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Assembly Line Production in Technical Communication
Published
2005, Q2 (July 03, 2007)
By Sunita Shelar, Senior STC member

This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of INDUS (http://www.stc-india.org/indus/index.htm), the newsletter of the India STC Chapter.

The concept of Assembly Line Production is not new. Henry Ford advocated this approach in automobile manufacturing more than half a century ago. The basic idea behind his most successful approach is that "Nothing is particularly difficult, if you divide it into small tasks."

The Japanese automobile industry honed this idea by introducing the concept of 'Just in Time' (JIT). The idea behind JIT is that during the production process, the raw material arrives into the manufacturing unit at the precise moment and in the precise quantity that the technician requires it.

Many industries have successfully adopted these models to streamline their processes to simplify tasks, groom specialists, increase productivity, and develop an eye-for-detail.

The assembly line approach consists of three phasesAnalysis, Planning, and Execution. The approach gets noticed during the Execution phase, though its success lies in proper Analysis & Planning. Analysis constitutes the thinking process that involves:
  • Understanding the complete process
  • Dividing the process into its smallest logical components
  • Grouping components into logical units
  • Grouping units to complete the product
Planning constitutes assigning the right person, at the right time, to:
  • Manufacture components
  • Check components
  • Group components to form logical units
  • Check logical units
  • Group units to finish the product
  • Check the finished product
Execution constitutes action by the assigned people to implement the plan.
Each step in the process needs special skill-sets. The advantage of the assembly line model is that the tasks, when broken-down, can be divided into skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled grades. Given time and with inclination, people can scale themselves to upgrade and acquire the requisite skills.

Can Technical Communicators adopt the Assembly Line Approach?

Adopting the Assembly Line model to suit Technical Communication, especially considering today's increased off-shoring opportunities, requires us to take a second look at the accepted Document Development Life Cycle (DDLC).

The DDLC spans the phases of Analysis, Design, Development, and Production. The Analysis phase constitutes the documentation approach, plan, and schedule. The Design phase constitutes information design and document layout. The Development phase consists of Information Analysis, Development (Draft), Review (peer, external), Rework (after each review cycle), and Final Freeze. The Production phase constitutes delivery of the documents in the agreed format.

Just as in the automobile industry, the Assembly Line approach for documentation gets noticed in the Development or Implementation phase. Its success however, is dependent on the Analysis and Design phase.
The standard practice today is that an author takes ownership of a manual/document and sees it through the entire life cycle. This approach helps the author acquire domain knowledge and feel a sense of accomplishment. It works well when time is not a constraint or if the author already has domain and tool expertise.

However, in today's demanding business environment, Technical Communicators are being asked to produce more with less. One has to produce increased amounts of documents, in different formats, for varied audiences, with shrinking deadlines and an unskilled or semi-skilled workforce. In such a scenario, getting people enabled and producing quality documents with the fastest turn-around time is the need of the hour.

Breaking-down the Development Phase

The matrix [on the following page] shows the various tasks into which one can further break up the different stages of the Development phase and the domain or tool expertise required to accomplish the task.

Stage Task Expertise Required Experience
Information analysis Gathering information Domain expert Experienced doc resource
Structuring information Domain expert Experienced doc resource
Making information cohesive Domain expert Experienced doc resource
Technical review Reviewing analysis document SME External non-doc resource
Rework After technical review Closing review comments received from SME Familiarity with domain Mid-experienced doc resource
Draft Taking coherent information and plugging it into ready-made templates Familiarity with tool Novice doc resource
Peer review Formatting review Knowledge of formatting standards Novice doc resource with the help of a good checklist.
Editorial review Good language skills Novice doc resource
Technical accuracy review Domain expert Experienced doc resource
Rework after all peer reviews Closing review comments received from peers Familiarity with tool & standards Novice doc resource
External review Reviewing document SME, testing, etc. External non-doc resource
Rework after external reviews Closing review comments received from external groups Familiarity with domain Mid-experienced doc resource
Final freeze Checking that all comments are closed, information is complete, flow of information is accurate, etc. Domain expert Experienced doc resource


As is evident from the above matrix, a lot of work can be accomplished using novice resources. The definition of a novice resource is someone who is new to the field of Technical Communication and has no knowledge of the domain or tools. The services of this resource can be efficiently utilized within a week of the person joining the team or as soon as the resource gets familiar with the tool used to produce documentation. If the resource is already familiar with the tool, the services of the resource can be utilized from the day the person joins the team.

As novice resources start performing any of the tasks mentioned in the matrix above, they begin to get familiar with the domain and the standards followed by the team. It helps them move from performing novice tasks to little more complex tasks within 68 weeks.

The transition from mid-experienced to experienced tasks can happen as soon as 1214 weeks, with an outer limit of six months. After this, resources can be utilized for the Design phase.
This is also where the Japanese technology of JIT comes into play. The novice resource should be provided with just enough information to perform a task, to avoid information overload. The following table explains the kind of information required to accomplish a task assigned to the novice resource.

Stage Task Expertise Required
Draft Taking coherent information and plugging it into ready-made templates Use of templates / style-sheet
Peer review Formatting review Formatting style checklist
Editorial review Style guide followed for language guidelines
Rework after all peer reviews Closing review comments received from peers Review comment list

Style guide to be followed for formatting & language guidelines



Advantages of the Approach

The use of the Assembly Line approach in Technical Communication helps:
  • Train people on the job
  • Utilizes people's skills without it being an overhead to the company
  • Produce quality documentation, within stiff deadlines, with a team of resources having mixed skill sets.
For ongoing and projects that span over six months this approach helps:
  • Produce specialists in every role
  • Set career objectives and path
  • Scale up resources quickly
  • Upgrade resources skills
  • Resources gain domain expertise gradually
  • Resources understand the complete documentation process with a hands-on approach

In the initial stages, though the Assembly Line approach appears to deliver the output faster, in the final analysis, it produces better informed, domain and process experts.

Sunita Shelar works with Infosys Technologies Ltd., Bangalore as a Principal Technical Communicator. She can be reached at sunita_shelar at infosys dot com. End of article.



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