When you need a certain task to be done a certain way, you want more than just a basic diagram. You want a SOP or Standard Operating Procedure. Having SOPs in place not only ensures that everyone is on the same page and that there are no misunderstandings and there’s no confusion about how something is done.
But what exactly is a Standard Operating Procedure and how do you write one in a way that’s easy to understand, and more importantly, easy to follow? This guide will show you how, step-by-step.
What are Standard Operating Procedures?
A standard operating procedure (SOP) is one or more documents that offer exact instructions on how employees, team members or other users in an organization or company should complete a specific process.
Although it sounds similar to a procedural document, SOPs are designed to go into much more detail, while procedural documents give more of a high-level overview of a process.
Rather than simply saying that the user needs to complete step 1 and 2, as a procedural document would do, the standard operating procedure would explain how, exactly, the user should arrive from step 1 to step 2.
Companies can choose to create their own internal SOP documents for their team from scratch, but it’s best to have a standard operating procedure template to follow. Fortunately, there are several examples we can draw from.
Depending on the complexity of the procedure, it may be easiest to create a SOP by following a bullet-pointed or numbered series of steps. If by following these steps, the user can complete the process without any misunderstanding or failure, then it’s a good idea to keep it as simple as possible. These types of processes can include:
- Online login steps
- Instructions on how to properly use equipment
- How to setup a product
- How to clean up an area
Similar to a step-by-step process, hierarchical SOPs follow steps, but then elaborate on those with sub-steps. So, you may have steps 1, 2, and 3 with a step-by-step format, but steps 1, 1a, 1b, 2, 2a, and so on, with a hierarchical format.
This format is ideal if you need to present material in a step-by-step process, but you want to elaborate or deviate from those steps to present another option or give additional instruction.
A flowchart is best used when there are several paths one can take in order to get to the desired outcome, or if multiple outcomes are possible. The outcome of one particular step will affect the subsequent one, and presenting information in a type of flowchart can make allowances for these additional options. See below for an example:
In the chart above, you’ll notice that there are different possible steps with different possible outcomes, and depending on the step that preceded it, this will determine what the outcome will be.
Why Do Standard Operating Procedures Matter?
We’ve covered the basics of why SOPs are important, but in addition to helping lay out a precise set of steps or actions in a methodical and organized way, standard operating procedures also help organizations to turn their processes into a system -- like well-oiled cogs in a machine.
This, in turn, helps keep team members and others in-the-know on how to conduct the specific operation. The end result is that everyone takes the same steps to get the same result -- creating a cohesive unit of singular mind and goals.
Not having SOP documentation in place is like failing to properly maintain that well-oiled machine. Things can gum up the works, causing some parts to fail, others not to start at all. Will you get the result you’d hoped for? Maybe, maybe not.
Is that a risk you’re willing to take in your business?
It’s for this reason, among many others, that creating SOP documentation is not just a best practice in and of itself, but it also has numerous other benefits.
Creating SOP Documentation Helps Ensure that Employees and Members Follow Best Practices at All Times
With the aforementioned “cog in the wheel” mentality, one of the best ways to keep such a well-oiled machine running is by defining what exactly makes up “best practices”. This means getting all departments and hierarchies on board so that everything can be developed in the best interest of “getting it done right the first time.”
In essence, you’ll have a clear, start-to-finish map that you and your team can depend on to clearly understand the best way to undertake a specific task and not only get it done, but get the best possible results.
SOP Documentation Helps Enforce Consistency
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things in your business. Having these processes documented helps ensure that everything is done in a specific way, so that team members can concentrate more on complex and advanced tasks while making sure that even the simple things are handled automatically, following the best practices.
Good SOP Documentation Properly Trains and Onboards Employees
Having clearly-defined standard operating procedures makes sure that nothing is left to chance when it comes to training and onboarding team members. A properly-written SOP forces you to highlight particular challenges or issues that new hires or trainees could face, and ensures that they understand how best to handle the process with documentation that lists every step they’ll need to take.
In addition, it prevents issues of miscommunication and misunderstandings that can arise from not having the process correctly documented.
SOP Procedures Keep Knowledge Organized
One of the most important reasons to have SOPs in place is one that you may not have thought about. It keeps all available knowledge organized in a way that’s accessible to all relevant parties at all times.
Now, writing down every single step of a common process may seem like a waste of time and resources, since your current employees likely already know how to do the process correctly. But as time goes on, your employee roster will change. People will go on leave, quit and retire. Any knowledge they gained on the job about how to perform specific tasks will also go with them.
With SOPs in place, they’re documenting what they know, so that new hires can learn from their wisdom and follow their advice to pick right up where they left off, without so much as missing a step in the overall performance of things.
What Are Some of the Challenges of Creating a Standard Operating Procedure?
Now that you better understand the benefits of creating a SOP, it’s important to realize that such an undertaking is not without its obstacles. However, once you know what to be aware of, you can better side-step the most common pitfalls. Here’s what to look for:
It Can Be Challenging to Get Everyone on Board
No great strategy has ever been executed without the complete cooperation of everyone involved, from the executives to the support team. If one or more departments are involved, it’s imperative that they all participate in the creation of the SOPs.
Imagine, for instance, if your SOP were created solely by the executives at your company. Because the executives oversee the process, they may concentrate more on the importance of achieving said goal rather than the actual steps needed to bring it to fruition. This, in turn, means that the finished product doesn’t include the process nor follow the best practices to achieve said results.
You’ll Need to Make Sure the SOP is Visible, Centralized and Accessible by Employees
Even after you develop your procedures, you’ll have to make sure that everyone who uses them can access the documentation when and where they need to. If you go to all the trouble of creating such a document but don’t make it visible or accessible, it becomes very tempting to just slide back into the “old way of doing things”- which cancels out the reason of having SOPs in the first place.
To help prevent this, ensure that the documentation you and your team create is accessible to everyone that needs access to it. A centralized knowledge repository that’s easy to access and add to will be one that gets used often.
Issues with Proper Management and Maintenance
Creating SOPs is not just a once-and-done operation. Just having the documents and following them is not enough. Your team members will also have to have access to the requisite tools and strategies to complete the job effectively.
In addition, over time, technology changes and processes may be updated over time. The last thing you want is for your team to follow something that is outdated or even dangerous. That means that SOPs should be revisited regularly and updated if need be.
So now that you understand the benefits of writing SOPs and some of the challenges associated with implementing them, the question then becomes -- how do you actually create them? Let’s take a closer look:
How to Create an SOP Document Template
No matter what type of SOP you’re creating, there are going to be some pages that are uniform throughout:
- The title page, which contains all relevant information about the document, including
- The operating procedure being documented
- Any specific identification number
- When the document was created and last edited
- The department or person(s) in charge of implementing the procedures
- The names and titles of the people who created or contributed to the document
- The table of contents
- You may not necessarily have to include this, but if the procedure is long or complex, it may help people get to the part they need quickly and efficiently.
- Any proprietary details
- The purpose of the procedure. Why do you need to document it? What are the actual standards you’re following?
- What are the user roles and responsibilities: Who should be given access to the document? What resources are needed in order to follow the steps outlined in it and where can they be found? What steps should the user take if the operation cannot be completed?
- Warnings or dangers: This is particularly important if the procedure is hazardous, toxic or otherwise dangerous. You’ll want to explain the dangers, warnings or other cautionary statements in crystal-clear detail as well as let users know what to do in case of an emergency or who to contact.
- The actual procedure itself
- This is the “meat and potatoes” of the SOP. It describes the operating procedure itself. No matter which format you choose, you’ll have to make sure to be detailed, specific and outline the steps in a clear, consistent manner so that nothing is left to chance or misunderstood.
- In the simplest of cases, these steps will be simple point-by-point steps. In other cases, they may involve decision trees, flow charts, supporting images, or any other complex designs. The goal is to be as complete as possible so that there’s no doubt about how to perform the action. In short, you want to tell them everything they need to do the work, and then let them work.
- It’s also important to have a way to measure that team members can achieve the end result, and how they’ll be measured accordingly. This can be something like a performance evaluation or a rubric, but at its core, it’s designed to not only demonstrate the degree of acuity in performing the task, but also discern areas where team members can improve.
- Resources, references and a glossary
- Throughout the SOP, you’ll find yourself referring to terms, resources and other details that may need additional explanation that can’t be expressed in a bullet point or addendum. You can use a reference or glossary as part of your SOP to expound on this
- Review the finished work for accuracy
- This is the moment where you put your SOP to the test and have those involved review it for completeness, cohesiveness, accuracy and understanding. If any issues are uncovered, the parties in charge can make specific changes and additions before it gets officially revealed to employees.
- It’s a good idea to have new and experienced team members to review the standard operating documentation in case there may be points that are clear to experts, but may be problematic for beginners.
- Finally, don’t forget training
- Users may need to be properly trained on how to execute the steps outlined in the SOP. Even if they’ve done the process before, they may not have done it in the manner that constitutes a “best practice”. Make sure that they understand that this is not a one-time training, but rather will include ongoing training in the right procedures and steps to ensure that everyone is on the same page with how things need to be done.
- Don’t hesitate to refine the process
- It’s easiest for team members to adopt a new process step-by-step (much like the process itself!) rather than just diving in. Some people will intuitively understand the procedure right away, while others may need to take the process more slowly in order to become acclimated to the steps. You may even have those who picked up quickly to help train and elaborate on the process for those who may still be unsure.
The bottom line though, is that you can’t lose the momentum behind creating and delivering the SOPs and getting people to engage with them. It can be too easy for people to slip up and go back to the “old, comfortable”way of doing things even if it’s inefficient or difficult.
Let Your Team Be as Productive as Possible, While Keeping the Door Open for Future Changes
Making sure that your SOP follows the best practices, while making it both easily noticed and accessible is important for your overall team’s cohesiveness and consistency in following it. It cannot be understated how important it is to have a centralized knowledge base to help make the process of updating and refining even easier. As people leave and come on board, as technology and trends change, having a clear, easily understandable set of instructions to follow can improve efficiency, boost productivity and instill greater cooperation and collaboration between your team members, which means nothing but solid growth for your business.