As the world transitions to a digital economy, businesses across the globe are recognizing the importance of developing clear operational procedures. For SMBs to keep pace with the demands of having a well founded Standard Operating Procedures, it will need to embrace the benefits of having one. One can refer to a guide such as the document released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on preparing SOPs. This guide lays the foundation to execute processes that are consistent and produces quality results.
What is an SOP and how can my company benefit from them?
Most of the time, problems in small-medium sized companies arise when workers perform their daily tasks without a clear set of guidelines. Each one tends to do their own thing believing it is the right way of doing it. An SOP is a tool that organizations use to help these employees understand and carry out their jobs effectively by providing detailed, step-by-step procedures. Further, when a standard operating procedure is followed to the minutest detail, it assures consistent quality and integrity of products and deliverables.
Different organizations, even within the same industry, do not have exactly the same operational processes. In the same manner, each department in the same company may have different ways of completing tasks. SOPs play a major role in systematizing a set of tasks, especially those that are repetitive. Imagine a manufacturing assembly line with no set of standards for the production of its goods. We can be sure that the products produced would not be consistent in quality or quantity. This also increases the risk of workplace injuries as workers may be tempted to perform shortcuts which may cause machine breakdown or even their own injury.
With a well-established SOP, together with other policies and procedures, your organization is assured of an efficient and productive workforce.
How to Create an SOP
In this article we will walk you through a simple, 10 step process to writing your very own standard operating procedure (SOP). Please note, this SOP process is a general guide. If you are ever unsure, be sure to include a subject matter expert, SOP consultant, or even a safety officer to ensure its efficacy.
Step 1. Process Analysis / Cause and Effect Analysis
First, ask yourself these questions: “What improvements can I do to increase productivity in my workplace?” or “What is my objective?” All organizations seek to improve. For every issue encountered, each organization has a natural tendency of reflecting why the problem happened in the first place. This cause and effect analogy will lead you to your next question; “Do I really require an SOP?”. If your answer is “yes”, Write down the challenges in your processes that need to be addressed, especially the ones which are repetitive and consistently create issues in your operations. Remember to focus on one activity at a time. When all your cards are laid down, determine your end goal.
Step 2. Data Gathering
Once your goal is clear, check if an SOP is already in place before creating one. If there is none, go ahead and draft an outline with the goal in mind. If there is already one, review the SOP and identify the gaps which are not being followed or may no longer be applicable to the process. Gather all the needed data to be able to start writing your SOP. In this step, you will need to list down all types of procedures in your organization.
Step 3. SOP Team Member Sourcing
With the draft outline, identify the individuals or subject-matter experts in your team who can help you develop the standard operating procedure. Invite them to participate in an SOP Committee to create and review SOPs. Although this can raise major concerns, as each of us wants the SOP to be developed in the way in which we best understand the process, the saying “two heads are better than one” applies. While selecting your team members, keep in mind that your SOP may not only affect your own team internally and having an external source or expert will make your procedures more rounded and effective. The reality is developing an SOP properly can be intense, and permeate intense discussion. In the end, the results will be worthwhile as open discussion is the first step to identifying important gaps to be included in the SOP.
Step 4. SOP Team Roles Assignment
The next step is to identify individual roles of each of the SOP Committee members. Each one should be clear as to what to contribute. One role that can be assigned is a person who will identify the need for an SOP. The goal is to assign the identifier, technical writers, reviewers and approvers. A facilitator of the SOP Committee must also be assigned to set deadlines and schedules for meetings, writing, reviewing and approving. Likewise, this role will monitor which SOPs are to be reviewed in the meeting, are ready for finalization and are processed for signature of approvers. More importantly, establish the role of the assigned reviewer and approver to critique and sign your SOPs.
Having these roles will ensure that all possible gray areas or loopholes in the process are properly determined, analyzed and recorded.
Step 5. SOP Format
Choose a format to use next. Explore your company’s available SOP resources, in case there exists one. You and your team can decide which format will be the best. In case there is no template available, you can consider adopting a step-by-step guideline format which simply lists down short and direct sentences that are easy to read and follow. This template uses bullets or numbers to list down the procedures. The other commonly used format is the flowchart format which is normally used when a procedure requires a lot of possible outcomes. The latter is best to use to draw up all options available for each step.
There are also available SOP software in the market which you can consider collaborating with in case you have the means.
Keep in mind that SOPs must be written in a certain manner especially when your organization aims to apply the regulatory standards of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). You and your team can work together to prepare for this.
- Decide to adopt a numbering system for control purposes. A coding system that is widely used is in the alpha-numeric format which indicates a code referring to a certain department or a group of related topics for employees.
- Assign a Document Controller to monitor and maintain the masterlist of your SOP codes. This is to ensure that there will be no duplication.
- Develop the template which must contain the title page or header, purpose, scope, summary, definition of terms, skill specifications and qualifications. Most importantly, the section where the actual procedures are to be documented should be included. References such as checklists or records management data to include quality control and other policy references should also form part of the template. Depending on the type of business you have, safety and hazard information, equipment and supplies specifications must also be included.
- Agree on the type of font/s or font size to use for the entire SOP. Decide on when to use capitalization, boldface and italics. It is also best to keep the content short or use visual aids, flowcharts and bullets instead of using long sentences or paragraphs.
- Create an SOP on How to Write an SOP for use of the assigned technical writers.
Step 6. Write the SOP
Before starting to write your SOP, make sure to create a purposeful title. The title often used starts with the phrase “How to…” However, you can also formulate other ways to name your SOP. In writing, focus on the person who will perform the set of tasks you have listed. Your ultimate goal is to ensure that the instruction is short, simple and easy to understand.
If you already have the template, stick to the agreed template and formats as mentioned in Step 5. Always write your SOP using an action word to detail the step-by-step procedures. Start by writing the most important step. Examples are “Answer the Phone within the first 3 rings” or “Fill out the Request Form”. Once the major steps are written, it will be easier to follow through the rest of the smaller and more detailed steps.
Remember to write in short and simple sentences. Abbreviations, jargon and overly technical words are discouraged to avoid vagueness and uncertainty. Do not assume that your audience will understand these. Put your focus on the extent of procedure and avoid including unrelated topics. In addition, include a revision history page to record all changes and the date of the revision of the SOP in the future.
Step 7. Review and conduct testing or trials
After writing your SOP, check it or have it checked by another person or the SOP team. On your own, you can check whether the printed content is right-sized and easy to read. Examine also if the instructions are simple. In case there are complex terms or unfamiliar words, rewrite or rephrase it by looking for simple synonyms.
Having the task performer scan through the SOP will also be a great help. Ask whether the content is clear and easy to understand. Find out also if the content is complete or has covered every detail they need to know to perform the procedure correctly. You may also have the SOP reviewed by another employee who is not familiar with the procedure.
Doing a cross checking will also be very helpful especially when the SOP coincides or is related to another SOP. This must be done to avoid duplicates or contradictory statements.
Step 8. Make Revisions
Take note of the comments of the reviewer and make the revisions to your SOP. Upon incorporating the changes based on the reviews of different parties, give the reviewers a copy of the revised version to validate whether you have captured their feedback correctly. Once acceptable, have the SOP signed by the approver/s before release.
If for the second time, the SOP content is difficult for the reviewers to understand, remember to add more illustrations, tables, charts and flow charts for clarity.
Step 9. Train
No matter how many SOPs you have established, this will not be effective without making sure that the employees follow it. We can expect them to be diligent and to be well aware of the approved details of the SOP but we cannot be sure if they will actually do so. Organizations should never assume that a written SOP is enough to get the ball rolling. It is important that each employee acts out their role based on common understanding. To do this, the SOPs must be launched properly through an orientation of all players.
It is a known fact that people interpret procedures differently. As such, an effective SOP Training Program must clearly explain the detailed steps to avoid inconsistencies in performing the routines and procedures. The training should also give an opportunity for the workers to learn why SOP is necessary, to witness exactly how each step is performed, and to experience how to do it through actual practice.
Retraining is also necessary to ensure that the SOP is followed accurately and done consistently long after it was implemented. To do this, setting up a tool to measure learning after the training program is ideal. The trainer must also track the trainee’s progress in mastering the SOP and provide strategies to develop areas for improvement.
Step 10. Audit
Audit is necessary after all workers have undergone training. Just like employee performance, an SOP should be audited regularly to keep its integrity. Ideally, an audit of the SOP should be done at least three months after full implementation. It must again be assessed quarterly or annually depending on the need. If after the implementation, accidents, errors and/or “near misses” still happen, the SOP must be revisited to identify the reasons for these occurrences.
It is not enough to write down your standard operating procedures as part of your organization’s Quality Management System. Keep in mind that ISO requires both implementation and maintenance of such standard operating procedures. Whether your business requires ISO certification or not, having your own SOP is still worth investing in because of its many benefits to your business.
How can BSBCON help?
At BSBCON, we can help you understand the value of creating your Standard Operating Procedures. We have a team of SOP Consultants whose expertise is to collaborate with a vast array of industries and to customize SOP manuals. We have gained recognition in the market for our strategic, investor, immigration, and bank loan business plans and we aim to continue supporting our clients to achieve operational excellence. Our SOP writing solutions offer methods that can reduce costs, increase productivity, utilize the advantages of digitization and introduce scalable growth.
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