Good business practices require transparency, clarity, and efficiency. It’s very easy to make mistakes and break industry regulations or laws if you conduct your business in a state of confusion and chaos. Thus, you need straightforward procedures for everything, including work activities, project management, and HR processes. Check out the following guide to find out everything you need to know about standard operating procedures (SOP).
SOP stands for Standard Operation Procedure and refers to any specific procedure describing how an activity must be done for the business to comply with legislation, industry standards, regulations, or the company’s culture. A dedicated SOP document is required not only for production-related activities but also for HR, marketing, security, finance, and administration processes.
The meaning of an SOP in business is to describe in detail everything that is expected from an activity and the persons involved in it. It may refer to labor laws, internal policies, quality standards, business strategies, troubleshooting, or consequences for not following the company’s code of conduct. But, as its name says, it is a standard. Similar activities will follow the same standard operating procedure.
Efficiency is one of the most essential benefits of SOPs. When everyone knows what they have to do and how they have to do their tasks, the activity is efficient, productive, and profitable. An SOP procedure may also ensure the activity respects industry standards and that your products or services have the quality standard your company demands. Therefore, the company will deliver consistent quality and prove to be a reliable and competent business.
Furthermore, SOPs keep conflicts away from your business. Policies and procedures are transparent; everyone knows them, so there is no need for conflicts. There is also no room for mistakes when each step of the way is straightforward and well-documented. One can quickly go back on the roadmap that is an SOP and resolve issues, understand why they happened, and learn to avoid them in the future.
And when an inspection or audit knocks at your door, you have an SOP document at hand to inform them, show you are compliant with legislation, and prove your value.
When you think about writing an SOP, think about the steps required to go from A to Z. To be effective, an SOP needs simple, easy-to-understand, and follow steps. It’s like forming a new habit: it needs to be obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying (James Clear – Atomic Habits). An SOP tells people how to do their tasks to be compliant with legislation and regulations. The document also includes the risks associated with each task and required safety measures. As we stated before, similar tasks follow the same SOP. But there are situations when one needs to write an SOP for a single task done by a single person because it needs to address laws and standard regulations. So, to write an efficient SOP, keep in mind the following steps:
Before anything, you must be clear about why you need an SOP and what you want to achieve. An SOP should have an objective. Maybe you have a workflow that doesn’t really work. Maybe new regulations need to be followed. Maybe industry standards have changed. Or perhaps your staff isn’t happy with the current state of their work environment (e.g., an ineffective leave management system, leave clashes, overtime work, etc.).
Here are some additional examples of SOPs:
You are gathering data and information from your workforce and stakeholders at this stage.
You need to know who will use and write the SOP for them. Employees should navigate through the document easily, understand the language, and perform each step of the procedure without any problem. And the customer support personnel require a different procedure document than the production team. Ensure each SOP matches its end users and addresses their needs and job particularities. Note that not every procedure will be available to all employees. Some managers will handle some aspects, HR leaders will decide on others, and overall, employees will handle situations relevant to their team or responsibility. If your company is constantly hiring new people, then discuss internally what method they will find and eventually implement these procedures in your onboarding checklists.
With the end user in mind, choose a format. Consider what equipment and materials they use and what possible situations and risks may appear. There are plenty of formats to choose from, some more visual, others more descriptive. You want a format that communicates efficiently, direct, and clearly. Among the most popular types of SOP formats are:
Now that you know who will use the SOP and the document’s format, it’s time to gather data and information. Think of all possible sources of information, such as industry standards and regulations, local legislation, the company’s code of conduct, machinery manuals, and so on. Any relevant policy in use, guidelines, or existing manual is a good information source. And if you consider it insufficient, call an expert in legislation, HR, or any area relevant to your SOP.
You may also need to see for yourself the current workflows and analyze their flaws and weak points.
With all information in your pocket, start writing. Here is the format of an SOP document:
Visual information is more powerful than written one, so if you think the SOP’s steps can be explained in images, drawings, or charts, include them along the text. Just because you’ve chosen a descriptive format doesn’t mean you can’t add visual data.
The first version of the SOP should travel around the office and gather as much feedback as possible. Share it with experts too. Send it to managers and stakeholders for approval. And take into consideration everyone’s opinion. Make any necessary revisions as soon as possible. Don’t put the document in use until you are sure it is well-written, easy to follow, and compliant with the legislation. Also, ensure that the vocabulary used is easy to understand by your audience.
When you have the final version of the SOP document approved and with good feedback, it’s time to train the end users to use it. Go over each chapter, providing all the necessary explanations. Save time for answering all their questions. Ensure they understand what they must do and the risks associated with each task. If it’s something familiar, maybe a short meeting between the manager and the employee is enough to ensure the work is done correctly and completely.
An SOP document doesn’t have a single version. It needs revisions and updates. For example, industry standards may be updated yearly. Or a particular law may change at some point. You need to ensure the standard operating procedures in use are up to date. Each change in the original document needs to be shared with the end users. Training sessions may be required.
If you need a starting point, download our free standard operating procedure template and customize it for your company. It is a general-purpose template with a descriptive format that will match many of your company’s procedures, from production to customer support to HR.
A template is good. An example is better. Here is our free standard operating procedure template applied to an HR process, and more specifically the leave request process.
Standard operating procedures range from basic, simple ones to complicated documents with dependencies and references. There is no recipe for all situations where a company may need an SOP. But regardless of the ampleness of the activity they describe, SOPs provide order, transparency, and efficiency. And who doesn’t want to do repetitive tasks faster and more efficiently?