A simple way to define SOPs is to think of them as repeatable processes that enable quality control, increase efficiency, and outline methods for success.
If you’ve ever been to Chick-fil-A, then chances are you know what to expect from your experience there. Amidst the waffle fries and cows that spell (kind of), your experience is also one of consistency, punctuated by the same caliber of customer service regardless of location, punctuated by someone saying “my pleasure” as you place your order.
Massive restaurants like Chick-fil-A operate across the country and through different management, so how do they manage to keep control over the customer experience at such a scale? Instead of each franchise working harder to reinvent the wheel, the company likely follows standard operating procedures that make their stand-out processes repeatable across locations, and ultimately integrate them as a part of their brand. With SOPs, employees know how to deliver on expectations, and customers benefit from businesses delivering steady results.
The larger any organization becomes, the greater the need for consistency and knowledge management. However, businesses and organizations of all sizes can benefit from utilizing SOPs to provide workplace safety, operational efficiency, and quality assurance.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the bread and butter of organizing regular tasks into refined, scalable processes that can easily be followed and implemented. You’ll also learn how to write SOPs, how to use digital tools to support the implementation of SOPs, as well as the different SOP formats regularly used across industries.
So what is a standard operating procedure, really?
If the laymen definition above just isn’t cutting it for you, then allow Merriam-Webster to provide more detail. Their definition is as follows:
“Established or prescribed methods to be followed routinely for the performance of designated operations or in designated situations.”
Although the term standard operating procedure was initially used in the mid-20th century, its common to hear other phrases used to describe the same things, such as: standing order, set forms, modus operandi (MOs), or standing instructions. Each of these refer to the documentation step-by-step work related tasks, and the best SOPs will always clarify how to complete tasks to standard.
Employees use their time more efficiently when armed with SOPs because they are able to understand what is expected of them, how they should meet expectations, and which tools and resources will best support their work to accomplish the outlined tasks. Beyond any one individual, SOPs enable the completion of tasks set to the same standards each time, resulting in a reliable, standardized output.
Who uses SOPs?
Most industries, businesses, and organizations use SOPs. However, where regulations are monitored, customer service is crucial, or operational efficiency is necessary, SOPs are paramount. Some examples include:
Oil & Gas
While many industries use SOPs, the content of them can vary greatly given the context of the work. For example, retail stores often rely on SOPs for monitoring daily inventory, but monitoring inventory in a hospital may come with different standards or degrees of quality control. Even though the content of SOPs can vary greatly across industries, the process of creating and organizing SOPs for use is often similar.
SOPs can be used through analog methods (checklists), but a growing number of digital tools exist to make the SOPs easier to monitor and adjust when necessary. Consider looking into tools available to you, like Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS), or project management software like Asana.
Digital applications like these can allow for greater accessibility, more timely reporting, organized documentation, and flexible templates. With digital tools for implementing SOPs, employees and managers can even monitor their work progress through their mobile devices. You may find that different procedures are more practical to outline either digitally or by-hand, and we encourage you to play around with different methods.
Standard operating procedures help big and small businesses alike because quality assurance and reliable service are staples to companies of all sizes. As a small business owner, SOPs can ensure success for the whole team and the whole business.
For example, a new local coffee shop decides to partner with a different local roaster annually to launch a holiday blend every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In this case, SOPs can templatize the annual project, delegate tasks, and monitor progress from start to finish. Well-crafted SOPs are great tools not only for everyday work, but also for new initiatives, projects, or limited products that could easily take up too much operational energy without the SOPs in place. SOPs maximize efficiency and minimize waste (of all kinds). In case you need more convincing, here’s a list of ways SOPs can benefit businesses and organizations.
Demonstrate compliance with organizational and regulatory requirements
Increase clear communication between employees
Address and prevent safety concerns
Provide checklists for auditing business processes efficacy
Minimize errors and streamline workflows
Eliminate unproductive steps that slow down production
Serve as a benchmark for new projects or operational systems in new settings.
Ensure outputs of quality, credibility, and legal defensibility
Structure onboarding and training for new employees
Boost accountability across organizational lines, from individual contributors to executives
The International Labour Organization reports that 2.3 million workers worldwide are burdened by work-related health and safety incidents a year. Most of the injuries that occur could be avoided by incorporating safety procedures into standard operating procedures. With SOPS, organizations can keep workers safe and produce like a well-oiled machine.
Quality SOPs should contain some form of the following five elements:
Purpose: The SOP should define the work’s purpose and clearly outline its objectives. Purpose outlines the problems the SOP will solve, who the SOP is for, and where and how it will be used.
Procedures: An SOP not only defines tasks but also provides guidelines for how to complete them. Procedures include all of the necessary steps an employee should take to deliver expected results, in an easily understood format.
Scope: The scope defines the use and applicability of the SOP. Scoping the work also keeps projects accountable and on track by putting in guard rails for what should be done.
Responsibilities: The SOP should outline who performs which tasks and who is best to contact if problems arise. Clear SOPs also outline the person in charge of its implementation, review, and updates (like a project sponsor or project manager).
Accountability Measures: SOPs should enhance accountability. Outlining the responsibilities of each person and the scope of work within an organization drives accountability for assigned projects.
Documented SOPs can vary from binders full of procedural forms and regulatory documents to single checklists. They may consist of a table of contents, checklists, procedures, flowcharts, and/or videos, etc. SOPs can look many different ways and can be customized to each organization as needed.
Regardless of their format, SOPs should always include the five elements previously mentioned:
For SOPs to have the most success, mix and match formats to create templates that most clearly explain the processes at hand. For example, common templates include:
Using checklists for SOPs is a straightforward method. All you need is a word processor like Microsoft word or Google docs to create your checklist. Start with a header/title, then insert checklist items through the bulleted list options. From there, the checklist can easily be printed out and distributed, or emailed to employees. If strapped for time, many SOP templates are available for purchase online.
2. Step-by-Step Checklists
A step-by-step SOP checklist provides more detail by outlining the steps essential to complete each task. Whereas a regular checklist has chekcboxes to facilitate accountability, a step-by-step checklist replaces the boxes with numbers, indicating the consecutive steps to take and in what order. This format for SOPs is best when used for straightforward tasks that require minimal explanation. Examples include instructions for using equipment properly or to indicate the right way to set up and tear down an event.
3. Hierarchical Steps
Next on the list of SOP formats is the hierarchical steps list. With this format, SOPs often involve more complicated procedures and ones with dependencies. A hierarchical SOP will include steps 1a, 1b, and so on before moving on to step 2.
4. Flowchart Format
Not all standard operating procedures are cut and dry. Sometimes an outcome of one step will impact how the next step should be completed. In this case, a flowchart SOP is best because it helps in the decision-making process when results are sometimes unpredictable.
In review, there is no one supreme SOP format but rather different formats that best support different types of work. Being intentional about selecting a format will equip team members with the information needed to produce consistent results.
Below is a flowchart SOP template produced by Lucidchart. As you can see, the SOPs outline tasks and how they move from one to another and across individual roles. Not all SOPs are so complicated, but when running a complex project, having a template in place makes the work simpler to communicate and execute.
Taks Handovers: Sometimes workers get sick, injured, or go on vacation. SOPs facilitate efficient task handovers for someone else to step in when needed.
Quality Assurance: Restaurants are subject to food safety checks by regulatory agencies. SOPs for proper food preparation, storage, and workplace sanitation increase the chance of a positive inspection.
Quality Management Systems: Employee turnover happens. When a manager leaves, it is essential to have accessible SOPs that support a streamlined onboarding process for a new hire so he or she can quickly start supporting the team.
Manufacturing Process Standardization: At some point, equipment and software need replacing. In this event, writing up new SOPs ensures that routine preventative work orders or updates are operationalized.
Troubleshooting / Emergency Preparation / General Troubleshooting: the WHO declares a pandemic and local agencies and workplaces become responsible for maintaining public health orders. In this event (which we are all now familiar with), clear SOPs become essential to health and safety.
Understanding the need for SOPs is an important first step. Next comes applying theory to practice in learning how to write a standard operating procedure. Writing SOPs should be an intentionally detailed process. No matter how simple or complex the task at hand, employees should be able to clearly understand the workflows ahead of them to avoid mistakes or misused time. By following the 8 steps outlined below, supervisors can build effective habits for writing their SOPs.
Step 1: Collect Data
Tacit knowledge across team functions should be reorganized into well-managed and documented resources. Employees responsible for different procedures should submit documentation of how their tasks have been performed to date so the data collected can start to standardize the processes. At this stage, it’s important to take the data collected and assign procedures goals. For example, the closer of a restaurant should write down the routine steps for closing and should state the goal of the procedures (e.g. reset the restaurant and the cash out in preparation for the following day of business).
Step 2: Choose a Format
Once you’ve structured some knowledge management of different procedures, the next step is picking a written SOP format that best supports the work. Before starting from scratch, it’s worth asking whether the organization has used any templates for SOPs in the past and go from there.
Step 3: Involve Employees
A hallmark of good leadership is seeking input from others. Since individual employees perform most tasks, it’s worthwhile to consider their input. They may have a perspective others miss but help to make the work more efficient. Including employee voice also helps create buy-in for the SOPs they will be held accountable for.
Step 4: Define Scope
Defining what is within scope helps to determine things that fall outside of the procedural scope. In turn, this keeps the work on track and helps build accountability for both individuals and superiors.
Step 5: Identify Target Users
Even well-crafted SOPs are fruitless if implemented by the wrong team or person. At this point, an organization needs to identify who will be responsible for following and implementing the SOP. Consider some of the factors below to help narrow the focus:
Evaluate how roles and responsibilities are dispersed across teams to make sure no one team or person is responsible for too much.
Tenure of employees and how familiar or unfamiliar they may be with the organization and its history.
Step 6: Develop Your SOP
It’s now time to actually write the SOP. Referring to the Five Elements of SOPs section of this guide, you should now be ready to write your SOPs with detail and clarity. Try not to let perfect be the enemy of good because as businesses evolve its needs do too, which often results in SOPs that need revision or updating.
Step 7: Review, Test, and Edit
Consider your written SOP a first draft. Once written, send it out to your team for feedback and review. As a best practice, have employees test out the new SOPs to see how it helps achieve desired results. Giving your SOPs a test run is a great way to get immediate feedback on how well the SOP supports the work. The last thing an SOP should do is hinder workflows or overcomplicate expectations. Finally, take the feedback and edit the drafted SOPs as necessary before fully standardizing. The SOP document(s) should only be fully implemented once all key stakeholders approve of its use.
Step 8: Implement the SOP
The heavy planning is done. Once SOPs have been approved, it’s time to make them accessible to all relevant employees to begin implementation.
SOPs can be powerful tools in the workplace. However, the processes for writing, reviewing, approving, implementing, monitoring, and revising SOPs over time should also be standardized, if possible. This ensures SOPs are utilized to their full potential. Consider using a hierarchical or flowchart SOP template to outline the following managerial responsibilities:
Management SOPs include information about:
Documenting how to write SOPs
Identifying who reviews and approves the SOP
Dictating when the SOP is revised and how often
Deciding who implements and manages the SOP
Outlining who reviews and revises SOPs as needed
In clear terms, SOPs are subject to fail if management and executives do not take the time to standardize how they are created and used.
Wrapping it up
SOPs, when used effectively, will help any business or organization run smoother and produce greater results. While they can seem boring and monotonous to some, keep in mind they help everyone succeed, and SOP templates help make the planning and writing of SOPs simpler. If your organization has the resources to digitize SOPs, we recommend you do so. Creating and monitoring one SOP is a decent amount of work, but it’s likely those in this position oversee many. Digital SOPs increase efficiency, accessibility, help with reporting metrics and serve as a more permanent place to keep the procedural knowledge stored.
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