What is a Standard Operating Procedure, and How to Write SOPs?

standard operating procedure

Are you starting a new business or expanding business operations? Then you need a standard operating procedure guiding you through all stages of the initiative. A standard operating procedure (SOP) brings clarity into how things will be carried out in a process.

The scope of SOPs extends beyond a simple list of Dos and Don’ts, it is a comprehensive guide that addresses questions like:

  • What tasks need to be done?
  • Who needs to do them?
  • What are the standard approaches to completing the task?
  • How exceptions are to be handled in the process?

In this blog, we talk about what is an SOP, the need for a standard operating procedure, and standard operating procedure examples.

What is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?

The general idea that a layman has about standard operating procedures or SOPs is that it is a list of instructions for carrying out the process. This is only a part of what a standard operating procedure is all about. A standard operating procedure is a set of written instructions that describe the step-by-step process that must be followed to perform a routine activity.

standard operating procedure sop

The standard operating procedures (SOP) also include exception handling procedures. Process teams must follow SOPs, in the same way, every time for consistent delivery and compliance with industry regulations and business standards. 

All the policies, processes, and standards required for the organization to successfully carry out its operations are provided by the standard operating procedures. When SOPs are adhered to, error margins and inconsistencies are significantly reduced. With standard operating procedures in place, a safe work environment where guidelines are followed and issues are resolved smoothly can be created. Following SOPs improves the efficiency of the process and empowers the team to overcome any obstacles that may arise during process execution. 

A standard operating process on the other hand is at the surface level and is used by the management to analyze the operational efficiency of the process. A business process may be described as a series of related tasks or methods that run in a predetermined sequence to transform inputs into outputs.

A procedure on the other hand is a prescribed way of undertaking a process or part of a process. For a layman, process, and procedure may mean the same thing as they both refer to the same activities being carried out.

The main components of a process are input, output, and steps involved in the transformation of input to output. A procedure describes who is responsible for each task when each task should occur, and specifications for each task in the process. 

IBM describes standard operating procedures as – “Instructions describing the steps and activities of a process”. An SOP is much more involved than a procedural document. A process document provides a high-level overview of the process in question, while an SOP provides an on-the-ground explanation of what needs to happen to ensure that a given process or task is completed as planned.

The main aim of SOP is to educate the employees and customers about the right way of executing a certain process. SOPs will be present everywhere within the organization, no matter how big or small it may be. Larger organizations would have more SOPs. It is a good practice to bring the culture of documenting routine tasks in the organization so that knowledge is not limited to a single resource or a team. With proper documentation in place, employees can simply refer to an SOP for required information.

Need for Standard Operating Procedures

Before we get into writing an SOP, let us first understand when you need an SOP. SOPs are important for running an efficient and compliant business. The uncertainties around completing routine work are eliminated when SOPs are followed.

SOPs ensure that the right people are working on the right task at the right time. Although SOPs do not guarantee performance, they standardize best practices across the team or organization, which improves the quality and predictability of the outcomes. 

Irrespective of the type and scale of your business, well-defined SOP documents are a must. These documents help employees understand how to perform routine tasks safely.

Here are the main reasons why you need standard operating procedures

Adhere to compliance standards

Non-compliance proves costly for any business. The stakes of running a business without adhering to standards and regulations are very high. Having SOPs for key processes in the organization ensures that regulations and industry standards are met. 

Meet Production Requirements

The final product delivered by the business must meet the requirements outlined in the specification document. Non-conformance with product specifications results in QC rejection. Developing a product based on SOPs ensures that all production requirements are met. 

Ensure workplace safety

Business operations must ensure that the work environment is safe from any hazardous outcomes. For that, users must work within allowed/approved boundaries. SOPs define the operational boundaries of the process so that safety standards are adhered to. 

Adhere to project schedules

Delivering products and services within the project deadlines is the ideal situation that every project team focuses on. When guided by an SOP, the project team works within preset time boundaries, so that each task is completed on time. 

Prevents manufacturing failures

A quality check of a completed product is performed to ensure that it meets specifications. Even before completion, the product must be developed as per specifications. Manufacturing failures happen when products are not as per specifications. A SOP ensures that specifications are met, and manufacturing failures do not occur.

Effective training

Training new joiners on project operations requires proper documentation of the processes followed. Standard operating procedures provide clear instructions on how each task is to be executed. Training employees becomes easy with SOPs.

Writing a Standard Operating Procedure

Creating SOPs requires good knowledge of the process and organizational skills. The SOP must have a clear title, department name, and ID, Signed off by the department head, a purpose statement, definitions or glossary, and step-by-step instructions. Here are a few steps to follow while creating a standard operating procedure.

1. Be clear on how you are going to present the SOP

A standard operating procedure can be created from scratch or by using an SOP standard operating procedure template. You can choose from several formats that define the structure of the SOP. The international standard that most companies use is ISO 9000, or its variant. One way is to create a simple checklist that outlines different tasks. This method works best for solopreneurs and small startups. Another way is to create a complex linear checklist that contains more details and variables to iterate. Mapping out a flow diagram is another way of visualizing SOPs. 

2. Gather relevant stakeholders

While creating SOPs for particular tasks, processes, or workflows, involving people who are already responsible or working on the process is important. Building processes collaboratively results in expertise and scrutiny and brings a sense of ownership over the process. 

3. Work out your purpose

When creating SOPs for functioning systems, it is important to make sure that SOP priorities align with business goals and priorities. Make a note of the pain points in existing processes and what measures that are to be taken to change/improve them. The SOP needs to document both the pain points and corrective measures as well. 

4. Determine the structure of the SOP

In large enterprises, SOPs are usually in the form of a formal report. A typical report begins with a detailed cover page containing the title and relevant reference details. An index listing the chapters inside must also be present. For smaller enterprises or startups, deeper detailing is not necessary. However, sticking to a formal structure is ideal while preparing the SOP. 

5. Prepare the scope of the SOP

When an SOP is being prepared for a particular team’s process, then the focus must be exclusive to them. Drawing boundaries on where to stop wandering into other groups or departments is necessary to create a well-defined SOP. It is also important to define the limits of your investigation to ensure that you don’t end up with mission creep. 

6. Resort to a consistent style

Following a standard format for the SOP ensures consistency across the organization. Starting each statement with a verb is good practice as it clarifies what you must do and packs a punch. Stick to concise language that conveys vital information in the SOP report. Making the SOP report scannable by putting the actionable sections first followed by the detailed explanation is a good practice that makes it easy for the readers to sift through paragraphs. 

7. Use apt visual notations

Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) is a standardized form of notation that is usually followed while creating SOPs. It is not necessary, but using BPMN is helpful when you are in a corporate environment or where you have to closely work with people from other companies. 

8. Chalk out all the steps of the process

Walk through the process from start to finish, by making a note of each step along the way. While preparing the SOP gather inputs for discussion across the team. Once you build the foundation of the process, go through each task and consider if you need to add more details to the sub-tasks. 

9. Assess potential issues in the process

While creating the SOP, you should also consider the possibility of things going wrong when you have the process on paper. Once the issues are identified, you must also figure out when the failure occurs. 

10. Determine metrics against which SOPs can be assessed

The best way to measure the performance of the process is to use metrics for key performance areas. Knowledge of metrics is an effective way to measure the performance of the process and optimize it as needed. Once you have the metrics defined, you can assess the performance of the process and evaluate those that concern the company’s goals. 

11. Test the process

Once the SOPs are clearly defined, it is time to implement them. The manner of implementation depends on the available resources. Regular testing of the process is needed to ensure that the flow is as expected. 

12. Send for superior review

An SOP must be reviewed by someone more experienced to ensure that it has been rightly created. Review by a superior provides a fresh perspective to the SOP and helps spot flaws easily and quickly. 

13. Clarify the optimization method

The process document must be a living document that accommodates changes for future optimization. Optimization involves several measures like fostering teamwork, monitoring key metrics, and integrating tools and automated components into the workflow. 

14. Run a risk assessment

Complete risk assessment is an essential part of finalizing the project. Risk assessment is crucial in industries like manufacturing, transport, and others. 

15. Finalize and implement

In addition to creating a text-based SOP, flow diagrams or maps provide a visual overview of the process. Visual representations are easy to understand for users and team members. Once the flow diagrams have been created, it is time to implement them. Following all of the above steps helps create SOPs that are optimized, tested, and risk-free.

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Types of Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) Formats

While you are free to follow any format for creating an SOP as per the requirements of your business, it pays to know the popularly used SOP formats. 

1. Step-by-step written format

The most straightforward SOP format is simply a numbered or bulleted list of steps to complete a process. 

2. Hierarchical Format

This format is a variant of the above format, where it provides details on each step as needed. While a simple, list-based SOP lists 1,2,3 step, the hierarchical SOP lists 1a, 2a, 2b, 2c, etc. 

3. Flow chart format

SOPs that involve multiple outcomes at specific points throughout the process are best depicted as flowchart SOPs. The impact of one step will impact how the team will need to approach the subsequent step.

4. Checklist format

This format is represented as a simple list of steps that need to be followed in a particular order. The checklist format is useful for processes that are repetitive or those that need to be completed quickly. 

5. Video format

This is a visual guide that uses video footage to demonstrate how a task needs to be completed. Video SOPs are useful for documenting and standardizing the process owing to the clear visual representation. 

6. Interactive courses

SOPs can also be formatted as online interactive courses that combine written instructions, video demonstrations, and quizzes that guide users through a process or task. 

Benefits of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

In addition to defining the steps involved in the process, SOPs have several uses in an organization. Here are a few reasons why every business must create SOPs

1. Improves employee training

Clearly defined SOPs make it easier to onboard and train new employees. Investing time and resources to create SOPs is well worth it because it makes the new employee feel welcome and helps them master the requirements of their role quickly. Not just new employees, but experienced resources can also use SOPs as references to ensure that they are not missing anything. 

2. Maintains quality control

Quality control of products is greatly simplified with SOPs. You can use them as references to ensure that the products and services delivered meet the expected quality standards before delivering them to customers. SOPs standardize processes, making it easy for employees to follow the steps at all times, whether inspecting a new batch or handling customer inquiries. 

3. Retains knowledge within the company

Knowledge loss occurs when employees leave the company. Having SOPs prevents knowledge loss and retains it within the company. They capture and document the knowledge that employees have so that even when they leave, others can take up their responsibilities easily. 

4. Improves compliance

Failure to comply with business laws and regulations can prove costly for the organization. Healthcare organizations for instance need to comply with HIPAA laws at all times, for all cases handled by them. Having SOPs ensures that all processes are executed as per laws and regulations laid down by the concerned industry.

5. Ensures employee safety

SOPs ensure that employees are performing their tasks safely and securely. This is critical in workplaces that are prone to health hazards like factories and construction sites. A safety procedure that ensures machinery is properly shut down and cannot start again until maintenance work is completed is an example of an SOP that ensures the safety of the workplace. 

Challenges in Developing Standard Operating Procedures

While there may be several benefits in developing SOPs, there are disadvantages to using them. Let us look at some of the challenges in developing SOPs.

Compartmentalized development

In situations where SOPs are developed by involving a certain group of stakeholders, the risk of missing the mark in some way or the other is high. For example, if an SOP is created by C-level executives, it may focus on the goal to be attained rather than the process required to attain it. As a result, the ground-level team might run into a variety of issues that the executives may not have anticipated. 

Accessibility and visibility issues

It is not enough if you create SOPs, you also need to ensure that all stakeholders can access and engage with the said documentation whenever the need arises. SOPs that do not provide visibility and accessibility are likely to fall on the back burner. It is also important to ensure that the SOP documentation various team members have access to is the same documentation across the board. 

Lack of maintenance and management

The first thing to bear in mind while creating SOPs is that your team needs to be trained and prepared to implement the procedures in question. This can be achieved only if the team has access to the equipment or resources required to complete the tasks. If the SOP followed by your team is outdated in any way, then, following it will do more harm than good to your organization. 

Use Cases of Standard Operating Procedures

SOPs have a wide range of uses across industries like manufacturing, healthcare, aviation, and food service. They outline the steps for completing specific tasks, like assembling a product or sterilizing equipment, or for complex processes like responding to customer complaints. Some of the industries that use SOPs for day-to-day operations are – 

  • Manufacturing – SOPs in this industry are used for outlining steps involved in the production of goods, and also ensuring quality control measures and protocols. 
  • Human Resources SOPs – These SOPs are typically created for training, hiring, and managing employees within the company. 
  • Financial SOPs – These SOPs outline the procedures for managing financial transactions like payments, billing, payment processing, and budgeting.
  • Customer service SOPs – These documents outline the procedures for interacting with customers and resolving their complaints and inquiries. The standard method for handling complaints and queries from customers, until they are resolved are outlined in these SOPs. 
  • Environmental SOPs – These SOPs include procedures for tasks like handling and disposing of hazardous waste, monitoring air and water quality, and responding to environmental emergencies. 
  • IT SOPs – These SOPs guide managing and maintaining computer systems and networks within the organization. Tasks like system administration, network management, cyber security, and customer support are some of the IT tasks that would require SOPs. 
  • Hospitality SOPs – These SOPs can be used for customer service, food and beverage service, and housekeeping processes. 
  • Education SOPs – SOPs in the education sector cover a wide range of topics like student enrollment, teacher training, curriculum development, and facilities management. 
  • Marketing SOPs – These SOPs include procedures for tasks like creating and implementing marketing campaigns, writing press releases, developing social media content, and analyzing marketing data. Standardizing these tasks ensures that everyone in the marketing team follows the standard procedure for these tasks. 

Conclusion

We have explored effectively. To explore what is SOP standard operating procedure, how to write SOPs, use cases for SOPs, and the benefits of using SOPs. Once we understand what a standard operating procedure SOP is and how to create an SOP, organizations can create clear standard operating procedures for key processes in their organization. From retaining knowledge to ensuring process compliance, SOPs bring several benefits to the organization.

Automating business processes is one way of bringing standardization into process operations. Workflow automation software like Cflow can automate key business processes and standardize operations. The document management feature in Cflow allows you to store and manage your standard operating procedures flow, sign up for the free trial now. 

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