How to Write a Standard Operating Procedure: A Practical Guide

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Your business runs on systems comprised of multiple processes. Each process involves specific procedures. When you standardize your systems, processes and procedures, you create consistency and efficiency in your business.

To achieve seamless operations, members of your team should always read from the same script. In this guide, you’ll learn how to write the “scripts” that will automate your business processes.

What Is a Standard Operating Procedure?

A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is a set of directions that outlines the significant steps and activities of a business process. It’s usually a document with concise guidelines that teach employees how to handle a process, such as managing cash flow, hiring employees, or onboarding clients. A SOP is more involved than a simple procedural document. While a procedural document can provide a high-level overview of a process, a SOP should provide detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to complete a particular task successfully.

What Are the Benefits of a Standard Operating Procedure?

There are several benefits that a SOP will bring to your organization. Before you learn how to create one, let’s look at what your organization will gain from having this crucial document.

A SOP Guarantees Observance Of Best Practices

A SOP outlines to your team the most efficient way to tackle a particular task. When your organization has a SOP, adhering to best practices becomes easier. For best results, ensure that you involve all the stakeholders of a particular process in defining the best practices for that process.

A SOP Warrants Consistency

Clear guidelines for your business processes will help your team work smarter. Your employees will be able to execute tasks and make decisions faster thanks to clear instructions. Your team will know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

A SOP Ensures Proper Training and Assimilation

Operating procedures make it easier to train and onboard new employees. Your SOPs should address how to handle various circumstances, including those that will rarely occur. This level of detail will help your new employees to become competent in their positions more efficiently than a gradual training approach.

A SOP Keeps Organizational Knowledge

Inevitably some of your team members will leave your organization from time to time for various reasons. Writing down your standard operating procedures ensures that their knowledge remains in your organization. This is why businesses with SOPs are valued far higher than those without them. When it comes time to sell your business, you’ll want to show a buyer that you have processes to ensure continuity when key employees eventually leave.

What are the Challenges of Developing a Standard Operating Procedure?

There are a few common challenges that companies face in writing and maintaining SOPs. Let’s take a brief look at these challenges and discuss the best way to overcome them.

Split Up Development

“Split up development” occurs when only a few members of your team craft the company’s operating procedures. For example, if you only include top-level management in writing a SOP, your instructions may focus more on the goal they want employees to achieve rather than the details of the process needed to achieve the goal. Alternatively, if the SOP is created by managerial staff, it might miss some details that are important to upper management, such as processes to minimize resource utilization and improve the bottom line.

To avoid a dysfunctional SOP, it’s best to involve all stakeholders at all stages of SOP creation rather than relying on one or two individuals to write out a process.

Lack of Accessibility and Implementation

You could have developed the best SOP for your organization, but it won’t accomplish anything if your employees don’t use it.

Make sure the SOP is available and accessible to employees whenever they need it. Consider printing it out so that it’s easy to access.

Give employees time to read the SOP before you ask them to do a task. This will help employees develop good habits so they don’t have to unlearn bad habits later on.

Finally, train your team on how to implement the processes outlined. Make sure they can access equipment and other resources they’ll need to carry out the tasks described.

Lack of Maintenance Strategy

Following an outdated SOP is detrimental to your organization. Whatever qualifies as the best practice now might be considered obsolete after some time.

To avoid letting your SOPs get out of date, revisit and revise your SOPs from time to time. You can potentially add SOP revisions to your calendar as a recurring annual event.

Practical Steps to Write a Standard Operating Procedure Document

Following is a practical guide on how to effectively write a SOP.
I feel we already discussed the goals of writing a SOP. At this stage, we should just get straight to the point on how to write one.

Step 1. Identify stakeholders and creators.

Every employee that will be affected by the SOP should be involved in its creation. Your SOP writing team should include:

  • C-level executives to guide high-level organization goals
  • Management leaders to establish best practices, determine the proper use of resources, and come up with a plan for SOP implementation
  • Ground-level personnel to verify the validity and applicability of the SOP

You’ll also have to decide who will be responsible for drafting the SOP. You can use your staff or outsource to a third-party who specializes in technical writing and has a thorough knowledge of your organization’s processes.

Step 2. Identify the end user.

Several people might write a standard operating procedure, but only a few will regularly use the document. It’s important to write the SOP to suit the end users’ knowledge capacity. Consider the following factors:

  • Their previous knowledge: Are the end users familiar with your organization and its procedures? Are they aware of the terminology you’re using or could they benefit from some brief definitions?
  • Their language skills: If the end users do not natively speak your language, use more graphics, illustrations, and screenshots.
  • The range of end users: Will the SOP be used by several people in different capacities? If so, make sure to clearly define who performs what role.

Step 3. Define SOP scope and format.

The standard operating procedure you are creating is most likely reliant on other SOPs and teams in other departments. You’ll have to establish if it is enough to reference the other procedures or if you’ll have to include them in the current SOP document. Determine whether you need a flowchart or map to show dependencies.

Use a format that suits your team. Adopt the most straightforward form applicable to the current circumstance. You can select from one of the following commonly used formats:

Step-by-Step Format

Use this format if the process in question is clear-cut and can be accomplished without hitches. It is usually a simple numbered or bulleted list with precise sentences that are easy to follow. You can use this format for:

  • Setup and cleaning guides
  • Digital login sequences
  • Equipment safety guidelines
Standard operating procedure with a step-by-step format

Hierarchical Format

A hierarchical format provides more details than a step-by-step format. You can use this layout when you feel a task needs more instructions to be successfully completed. For example, while step 1 may direct users to log in to their account, step 1a could instruct them to input their username, and 1b could direct them to provide their password. Below is an example of a SOP that uses a hierarchical format.

Standard operating procedure with a hierarchical format

Flowchart Format

Use flowcharts if you are writing a SOP for a process with several possible outcomes at particular points. In such a scenario, the result of one step affects the next step the team will take to complete the task. When you look at the example below, you’ll notice several instances where the user had to make a decision to find the next step in the process. 

Standard operating procedure with a flowchart format

Step 4. Write the SOP.

It is now time to plan out your SOP document. In this section, we will look at the details to include in each section of your SOP. Before you begin writing, review the following style tips to ensure your SOP communicates effectively:

  • Start with action commands. At the beginning of each task description, always use a verb to clarify what the user has to do. 
  • Be concise. Avoid small talk. Be clear and only communicate critical information.
  • Make the instructions scannable. Use bold text on headlines. Underline key phrases. Marking up your document will make it easier for people to learn and refer to your instructions. 

Title Page

The page should include:- 

  • The title of the procedure
  • An identification number for the SOP
  • A publication or revision date
  • The name of the organization, department, or agency that will implement the SOP
  • Names, titles, and signatures of those who wrote and certified the procedures described in the SOP

Table of Contents

Where necessary, you can include a table of contents after the title page. If the SOP users can easily find information without using a table of contents, you can skip it. 

Preliminary Information

Specific information should be laid out in full for your team to follow the SOP. This elementary information includes:

  • SOP Purpose: In this section, explain the high-level and ground-level impact you expect the SOP to have on the organization.
  • Roles and Responsibilities: Identify particular employees who will be involved in a given process. Note their current roles within the organization so that the SOP can quickly be updated as personnel change.
  • Resources and Materials: Define the resources required to complete a procedure. Note details such as where to find them and how to properly store and maintain them. 
  • Health and Safety Warnings: Describe any safety precautions and indicate where employees can seek additional information if needed. 

Methodology and Procedure

This is the most critical section. Here you’ll define the actual operating procedures to follow when completing a particular task. 

Use your preferred format to create complete, step-by-step instructions for the end user to follow at every point. Use sequential steps if the tasks in question are straightforward. For processes with sub-steps, repeated operations, and decision trees, consider either hierarchical or flowchart formats. 

Example of a flowchart depicting a general inquiry procedure

Be as detailed and precise as possible. Use specific language to communicate instructions in full. Your goal is to deliver accurate instructions that are appropriate to your target users without being pedantic.  

Consider incorporating graphical illustrations to supplement your written communication, especially when written instructions are not sufficient.

Quality Control and Assurance

Your organization’s members should be able to evaluate their performance on a case-by-case basis. This section contains information that will help employees conduct self-assessments. This information may include:

  • A narrative outlining best practices concerning a particular procedure
  • The formula for measuring performance
  • Real or simulated samples of previous performance evaluations

This is a critical part of the SOP as it helps end users meet your expectations and improve in areas where they might be falling behind. 

References and Glossary

This section allows you to provide a detailed explanation of any terms, resources, or documents you used in the report. You can also use this section to point users to additional resources they can refer to if they need further clarification. This section will help you maintain the focus of your SOP while offering the end users an opportunity to research a topic further. 

Step 5. Train end users.

Train all your team members on how to use the SOP regardless of their experience. You’ll have to be careful with how you conduct the training so as not to upset experienced employees. Let the team know that the training will be an ongoing process to ensure that everyone in the company uses the best practices for completing each documented task.

Step 6. Review, Test, Tweak, Repeat.

After you finish writing the SOP, allow the stakeholders to review it to check for accuracy, cohesiveness, and completeness.  

  • Ask stakeholders to note any concerns and report back to the writing team.
  • Test the document yourself to make sure each step is clear and results in the intended outcome. 
  • Team members should also test the procedures to ensure the language is clear, instructions can be followed with ease and each task can be completed successfully. 
  • Make the necessary corrections to improve the document. Fix any grammatical and technical errors reported.
  • Repeat this process until the document is approved and accepted by every stakeholder.

Step 7. Implement and Maintain SOPs.

As you implement the new way of doing things, make it clear to your team that the new processes are not cast in stone. Employees should understand that they will take part in continually updating the SOP as needed. Invite your staff to note negative and positive experiences they encounter along the way. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Standard Operating Procedures

When should you write a SOP?

You should write a SOP for any procedure that has not been documented and approved. 

Who should write a SOP?

A SOP should be written by people who routinely perform the procedure. Others can still contribute in order to fine tune the procedure. These can include experienced personnel who have a clear understanding of the procedure as well as technical reviewers who are capable of evaluating the SOP.

What is the difference between HIRA and SOP?

Hazard Identification & Risk Assessment is an approach to evaluating hazards and their related risks, whereas a SOP is a document that defines how a task is completed. A SOP applies to the entire business while a HIRA is concerned with hazards only. 

What is the difference between a Procedure and a SOP?

A procedure concerns the steps taken to complete a process. A SOP defines these steps with more specificity and often includes details on measuring and managing the process. 

Conclusion

Developing a standard operating procedure for your organization is one of the best ways to reduce costs, speed up processes, simplify employee training, and protect the value of your company from employee departures. The precise guidance of a SOP will enable your employees to really shine in their positions.

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How to Write a Standard Operating Procedure: A Practical Guide

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