If you want a good indication of how a company actually operates day to day, you need only look at their standard operating procedures. Despite their crucial role within any successful organization, they tend to get a bad reputation.
People often assume that these detailed instructions for routine tasks are just put there to limit employee flexibility, or otherwise babysit workers. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. Standardizing business processes actually frees up an organization, allowing them to repeatedly achieve success in their work.
The tricky part is actually writing them. Coming up with a clear and concise (yet comprehensive) document can be a little daunting. That’s why we’re going to walk you through how to author the best standard operating procedures – let’s go!
What is a Standard Operating Procedure?
A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a set of instructions that describe any steps that need to be taken in order to properly perform an internal business process. They are step-by-step by definition and so enable anyone to follow along and complete the process, providing they are competent to do so.
It’s a two birds one stone situation because that same nature of SOPs also allows them to be done exactly the same way again and again, thus guaranteeing consistency and compliance. In fact, you may just hit the entire flock because standard operating procedures do a number of other great things for any company that’s clued-up enough to use them.
What’s the Purpose of a Standard Operating Procedure?
It’s a hot summer’s day and you’re thirsty. You duck into a new coffee shop and head to the counter. Looking up, you see a giant menu that’s completely packed with drink selections. You scan the entire thing once, twice, three times. The barista looks at you with anticipation as you begin to dread the inevitable question.
This phenomenon, known as “choice paralysis” occurs when you’re essentially overloaded with options. Having gotten stuck in a state of indecision, everything takes a little longer as you have to mentally sift through all of the choices and their implications. Though this quick coffee order may appear arbitrary, you’ll find the very same principle at work.
When there’s all sorts of choices an employee can make to get something done, it’s often hard to recognize the optimal path. And to find that best route every time, every day of the week? Quite nearly impossible. Uncertainty breeds miscommunication and error, which in turn breed inefficiency and lost profits, which then all live together in perfect disharmony.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are part of your knowledge sharing arsenal, there to benefit efficiency, consistency, quality of output, internal communication, and compliance with regulations. Here are the areas which can be improved by great SOPs:
- Overall Efficiency: Standardization means you lock in the best way to do processes
- Production Consistency: SOPs are made to be easy to follow and thus repeatable
- Error Reduction: Giving guidance leaves less opportunity for employee fault
- Conflict Resolution: Issues are resolved by a clear roadmap that avoids emotion
- Employee Onboarding: clear instructions speed up new-hire training
- Health and Safety Guidelines: SOPs are written with employee protection built in
- Liability Limiting: SOPs add accountability and help out during inspections
- Business Value: high-quality SOPs may add value to the business
Whether you’re a small startup or a large corporation, learning how to write SOPs is pretty darn important if you like the sound of smooth operation and continual improvement.
How Do You Write a Process SOP? (Steps to Follow)
Without sounding too meta, here are the step-by-step instructions for you to follow in order to create step-by-step instructions for people to follow:
1. Identify the Processes that Require an SOP
How does a team of 25 employees get 60 to 70 trucks fueled, 35 to 40 trailers set-up, and the lawn mower blades sharpened in just 20 minutes, all in time to roll out by 7AM?
No, it’s not some high school math question, but rather how landscaping company Outerland (formerly Maffei Companies) used standard operating procedures to complete 29 specific tasks each morning and boost their performance.
Tasks were assigned to specific people and detailed checklists ensured that all of the equipment was where it should be and in working condition.
You don’t have to be a landscaping company to see that virtually anything that a business does repeatedly can and should get its very own SOP. Here are the most commons areas where standard operating procedures can be found helping out:
- Operations: production steps, equipment inspection, maintenance protocol
- Marketing and Sales: customer journey mapping, sales pipeline management, press releases, social media, adverts, sales quotes
- Customer Service: service delivery process, warranties/guarantee policies, customer complaint protocol, feedback systems
- Hiring and Onboarding: job descriptions, employee orientation, training stages
- Employee Performance: performance reviews, corrective actions, disciplinary protocol
- Accounts and Finance: payment cycles, invoices, billing, collections, payment delay protocol, customer data management
- Legal: privacy policies, regulatory documents, accessibility, liability
There are countless other business processes that can be complemented with standard operating procedures, so it really depends on the best practices your organization is doing on a regular basis.
2. Determine Who Will Be Involved in Creating and Implementing SOPs
Just as you find in-house subject matter experts (SME) when creating a knowledge base, you need to find those who are going to be responsible for SOPs. In actual fact, the same candidates are ideal for both tasks, so look to your department heads, managers, technical advisers, or any employee who has shown exceptional ability with certain process.
It’s imperative to include a variety of roles when creating SOPs in order to generate maximum buy-in from the workforce, encourage employee proactivity, and foster teamwork. Being inclusive also means that you will simply produce better SOPs because you can align company standards with any valuable insight gained from the person most closely connected to the process.
3. Collect Necessary SOP Documentation and Information for Accuracy
In order to create genuinely effective SOPs, you must think of them in terms of the larger world of internal documentation within your business:
- Company Policies: establish the framework for behavior within an organization
- Operational Principles: what values are important to your company and/or team
- Process Document: offers an overarching outlook on a business process.
- SOP: describes steps that need to be taken in order to complete an internal process.
- Technical Instructions: give precise instructions for how specific tasks are completed, such as the detailed operation of a particular machine
You can think of an SOP as a middle level in this four-tier pyramid (Policy, Process Document, SOP, Technical Instructions). They reflect the company framework and also summarize pertinent process information, such as the equipment needed. They are essentially ground-level documents, not so general as to be unhelpful but not so technical as to be confusing.
The level of detail provided should be enough to achieve a consistent result without overcomplicating work. In order to stay in this window of detail, you should be explicit about the scope of the SOP so that it only covers the intended process. At the same time, you should strive to keep the language, style and format of SOPs in fitting with industry standards. You can try to find examples from similar companies, or consult an expert.
4. Test the SOP before Full Implementation
Trialing a standard operating procedure (SOP) before implementing it in your organization is crucial for a few big reasons.
- It ensures the document accurately reflects the process in question
- You get to see how employees actually interact with the SOP document.
An inaccurate SOP or internal process drives you straight to the things that you set out to avoid, such as confusion, miscommunication, error and overall inefficiency. Here’s what to do before you give the green light:
- Review the existing SOP or document: Start by thoroughly reviewing how things are currently done, who is responsible for each task, and any specific requirements or guidelines that need to be followed. This will serve as a great reference point.
- SOP creation: Write up the document using clear and concise language, provide step-by-step instructions, and include any visuals that help understanding.
- Involve Stakeholders: It’s really important to include stakeholders in the review process, such as department heads and subject matter experts. Getting their input means you can identify any knowledge gaps and/or inconsistencies that require further clarification.
- Conduct a Test: before you do the company-wide rollout, ask a small group of people to follow the SOP and provide feedback regarding its clarity, effectiveness, and practicality. This will help identify the creases that need ironing out before implementation.
Based on the findings from the trial run, you have a great opportunity to refine the SOP. With any luck, you’ll then have the most accurate and effective version to implement throughout your organization.
5. Run Regular Quality Checks on New and Existing SOPs
Even when you’ve finished a standard operating procedures document, the work is far from finished.
One of the primary motivations behind writing SOPs is increased efficiency, but you won’t know how successful that endeavor has been unless you conduct regular quality checks. Likewise, you can’t be sure of consistent work without keeping an eye open.
Scheduled reviews of your SOPs helps an organization to identify areas for improvement and adhere to best practices. Of course this applies to brand-new procedures, but also any existing documents you rely on to complete work.
Some internal documentation you can look at are:
- Company Rubrics
- Employee Anecdotes
- Performance Evaluations
- Relevant Feedback Logs
- Quality Control Documents
- Industry Standards Literature
- Previous Version of SOP
It’s important to note that the exact selection of internal documents that you reference when reviewing your own SOPs will vary depending on the specific requirements of your organization, and industry.
How To Structure Your Procedures and the SOP Format
You can’t expect good comprehension without clear structure, which obviously applies to anything you write down. With an SOP, clarity is even more important because you’re looking for a particular outcome, i.e. the process completed. Here are just a few tips on how to structure your document.
- Select the Best SOP Format for the Purpose
There are a lot of options when it comes to the actual SOP format, and the one that’s best can depend on all kinds of factors, including industry standards, company philosophy, type of process, and individual preference.
- Step-by-Step List: When the process in question is relatively straightforward, a simple step-by-step written format will usually suffice. These most commonly take form as numbered or bulleted lists that outline each step of a process.
- Hierarchical List: If the process proves slightly more complicated, where more instructions are required, a hierarchical list is used. Numbered or bulleted points are stepped (1a, 1b) in order to organize greater detail.
- Checklist: When the order of processes isn’t necessarily important, checklist SOPs may prove more flexible and convenient for the employee. This format is particularly well-suited to situations where repetitive tasks are completed quickly, such as a housekeeping checklist.
- Flowchart Format: When multiple outcomes are possible at certain points of the process in question, flowcharts are the preferred choice. They are a more flexible approach that often require decisions to be made, which influence the final pathway of the process.
- Video: When a process is especially challenging, or its nature demands a more visual format, video SOPs can be an effective solution. Demonstrating processes with video footage is perhaps most familiar within the training and onboarding context, and given that around 65% of people are visual learners, it may be a good idea to represent some instruction in this way.
2. Include All Necessary SOP Document Sections
Proper formatting of your standard operating procedure (SOP) is utterly essential to ensure accuracy and readability, both of which are needed for workforce buy-in. Here’s how you can format your SOP document effectively:
- Title and numbering: Begin with a descriptive title that very clearly indicates the process covered. Use a consistent numbering scheme for easy reference.
- Introduction: Briefly explain the purpose and relevance of the document, outlining any key concepts or terminology.
- Objectives: State objectives and expected outcomes of the processes.
- Materials and Equipment: List any required materials, equipment, or tools.
- Step-by-step Instructions: The meat of the document. Break down the process using clear and concise language and pay attention to the order of tasks.
- Visual aids: Present any flowcharts, diagrams, and images as needed.
After this, there are some other elements to consider:
- Safety Precautions: Outline potential hazards, the safety equipment to be used, and any other health and safety considerations or instructions.
- Troubleshooting: Address any common issues that may arise during the process and provide troubleshooting steps to resolve them.
- Glossary: list terminology used throughout SOP for easy reference, which may include acronyms, jargon, and technical terms.
- References: Reference any external documents, industry regulations, and related resources.
Not all SOPs are created equal, but they do all have clear formatting in common. Remember that the entire point of these documents is to empower employees to do their jobs effectively. Clear structure translates as user-friendliness, which bumps up the likelihood of people actually using the SOP, and your organization benefiting from that.
Assigning a Responsible SOP Document Owner
Responsible individuals are a big part of any decent knowledge sharing network, and so you won’t be surprised to hear that SOPs docs need owners assigned to them. By adding this level of accountability, you can be confident that the documents are well-maintained and up-to-date.
You may be inclined to jump to the usual suspects – department heads, managers, and team leads – but don’t forget that anyone with an in-depth knowledge of the process can create and manage an SOP.
Providing that the responsible individuals involved are well-organized and have great attention to detail, having a little variety might actually open up your organization to unique insights and speed up improvements.
Crafting Clear Instructions for Employees
Even though the best standard operating procedures (SOPs) use simple language, the act of writing them requires a lot of planning and precision. That being said, you get a long way by following a structured approach, involving relevant stakeholders, and double-checking all of the information.
Well-written SOPs are corporate rocket fuel.
They drive major improvements, encourage innovation, strengthen the cohesiveness of your team, and optimize the daily operations of employees. With just a little careful planning, you can massively improve your business, one step-by-step at a time.
How to Use Tettra for Standard Operating Procedures
Tettra harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to streamline your company’s information management process. With AI, Tettra intelligently curates and organizes crucial company information, transforming it into a comprehensive knowledge base that can be your SOP software.
Advantages of Tettra:
- Consistency and Standardization: By using Tettra to store your standard operating procedures (SOPs), you ensure that your team follows a consistent and standardized approach to tasks. With centralized access to SOPs, everyone can access the most up-to-date versions, minimizing errors and ensuring adherence to best practices.
- Enhanced Efficiency: Tettra enables you to find the information you need quickly, eliminating the need to waste time searching through scattered documents or bothering colleagues with repetitive questions. With Tettra, you can access the knowledge base directly within Slack or Teams, streamlining your workflow and boosting productivity.
- Collaborative Environment: Colleagues can contribute their expertise, update information, and suggest improvements, creating a dynamic environment that promotes continuous learning and growth.