How to write standard operating procedures (SOPs)


29th June, 2021

5 tips for writing actionable Standard Operating Procedures

Standard Operating Procedures are the key to unlocking a business that can truly scale without threat to productivity as a result of a lack of uniformity.

There’s a lot that goes into establishing smooth business operations that can produce the desired output. Fortunately, there are various resources, strategies, and techniques available these days to help businesses thrive.

A typical example of such a “technique” is the standard operating procedure document. From training new employees to establishing work policies and procedures, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) help companies keep everyone on the same page and ensure that employees understand the details needed for completing their assigned tasks.

If you’re wondering if SOPs are something you should consider doing, this article will provide you with important context for making that decision.

Examples of different types of SOPs

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a document that contains detailed instructions to guide the employees in an organisation while executing routine or repetitive tasks and activities.

Companies develop and use SOPs as an integral part of their quality management system because it provides individuals with the information to perform every job consistently every time, thereby helping to guarantee the quality and integrity of the end product or service.

The traditional idea of an SOP is a written document that outlines best practices for a process and lists them step-by-step. But, they can come in any of the following formats:

1. Step-by-step lists

This type of SOP consists of simple instructions describing every step employees need to follow to complete assigned tasks.

Step-by-step SOPs are ideal for procedures with easy-to-follow instructions that can be explained in simple sentences. But this type of SOP would be insufficient for processes that require additional information or that may have unpredictable outcomes.

For instance, a set of instructions telling cleaners how to tidy up a meeting room can follow the step-by-step format.

Standard Operating Procedure list
A sample of a step-by-step SOP (Source)

2. Hierarchical lists

At a glance, this SOP is similar to the step-by-step list SOP but it’s a better choice for companies with complex procedures where each step requires further information to proceed.

Therefore, while a step-by-step SOP may simply list steps 1, 2, and 3, a hierarchical SOP would further include steps 1a and 1b; 2a and 2b, then 3a and 3b.

Hierarchical standard operating procedure.
A sample of a hierarchical SOP from a dairy farm (Source)

3. Flowcharts

Flowchart SOPs present instructions and information visually. The entire process is broken down into steps that are described in diagrams.

Each diagram (step) is placed in sequential order leading to the next step and so on.

Businesses use flowchart SOPs when their processes are too complex to be described in simple sentences and when there could be multiple outcomes possible at specific points throughout the process.

Flowchart standard operating procedure
A sample of a flowchart SOP for a Helpdesk (Source)

Does your business need an SOP or not?

Now that we have a better idea about SOPs, let’s look at a few pointers to help you decide if your business needs this level of documentation or not. We’ll start by asking – which kind of companies use SOPs the most?

In general, most businesses can benefit from having SOPs. There are always some business processes that should be standardised as you scale your business operations.

Businesses tend to use SOPs for the following reasons:

  • To standardise routine and repetitive tasks to improve productivity and ensure that the quality of their output remains consistent
  • To comply with multiple layers of regulatory laws and standards
  • To produce safety and health and environmental regulations
  • To manage or handle hazardous chemicals and materials as part of daily routine operations
  • To achieve minimal to zero allowance for operational errors and equipment failures
  • They face significant consequences and losses from equipment downtime and machine/worker idle time

Considering the above, manufacturing businesses, the military, the aviation industry, food and beverage establishments, and the pharmaceutical industry (to mention a few) use SOPs the most.

In fact, regulatory bodies like the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have specific SOP guidelines for pharmaceutical companies. In addition, SOP documentation is a usual requirement for organisations that want ISO certification.

On the other hand, if your business fits the following model, then you don’t necessarily need to write SOPs:

  • You run a small team where key staff and experts are always available when their attention is required
  • Your operations are extremely simple and can be taught to new employees in a short time
  • There are minimal safety and health risks when performing a task in the wrong way

If you decide that SOPs are a fit for your business, the next step is to consider your options for handling the SOP creation process.

Writing actionable SOPs

Depending on how large and complex your operations are, you may choose to start creating SOPs from scratch using an in-house team, or you could outsource this as a project to an SOP consultancy company. Here are a few things that an outsourced SOP consultancy service will do for you:

  • Capture historical information about your company’s core processes from records and the experiences of personnel
  • Present that information in an acceptable format
  • Manage reviews, updates, revisions, and approvals
  • Develop and implement approved SOPs
  • Periodic evaluations and reviews after implementation

Furthermore, you could also opt for one of the many SOP software available on the market today. These solutions are usually cloud-based, and they offer a wide range of features. Some popular brands include Process Street, systemHub and SweetProcess.

Those that want to handle this in-house, here are five tips to guide you through the creation process.

1. Get everyone to commit

Creating SOPs for the first time will test everybody on your team. Prepare to encounter unexpected frustrations such as unwilling staff, missing documentation, and other unforeseen challenges.

To help make the process easier, get employee support as early as possible and ensure that everyone is on the same page about how the SOPs will improve everybody’s jobs.

2. Appoint a team

Next, select the people in your organisation to lead this project by asking questions like: who are the best people to write this? Do they know what the process entails and where things could go wrong? This team would be responsible for seeing this project through to completion.

By holding specific people accountable for the success of the SOPs, you improve the chances of meeting deadlines and major milestones.

3. Gather background information

The first thing your team will need to do is to decide which processes they are writing SOPs for — the selected processes will mainly be centered around the company’s mission-critical jobs and activities, as well as those that offer significant productivity gains by being standardised.

Once that’s done, they can proceed to start gathering relevant information (through manuals, staff interviews, existing guidelines…). This information will serve as a good foundation for your SOPs. Old records often provide valuable insights into your existing processes, best practices, and any limitations or weaknesses in your system.

4. Test & review

Your SOPs will likely require several reviews before they are ready for distribution.

While testing, it’s important to involve employees at different levels of experience to review the procedures.

Also, at some point, use staff with little knowledge of the process to test the SOP. Because sometimes, staff with prior knowledge of the procedure may rely on their knowledge rather than the new SOP in front of them, thereby defeating the purpose.

Note any issues the testers encountered, address them, and make the necessary improvements.

5. Start implementation

Once approved, don’t wait for perfection. Start implementing the SOP. This will usually kick off with a series of formal training sessions for the affected staff. Remember to record evidence of this training.

Also, it’s good practise to check that your SOPs remain current. When updates are due, get them done, re-approve the new SOPs, and withdraw the outdated ones. Failure to do this can negatively impact the safety and productivity of your team, especially in the industrial setting.

Lack of standardisation disrupts business growth

Nobody wants to be burdened with tons of documentation and processes, we get that.

But, no matter the improvements and innovations achieved in your business, if you can’t document it or reproduce it to pass on to different staff to use, it has no business value.

Doing business without any push for standardisation can be a costly mistake that disrupts your business growth.