How to write a standard operating procedure

How to write an SOP

In the start-ups and high-growth businesses I’ve worked with over the years, Standard Operating Procedures (let’s call them SOPs for short) were essential tools in “systematizing” the business to get more consistent results. To prepare an SOP, you’ll need to work through these three phases: choosing a format, writing the SOP, and rolling it out. I’ll explain each of these in turn.

Section A. Choosing a SOP format

 

There are four basic formats that I recommend you choose from:

Single level steps format

This is for straightforward procedures that have short and have just one or two possible outcomes.

Multi level steps format

This is similar to the simple steps format, but broken down into steps and sub-steps.

Flowchart format

Where the procedure can take multiple different paths depending on the outcome at each step, its best to use a flowchart.

Video format

More and more people are choosing to turn their procedures into short videos. These are a great way to make your procedure easier to digest and understand.

 

There are many more specialised SOP formats used in specific industries. For example the Toyota Manufacturing System uses an SOP format called standardized work charts, but I’m not going to cover these here.

Let’s look at each of these formats in turn.

 

①   Single level steps format

This is structured as a simple checklist of instructions telling the reader what to do. Here’s what I mean: (example courtesy of Penn State Dairy Alliance)

  1. Wipe dirt from the first cow’s udder.
  2. Dip all four teats with the dip cup.
  3. Strip two squirts of milk from each teat and observe for abnormal milk. If any abnormal milk is found, refer to SOP002, “Dealing With Cows With Abnormal Milk.”
  4. Repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 with the second and third cows on the same side.

 

②   Multi level steps format

When you’ve got a lot of detail you want to communicate, or you’ve got more than 10 steps in your procedure, it’s best to break it down into main steps and substeps. Here’s our milking example again:

  1. Wipe dirt from the first cow’s udder.
    a    Use your gloved hand to remove dry dirt and bedding.
    b    Use a clean paper towel to dry the teats if they are wet.
  2. Dip all four teats with the dip cup.
    a    Squeeze dip up from bottom reservoir so that teat chamber is ¾ full.
  3. Strip two squirts of milk from each teat and observe for abnormal milk.
    a    Squirt milk onto black surface of strip cup.
    b    Abnormal milk may appear watery, or have clots or flakes.
    c    If any abnormal milk is found, refer to SOP002, “Dealing With Cows With Abnormal Milk.”
  4. Repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 with the second and third cows on the same side.

 

③   Flowchart format

If the procedure is more like a map with many decision points and a very large number of possible outcomes, than it’s best to use a flowchart. These contain standardized symbols as explained on the right hand side in the example below.

Flowchart milking cows

 

 

④   Video format

Often, video is a better way to go than text. Because video works so well on mobile devices, it can only get more popular as a format for SOPs. Show an experienced team member carrying out the procedure in the best way in a short segment of 2 – 4 minutes.

To create video SOP you should first prepare an outline text-based or flowchart procedure as explained previously. This gives you an initial script with which you can plan out your video. Work with a team member who can demonstrate and talk through the procedure whilst you film it.

Here’s some tips on how to create these short videos (from Josh Korr at Viget).

 

Section B – Writing your SOP

It’s time to get your SOP written – let’s roll up our sleeves. Here’s five tips that will help you do a great job.

①   Schedule your writing

Writing (or at least, writing well) is hard, especially if you are starting from a blank sheet. You may need to find a quiet place to work, free from interruptions. You will need to free yourself from competing deadlines. Enter specific time in your calendar to complete the task.

 

②   Create a quick first draft

You’ve previously chosen a format for the procedure. You should now make an initial complete list of the steps in the order that they are done. A simple way to get started is to watch someone performing the procedure and write down everything that they do, including decision points. This list is now your first draft of the procedure.

 

③   Cover the necessary areas

Here’s a checklist of areas that you might need to include in your SOP. Unless otherwise instructed, don’t feel you have to use all of them, especially if you’re just preparing a simple-steps-format SOP.

Statement of scope

Describe briefly the purpose of the procedure, the inputs and outputs and the limits to its use. Where there are multiple roles involved, list the roles of people involved.

The procedure itself

This is the core part of the document. List out all the steps with the any necessary details, including the equipment that is used.   Indicate any decision points, and mention any key health and safety considerations.

Equipment and supplies

Complete list of what is needed and when, where to find equipment, standards of equipment, etc.

Troubleshooting

Consider including a troubleshooting section within your SOP. This should cover things to look out for and what could go wrong.

Quality control

If possible, provide details that allow the reader to check that they’ve obtained the desired results. Refer to separate test methods and product specifications.

 

④   Make it easy to read

Personally, I find it’s more challenging to write a quick, to-the-point explanation than it is to write a long-form one. You should always try to write procedures as simply as possible while communicating well. Use short sentences, use action verbs and be careful with abbreviations.

Use short sentences

Write short sentences of 12 words of less, when you can. Short sentences take a bit more time to create but are easier to understand, for example:

Long:
Make sure that you clean out all of the dust from the air shafts before you begin using them

Short:
Remove all dust from air shafts before use

Often, it is awkward to put everything in one sentence, so break it into two shorter sentences:

Long:
Use your gloved hand to wipe dry dirt and bedding from the first cow’s udder, or dry with a clean paper towel if the udder is wet.

Short:
Wipe dirt from the first cow’s udder.
a   Use your gloved hand to remove dry dirt and bedding.
b   Use a clean paper towel to dry if wet.

Use action verbs

Write steps in SOPs as using action verbs as used in direct commands. They are easier to understand. Consider the following example:

Unclear:
The weight of feed refusals should be recorded in the feeder notebook.

(Does this mean that the feeder should record this information, or just that someone should?)

Clear:
Record the weight of feed refusals in the feeder notebook.

Be careful with abbreviations

Most business people understand the meaning of the abbreviation “SOP” more quickly than if they read “Standard Operating Procedure”.   However, college students will understand SOP to mean Statement of Purpose. Almost all of us will stumble on the abbreviation DMI.   Always define your abbreviation at the point of first use i.e. Dry Matter Intake (DMI).

Break up large chunks of text

Make life easier for your reader by including diagrams or screenshots within the text of your SOP. This makes the SOP easier to digest, and gives the brain a helping hand in trying to make sense of it all. Here’s some examples.

A diagram:

Diagram

 

 

 

 

A highlighted screenshot:

Screenshot - highlighted

 

 

⑤   Control your documents

Your SOP is probably one of many SOPs.   You will need (or you already have) some way of cataloguing these within a database, manual or book. Allow people to find the SOP easily and navigate quickly between documents. Document every version change in the SOP. This can be done within your document management system, or simply by using Issue numbers on the cover page.

Include at least some of the following document control elements:

Cover page or top section

–  title of the procedure

–  status of the procedure
(it should be clearly marked “Draft” until tested and approved)

–  SOP ID number

–  issue or revision number

–  name of the department or team the SOP applies to

–  approval signature(s)

Table of contents

–  very helpful if your SOP is long

References

–  List all significant references to other documents. When you reference other SOPs, provide a URL link if possible.

 

 

Section C – Rolling out your SOP

Now that you’ve written your SOP, how should you get it out to your team?

Sometimes the act of introducing SOPs (or revising existing SOPs) can lead to user resistance, a backlash, or indeed the failure of your entire SOP initiative. To get the most out of your SOPs, I recommend that you follow the following sequence of steps when you roll them out:

  • Testing the SOP
  • Review and signoff
  • Training
  • Improving your processes

 

①   Testing the SOP

Get a selection of people to test your SOP. It’s useful to test with a novice team member who’s relatively new to the team. Experienced team members will be relying on knowledge to get them through, defeating the purpose of the test. Don’t wait too long to test your SOP – test early, and fix it quickly.

 

②   Review and signoff

Those who actually perform the procedure should give it the thumbs up first, rather than your bosses.

In a larger organisation, send your SOP to appropriate consultants, advisors and internal QA staff. They can spot things that you missed, and compare it with industry best practice.

Finally, your SOP is ready to submit to your bosses for sign-off. Your SOP will carry more authority the higher the boss who signs it.

 

③   Training

Now you need to train your team to put your SOP into practice. For simpler procedures it may be enough to just post your SOP on the intranet. For more complex procedures you should arrange more formal classes

For new joiners your SOP should become part of the induction process. Coordinate with your HR department to make sure that this happens.

 

④   Improving your processes

Believe it or not, many SOPs in small businesses are created just to get through an ISO audit, and are never actively used. After the audit is complete, these add no value to the business, just cost. To get the most value from your SOPs you should use them as part of a continuous improvement process, or CI for short. This is how your business achieves competitive advantage. The cost of developing the SOPs will be paid back many times over through reduced costs and higher quality.  CI is a big topic is its own right and I’ll talk more about it in an upcoming blog post.

 

Quick list of tips

  • Do involve your front line team members so that the documented process gains buy-in and includes their best ideas
  • Do use short sentences
  • Do use screenshots, diagrams and video to clarify your procedures
  • Check if an old version of the SOP exists before you write yours. Depending on how well this was written, you may just be able to make a few changes.
  • Do test your SOP early. Show it to someone unfamiliar with the process and have them tell you what they think it says; you may be surprised.
  • Don’t forget to create a cover page or top section containing essential document control information
  • Do get approval signatures for your SOP from higher level management

 

Acknowledgements

Here are the best articles I found on writing standard operating procedures.

Penn State University – Richard Stup

http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/hr/tools-for-dairy-employee-supervisors/ud011

http://www.nmconline.org/articles/sop.pdf

North Carolina State University

https://ncfreshproducesafety.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Guidance-for-Standard-Operating-Procedures.pdf?fwd=no

Wikihow

http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Standard-Operating-Procedure

 

 

 

 

 

 

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