“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”
Businesses of every size and from every industry can benefit from implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) to drive operational efficiencies, ensure consistent quality control, and deliver reliable customer service.
In this article, we’ll cover the definition of standard operating procedures and the benefits they bring. We’ll then look at how to write a standard operating procedure, and examine some SOP templates. By the end, you’ll have gathered some actionable points that will help you optimize your business’s processes.
What is a standard operating procedure?
A standard operating procedure is a document that details a repeatable process of simple steps used for routine tasks. SOPs are designed to increase business performance, ensure high quality, and improve efficiency and consistency across all departments.
Whether employees need to create a new inventory order or drafting a press release, a well-executed SOP breaks the procedure down into simple tasks and includes any additional information that is necessary to complete it.
Businesses that use unclear processes leave more room for error. There’s a greater risk that employees will be missing vital information and will carry out tasks incorrectly. An SOP eliminates guesswork from these tasks by explaining the tools and resources required, and how they should be completed, resulting in the same output every time.
Some of the many benefits include:
- More efficient operations
- Consistent and reliable production environments
- Stable customer service
- Consistent training documents
- Fewer errors
- Increased adherence to safety protocols
- Good project accountability
- Improved business profitability
- Easy adherence to compliance requirements
Standard operating procedures can govern functions like HR, finance, legal, and sales. In a nutshell, developing well-thought-out SOPs systemize, document, and centralize all your business’s processes.
Process vs. standard operating procedure
There are key differences between a process and a standard operating procedure. A process is the path from input to output, and can be referred to as a series of related tasks. A standard operating procedure is a more in-depth guide to try and ensure consistency of the process.
Both business processes and SOPs are crucial to effectively running your company and work towards consistency and saving valuable time and money. The main difference between a process and a procedure is that a process deals with the “what” and a SOP handles the “how”.
Here’s an overview of the main differences:
- High-level view often used for analysis purposes.
- Concentrates on the flow of activity.
- Dictates who undertakes a task, why, and how the task is being carried out.
- Comprises the detail of the tasks.
Why are standard operating procedures important?
From a business owner’s standpoint, an SOP document is important because it describes how your company operates. An SOP prevents team members from falling into bad habits and sets out the work instructions to guide each team member so there is no doubt about how they should operate.
Standard operating procedures give stakeholders and employees consistent information about how to approach different business process services and scenarios.
Let’s continue with some of the main reasons why you should use standard operating procedures in your business.
Main reasons why you should use standard operating procedures
SOPs ensure that whoever is working on your team that day, the outcome will be the same. They make processes repeatable and serve as a highly effective decision-making tool.
Detailed SOPs increase stability within your company because no matter which obstacles lie in your path, such as long-term employee absences, urgent and important tasks can be carried out without major disruptions to your business.
Standard operating procedures establish and maintain quality control and quality assurance. This means that your products and services are produced and delivered exactly to the right specifications every time.
SOPs automate choices and processes so your team doesn’t have to think about how to approach a process every time. This ensures you can provide a consistent service—something sure to protect your company’s reputation and build customer trust and loyalty.
For knowledge and organization management
Well-defined SOPs gather information from all relevant employees and set out specific tasks in a clear format. Documenting your standard operating procedures ensures that you have all the data from your current teams so it’s always there in the future. This avoids any issues when your team members move on or change roles.
Having accurate knowledge purely in your employee’s heads is rarely good practice, so making sure that this vital information is documented is a wise approach. SOPs ensure that information about mission critical operations, such as maintenance, are up to date and resources are available to avoid interruption to work processes.
To ensure safety
Safety in the workplace should always be a business owner’s top priority. By stipulating regulated protocols standard operating procedures help keep employees safe.
Safety factors covered by SOPs include everything through fall prevention to hazardous waste incidents. As well as helping to prevent these types of workplace mishaps, standard operating procedures protect businesses from fines and litigation issues.
To meet regulatory compliance requirements
Standard operating procedures provide your company with the necessary documentation to prove compliance with standards set out by regulatory bodies and audits. SOPs are especially helpful in the finance, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors where there are many industry regulations in place.
Businesses that handle health information, financial details, or other confidential information need to carefully follow procedures to protect against data loss, misuse, and theft. Likewise, food manufacturers and food service industries must also follow stringent FDA regulations that protect public health (and be able to prove that they do so).
To improve onboarding and training
Standard operating procedure documents can help your business to onboard new hires effectively by ensuring they have the right documentation at their fingertips. Of course, new employees will always need help from colleagues, but a well-written SOP document saves recruitment resources, promotes smart employee onboarding, and can act as a re-training guide for existing employees.
To avoid potential issues
The ultimate purpose of SOPs is to provide clarity and ensure all employees work in a standard way. They not only help your employees with preventative measures rather than reactive behavior, but they also prevent your teams from going off script without good reason, which reduces unwanted risk across your business
SOP documents can also act as employee performance checklists and encourage peer learning in the workplace. They also allow managers to track task performance and create up-to-date audit checklists.
Types of standard operating procedure
By now you should be convinced of the many benefits of using SOPs. But what type is best for you? Let’s examine some different SOP formats to determine which will work best for you.
A hierarchical SOP format lays out the order of tasks to be completed as systematic steps. For example, an SOP hierarchical format may include steps 1a, 2b, etc. to detail extra information. This format is typically used for complex tasks with multiple steps.
A hierarchical SOP tends to follow a formal format including a table of contents and headings followed by bullet points and a set of determined substeps. This helps break the content down into consumable sections and makes it easier to read. It works particularly well for processes such as client onboarding or complicated equipment repairs.
A hierarchical SOP format looks like this:
- Outline the policy (the why)
- Share the procedures (the how)
- Communicate the relevant information (and ensure success!)
The pros of this format include:
- Outlines extra information in a simple way
- Provides context to the process without complicated explanations
Hierarchical format cons include:
- Amending hierarchical SOPS can be complex if steps need changing
- Ill suited to organization processes that require decision making
Businesses that use a step-by-step SOP format often have fairly simple business processes. This format breaks down a procedure into bullet points or a numbered list and details instructions at each stage.
An example of step-by-step instructions for digital login sequences would look something like this:
- Navigate to your landing page
- Enter your username
- Enter your password
- Click on the secure link
- Access your account
Step-by-step standard operating procedures are easy to follow and are clear to read and absorb. This style of SOP is particularly useful for small teams and for procedures that have no decision points. They work particularly well for organizations when they include measurable results.
Advantages of the step-by-step process include:
- Simple to create and understand
- Great for routine processes and tasks
Step-by-step cons include:
- Not suitable for decision-making processes or complicated tasks
Flowchart format SOPs are great for processes with different outcomes. They usually include information for the user to follow according to whichever scenario they currently find themselves in. Flowchart SOPs typically include a statement of purpose, a list of the stakeholders involved, and a representation of the various scenarios and outcomes.
When creating a flowchart SOP, it is customary to map out the procedures as you would in a process mapping exercise in order to include all potential outcomes.Flow charts are well suited to processes with lots of decision points, and some of the more complex versions include swimlane (SIPOC or COPIS) diagrams.
You can choose to create a SOP flowchart from one of two different formats. These are typically called process and organizational flowcharts. An organizational flowchart helps users to understand their roles and responsibilities as part of the overall work process. A process flowchart is a visual representation of a series of tasks and includes other related processes to provide context.
The pros of a flowchart format include:
- Provides a comprehensive overview of complicated or multi layered processes
- Minimizes confusion for all staff members
- Helps to make sense of complex business procedures, reducing wasted time and bottlenecks
Flowchart cons include:
- Updating a flowchart SOP can be time-consuming
- Complex flowchart formats can look messy if they’re not well-structured
Word document format
The final standard operating procedure format option is a Word document (or other lengthy text file). This format isn’t typically recommended for a SOP document as multiple pages of text aren’t a great way to digest a lot of information. A very long document is also off-putting for users and there’s a risk they will skip over some of the most important points.
To make your SOP easy to read, we’d recommend any of the other three formats instead.
How to write standard operating procedures
Now we’ve covered the different formats you can choose from, let’s move on to how to write SOPs and develop them for future business success. It’s important to follow defined steps when documenting processes to ensure you cover all bases as thoroughly as possible.
Decide on your goals
The first step you need to follow when developing your SOP documentation is to decide on the goals you want to achieve. Ask managers and their teams to pin down a list of potential SOPs from existing business processes. You can use the information you’ve gathered from each department as the starting point for your new set of SOPs.
For example, IT divisions may require SOPs for different aspects like system maintenance, data breaches, or disaster management.
It can be helpful when pinning down your goals to ask yourself the following questions:
- How will SOPs improve your business’s communications?
- How will following a SOP enhance customer service?
- Which KPIs will developing a SOP achieve?
Identify current pain points within your business and be specific in terms of your SOP goals. It’s good practice to follow SMART guidelines during this process. These are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Be precise, use set criteria to measure progress, and make sure your goals are attainable.
Choose creators and collaborators
Decide on the key stakeholders to include within your standard operating procedure. These are the people who can provide the most meaningful information about the processes to follow.
Typically, the people you’ll need in your SOP development team include:
- C-suite executives to identify the most efficient use of time, possible measurable metrics, and company resources
- Management leaders to create plans around resource requirements
- SMEs (subject matter experts) to provide authority and expertise
- Ground-level employees to assess the SOPs for real usage
Brainstorm and decide how the task in question should ideally be performed. This has the advantage of ensuring buy-in from the people who will follow the standard operating procedure. Make sure to ask specific questions about how they perform each task to ensure you have a full understanding of the current situation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unsure, and never assume anything.
Collect information from stakeholders. This could include things like:
- Instruction or OEM manuals
- List of equipment such as materials, tools, equipment, and technology
- Potential safety hazards and safety warnings
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- List of the steps required in the task workflow
- The number of people required to complete the process
- Any extra information that must be included to successfully complete the process
It’s worth knowing that SOPs for industrial maintenance and office-based SOPs differ both in the style and the type of information that needs to be included. For instance, a warehouse equipment operator needs PPE and safety guidelines, whereas a customer service agent in a contact center would typically require information such as login details and call scripts.
Whether you create the SOP in house or use a platform like beSlick to organize and improve your repeatable business processes, your SOP document will likely require several edits until you reach the finished article. Make sure you set aside time with your team for reviews and additional feedback. The writer of your SOP must be proficient in technical writing with deep knowledge of your business’s existing processes and operations.
Determine the end user
Determining who the SOP is for is crucial. This is because how you write the standard operating procedure depends on the types of end user and their knowledge levels. For the SOP to serve its purpose, it must be usable.
Consider elements such as:
- Prior knowledge of the procedure and your business.
- Language and tone variances. Keep both of these elements specific and consistent across all the documentation.
- Familiarity of the end users with your business’s products and services. New employees will require extra explanations to ensure consistent and desired outcomes.
- Size of the end user demographic. Will different users in different roles be reading the SOP? Large businesses will require role details and how they fit into the bigger picture.
Always ensure that the SOP document is created in a way that is helpful to the users who will implement the procedures.
It’s likely that you’ll use your SOP as a training guide for new employees, so it’s a good idea to determine specific roles and why a user conducts each process before you begin itemizing the information you want to cover in your SOP.
Be prepared for change management issues, such as employees wanting to continue undertaking tasks in a certain way. It’s worth clarifying your business’s goals to your end users to explain why your business needs SOPs to avoid potential disruption.
Identify the scope and format
Defining your scope is crucial to a successful SOP and will help prevent scope creep. During this phase of SOP creation, consider if this standard operating procedure is dependent on other SOPs or management systems to ensure successful completion. You may need to add references to other business procedures to define these dependencies.
Identifying additional SOP dependencies will help you decide on the best SOP format. This may be a flowchart, step-by-step list, or hierarchical list. The format of your SOP should allow users to scan the information without becoming overwhelmed with reams of text.
SOPs often include elements such as:
- Title page
- Table of contents
- Relevant business documents and acronym definitions
- Roles and responsibilities
Analyze the document
It’s important to assess the document to ensure it works as intended. Try to create a consistent review process prior to publication. Begin with your subject matter experts to confirm that the information is accurate. After this, seek review from management level executives, and finally provide the SOP to the quality assurance department in your business.
In addition to these reviews, don’t be afraid to send a draft to the rest of your SOP team and ask them to review it for potential grammatical and technical mistakes. Getting several pairs of eyes on the document is always a good idea to ensure the finished document is fit for purpose.
During analysis, consider these questions to ensure you’ve completed the document as well as possible:
- Is your writing throughout the SOP targeted to the end user?
- Is it written in a clear and concise format?
- Is it written in an active voice?
- Is the SOP jargon-free and easy to understand?
- Is the document formatted well and easy to read?
Carry out trial-and-error testing
After reviewing the SOP document with members of your team at different levels, it’s time to enter the testing stage. Walk through the standard operating procedure collaboratively and carefully, and note each step as you go. Ask the users who will be following the instructions to test them out and find any issues in the process. This is the time to make sure everything works as intended.
Your standard operating procedure is now ready to be finalized. Executing your finished SOP establishes that you’ve thoroughly tested it, and have successfully ensured the safety of everyone involved.
Implement a roll-out schedule and let stakeholders and SOP users know that SOPs are changing. Make sure to have plans in place to check your employees’ knowledge of the SOP, in order to establish future training needs.
Update and enhance
Make sure to regularly update your standard operating procedure in order to meet your current business needs. Any company modifications, including onboarding new suppliers or providing a new service, will require revisions to your SOP. Develop an ongoing maintenance schedule for reviewing your SOP to ensure relevance and that they remain accurate over time.
To understand how your SOP is performing, examine metrics such as weekly sales totals for a sales process, or accurate inventory counts for a warehouse operation. To be effective, a SOP must serve as a management tool that streamlines repetitive tasks and communications, guarantees that no errors are made, and uncovers opportunities to increase productivity. If that’s not happening, then there’s something wrong.
Standard operating procedure template
Seems a bit overwhelming? Don’t worry – that’s what templates are for. An SOP template is a preformatted template businesses can use as a starting point to create a standard operating procedure.
A template will include spaces for relevant information and indicate the best place for each topic within the SOP. Kick off with a title page for your SOP including an identification number, creation date, and the title of the person who will implement the standard operating procedure.
When creating an SOP template, it’s important to remember that consistency is key, so take steps to ensure that all this and your future SOPs look and read the same way. Consider including additional information such as the role and department the SOP applies to, and the names of the SOP preparation team as well as the approval team.
Once the SOP intro has been dealt with, you can complete the following sections of the template:
Standard operating procedure goal
Explain why the SOP was created, the processes included within the standard operating procedure, and the overall goal of the SOP. Describe the purpose of the SOP and how employees will use it.
Roles and responsibilities
This section of the SOP template includes a list of responsible people who will follow the SOP in question. In addition, define the capacity of these roles in your business as well as their role within the SOP. Each step of the SOP should have actionable steps linked to responsible parties.
Resources and information
Define in this area of the SOP the relevant resources such as the tools, technology, and materials for successful procedure completion. This resources and information section must detail where to find them, how to store them, and how to maintain them if necessary.
Are there safety implications that must be covered within your SOP? This is the place for them. Lay out any relevant safety requirements or cautions with clear guidelines on how to follow them.
Procedures and methodologies
This area is where you’ll describe the actual operating procedures and forms the main bulk of the SOP. Be as clear as possible when describing the methodologies involved in the standard operating procedure.
You can add diagrams or images to aid your descriptions and make the process easier to understand. Be sure that you clearly notate each procedure section so that users can easily find the information they’re looking for.
Typical examples of procedures listed in this section include:
- Records management
- Safety or health warnings
- Inspection and audit procedures
- Equipment and supplies
- Warnings to prevent equipment breakage
- Calibration data and information
Include an area for troubleshooting and commonly asked questions for users to easily access the data that they need.
Quality control and affirmation
To ensure that your employees can check that they’re abiding by the SOP, include details on how you’ll be measuring performance and compliance.
References and glossary
Use this section for references and glossary terms relevant to your business’s industry. These will include acronym explanations and any other information that clearly explains points in the completed SOP.
Because it’s likely that this SOP will be part of many SOPs within your organization, it’s good practice to ensure that each page has control document notation, such as a short title, date, and page number.
Consider if including footnotes would be helpful for the end user. You probably only need a table of contents when the SOP document contains several pages of information, so a one-page SOP typically won’t require one.
Best practices for a successful standard operating procedure
There are some specific things you can do if you want to ensure your SOPs are perfectly composed. Read on for some best practices for creating a successful standard operating procedure.
Use a clean format and clear language
Use plain language that is easy to understand. Simple lists and short sentences are a good choice, so break down individual instructions into separate steps. In SOPs, avoid jargon and use literal language to explain points.
It’s good practice to start sentences with a verb and use the active rather than the passive voice. For example, instead of saying, “The components must be placed in the container by the operatives”, you should say, “Operatives must place the components in the container.”
Some important elements to bear in mind to ensure a clean SOP format include questions like:
- Who carries out each procedure?
- How do they do it?
- What steps do they follow?
- What equipment or tools do they use?
- How often do they conduct the steps?
- What is the result?
If you’re using an SOP template, this will ensure that all your standard operating procedure documents are consistent. The use of bullet points is encouraged for easy readability and to maintain readers’ attention throughout the document.
Use visuals to show users how to do something. Sometimes images work best for simple actions like “click here”, reducing the amount of time a reader has to spend figuring something out.A combination of images with descriptions of methodologies is usually impactful.
Use words like “must” instead of “should” in your SOP to influence the user to follow the desired steps. Simple action-oriented verbs such as “identify” and “navigate” work well to explain to the user what to do in certain situations.
Avoid vague and generalized terms like “periodic” and “regularly” that could cause confusion. After all, how often is “regularly?” Everyone will have their own opinion of what this timeframe means, and the purpose of the SOP is to enforce certain actions.
Clearly articulate decision points and always create SOPs in the language, style, and format best suited to your business.
Store SOPs in an accessible place
Everyone who needs access to standard operating procedures must know where they’re located. The simplest option is to create SOPs in a digital format and store them in an easily accessible file location. This way, amendments can easily be made on the online version.
Users are more likely to adhere to standard operating procedures when they are easy to locate. You may think about using a policy and procedure software management tool to store your SOPs in a safe and convenient location. All you need to do then is provide your employees with individual login information to locate the documents they need.
For physical SOP locations, consider building SOPs into your workplace environment by displaying posters next to equipment, and QR codes within checklists linking to relevant information on websites. Take a walk around your business premises to see the best place to position your SOPs and where they make the most sense to your end users.
Conduct regular maintenance
Develop an ongoing maintenance schedule for SOPs to ensure relevancy and accuracy. When you review SOPs, there are a couple of things to bear in mind:
- Don’t be afraid to write lengthy SOPs if the specific task requires it
- How much individual employees understand an entire process affects the way they complete it.
Pro Tip: Set a recurring task for every quarter for the whole team to read through the business’s SOPs and suggest any updates.
Train employees accordingly
When implementing new SOPs, you will need to conduct training so everyone is on the same page. Bear in mind that this can be met with resistance, especially from longer-standing employees. Conduct training sessions in an informal setting to allow everyone to understand that the goal of the new SOP is to encourage maximum workplace productivity and to avoid unnecessary stress.
Training relevant to SOPs should be ongoing and will need to be continually monitored as an evolving process as your business develops and changes.
Review employee feedback
After implementation, it’s good practice to ask employees regularly for their feedback and check that the SOP is being used. If it isn’t, find out why not. You need to be aware if there are problems with the standard operating procedure that prevent people from using it.
beSlick has a built-in template feedback mechanism to enable employees to share their views and experiences. Reviewing this feedback is critical as these are your end users who will follow the standard operating procedure. It must make sense to them, otherwise, they won’t follow it.
ISO compliance is another important factor to consider. Showing your business is continuously improving is a critical component of the ISO certification process. Strive to continuously iterate your SOPs. You can do this by listening to your employees’ improvement suggestions to adhere to the collaborative working element of the ISO certification.
Schedule time for regular employee feedback for existing and new SOPs to ensure relevance and adjust to take into account new opinions. Give all staff at all levels the opportunity to shape the way SOPs are implemented.
Make accountability clear
Ensuring everyone fully understands their responsibilities avoids miscommunication when creating your standard operating procedures. This can easily happen if you’re working with a lengthy Word document containing vague or indigestible information. Using beSlick templates enforces clear ownership and avoids conflict and confusion.
Ensure audit trail matches the SOP
Ensuring compliance with standard operating procedures is notoriously challenging. This is easily overcome with platforms such as beSlick which integrates these kinds of workflows.
The SOP audit trail is completely built in and can be easily exported for review. For example, your business’s refund procedure can be documented within an SOP and made easily accessible for audit purposes.
Optimizing your business process with standard operating procedures
So, as we’ve learned, standard operating procedures are integral to a business’s success.
They assist with the speed of new employee onboarding, drive efficiencies throughout your business, and deliver better customer experiences. A centralized internal business knowledge base is crucial to implementing best-in-class SOPs.
When your organization creates well-written and well-researched SOPs, you are assured that crucial business information is safe and secure within these documents. SOPs provide complete transparency about the who, what, and when of all your company’s procedures and processes. Maintaining SOPs enables a business to grow and change in a more transparent and seamless way.
The fact that SOPs improve work processes, save time, enhance quality, and support employee onboarding and development make them some of the best tools you can have in your business toolkit.
Alister Esam is a successful entrepreneur and investor, having bootstrapped his fintech software business eShare to international status operating in over 40 countries and servicing 20,000 board directors, before successfully exiting in 2018.
He now invests in a variety of startups and on a global mission to make work, work.