procedure or an instruction.

An example of text from a procedure might be:

The audit program manager maintains the audit schedule and assigns qualified auditors that are independent of the areas to be audited. 

A procedure describes what is done, but doesn’t get down to the details of how it is done. Since multiple people may be involved in carrying out the procedure, their titles are used to clarify their roles.

An example from an instruction might be:

1. Check the box.
2. Enter the value.
3. Drain the tank.

An instruction typically uses action-oriented verbs to direct or instruct the person to perform the task. Since the instruction is “talking” to the person carrying out the task, the person’s title isn’t needed.

So, procedures are basically descriptions of departmental activities. They provide process overviews and link to work instructions, if needed, on how to perform selected tasks within an activity.

Procedures are referenced in the quality manual and must conform to the policies stated in that document. A procedure explains why a process is performed, what is done, by whom, when it happens, and where it takes place.

ISO 9001 requires documented procedures for Document Control (4.2.3), Record Control (4.2.4), Internal Audits (8.2.2), Control of Nonconforming Product (8.3), Corrective Action (8.5.2), and Preventive Action (8.5.3). Other documented procedures may be necessary for the effective planning, operation, and control of the processes within your quality management system.

Instructions are optional for an ISO 9001-based system (see clause 7.5.1.b), but they are usually included for consistent operations. The instructions are written to give directions in a logical work sequence. They also take into account the qualifications of the persons using them.

If you’d like to learn how to write and control documents, enroll in our Quality System Documentation course. You can see the course description at our web site.