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Writing Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) - Complete Guide

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A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a step-by-step set of instructions or guidelines that businesses use to carry out routine tasks, achieve efficiency and reduce miscommunication.

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SOP Guide

When you embark on a trip to a KFC, Burger King, or Subway outlet, you don’t ever expect the quality or mode of service, the ambiance, and the customer experience, in general, to deviate from what you’re typically used to. No matter which outlet it is that you decide to go to, the experience remains the same.

SOP Complete GuideNeedless to say, this very customer experience from a chain of restaurants or fast-food franchises is something we all take for granted.

But a quick dive into the inner workings of such companies will reveal that much careful thought, organization, and strategy is involved in getting things to work so seamlessly, consistently, and without a hitch and that too, on such a global scale.

Organizations achieve this form of consistency and cohesion through the application of standard operating procedures (SOP). As a consequence, they don’t have to constantly come up with a new strategy or plan to complete tasks and run their business effectively.

A point to be noted though is the fact that the bigger a company gets, the more difficult it would be to keep up the consistency. Nevertheless, a standard operating procedure is something businesses, no matter what the size, can take advantage of, in order to maintain a sense of control, safety, and efficiency at the workplace.

Before we move on to discussing how to create a standard operating procedure, let’s first understand what an SOP is all about.

What is a Standard Operating Procedure?

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is essentially a step-by-step set of instructions or guidelines that businesses use to carry out routine tasks.

Employees and teams within an organization refer to the standard operating procedure to run specific company operations in a smooth and consistent manner. The intent and purpose of an SOP are to maintain a uniform yet superior quality output, and as such, they are designed to improve the performance of tasks.

Standard operating procedures also allow companies to mitigate the chances of miscommunication and ambiguity of business procedures and are thus detail-oriented in nature.

SOPs are typically available in the form of documents and are also referred to as ‘standing instructions’, ‘set forms’, ‘standard operational procedures’, ‘Modus Operandi’ (MO), standard orders (for military procedures).

History records reveal that the term’s first use was made around the middle of the 20th century.

Why Use a Standard Operating Procedure?

When companies make use of standard operating procedures, they essentially reduce the time taken to complete varied tasks. This is because entities implementing the SOP already have material to go back to if they have questions regarding what their daily tasks look like, how they should go about it, what are the tools they would need to complete said tasks, and so forth. .

With SOPs, businesses ensure that one specific task is done in the same manner no matter the circumstance, thereby guaranteeing that the delivery output remains consistent. Other benefits of a standard operating procedure include:
  • Reducing the training time of employees - With the aid of SOPs, companies ensure that there is a standardized form of orientation that doesn’t require organizations to constantly reinvent the wheel every time a new hire joins the company.
  • A business’s legal requirements are met - Although this element of a standard operating procedure purely depends on the industry and niche market they belong to, it’s better to err on the side of caution. With an SOP at hand, businesses don’t have to worry about being held legally responsible should something unfortunate occur at the workplace.
  • SOPs establish a chain of command - Needless to say, without a formal procedure or documents stating otherwise, it is quite hard for businesses to establish any chain of command. But by using an SOP, everything is documented and defined beforehand, so all employees need to do is follow the instructions laid out for them.

Difference between SOPs and Processes

While it is true that both standard operating procedures and processes work by following a set of step-by-step instructions to complete a particular task, what sets apart a procedure from a process is the fact that it is far more detailed and specific in nature. .

Processes, on the other hand, are used to complete high-level, managerial tasks that ultimately analyze the efficiency of a business as a whole. It does not however take into account the minute details in each task. This is where a standard operating procedure enters the picture and does the needful.

So to put it in the simplest of terms:
  • Standard Operating Procedure - A set of guidelines that has answers to questions, such as the whos, the wheres, the whens, the whats, and the hows of tasks.
  • Process - A set of guidelines that has a vague idea of the answers to said questions.
The Resulting Outcome
With processes, there is plenty of room for interpretation, experimentation as well as process improvement . While such a scenario is ideal for situations that require innovation and creativity, it will not be of much help when businesses desire a predictable outcome. As a consequence, when handling processes, companies cannot bank on getting a predictable outcome every time a particular process is followed.

This is, of course, opposed to how a standard operating procedure is performed. No matter how many times you follow the guidelines, the result is bound to be the same, each time.

Because when a procedure is written, every aspect of the task is taken into consideration, including all the ways it could go wrong.

SOP Writing Guidelines

Now that we’ve arrived at the crux of the matter, let’s address the burning question - how to write a clear and effective standard operating procedure that businesses can benefit from?

Although there isn’t a hard and fast rule that SOPs have to be written in a certain way, there are a few crucial points you need to keep in mind while writing one. Let’s look at them now.
How to write SOP
  1. Start With a Clear End Goal in Mind
    This step might seem like an obvious thing to be talking about, but the fact is that often organizations end up wasting a lot of time and energy simply because they dived right into creating an SOP without considering the reasons for it or without zeroing in on the tasks that they need a standard procedure for.

    As such, it is crucial for businesses to define what their end goal is. Collect all the data and information necessary to write the SOP on the specific process, procedure, task, or activity. If needed, your business can take the aid of an employee who is adept at the activity or the procedure involved in carrying it out so that nothing is left to chance.
  2. Choose a Format
    As we discussed earlier in the article, standard operating procedures can be written in a number of ways. Often, companies refer to formats or templates that they have used in the past when they want to write an SOP for a new activity or specific task.

    However, if you’ve never written an SOP template before or if your business is looking to develop an entirely new process, you can choose a format that is best suited to your company’s needs.
  3. Define the Scope
    In some cases, while writing a standard operating guide, businesses have to reference or consider other SOPs belonging to a different team or department within the organization in order to make full sense of the task at hand.

    In such a scenario, companies must determine whether they should include the procedures of these related tasks while writing the instructions for the present activity or whether a simple reference will be sufficient. Often, creating a flowchart works in favor of the SOP in such instances.

    Aside from this, organizations must ensure that the use-case and real-life applicability are clearly stated in the SOP.
  4. Identify Your Audience
    Before businesses begin writing the standard operating procedure for activities, they must identify who their target audience is and keep them in mind while curating and creating SOPs.

    Although companies gather a team of experts to write their respective standard operating procedures, ultimately the content will matter only for the people who are going to be using the guidelines and instructions stated in the document.

    Say your company is writing an SOP for how employees must manage customer service requests. As such, it is your customer service representatives who will be thumbing through the SOP you’ve written.

    Accordingly, you must write the operating procedure in a way that is engaging yet instructive to the customer representatives in your organization. Some of the things to keep in mind while furnishing the SOP are:
    • Stick to laying down instructions/duties only for the end-user.
    • Avoid using unnecessary legal jargon and instead, focus on the language the audience is accustomed to.
    • Even though the purpose of the SOP is to instruct and explain, make sure you don’t overdo it by explaining certain aspects of the procedure or terminology that the user may already be familiar with.
    • Ensure that you have a procedure in place for new hires since they would need more instruction and guidance on how to go about tasks.
  5. Ask for Input
    Involving employees in the writing of SOPs will allow the company to manage tasks and business activities in a much more efficient and seamless manner as opposed to writing one without their suggestions.

    Since the employees are the ones who are going to be carrying out tasks by using these procedures as a guide, asking for their input will allow them to familiarise themselves with the instructions while also ensuring that all the steps have been accounted for.

Writing an SOP

Perhaps a standard operating procedure’s greatest selling point is the fact that it allows businesses to maintain their company standards while also ensuring that consumer demands are being met consistently- a feat, companies can accomplish with marginal errors.

With that in mind, let’s go over all the elements that make for an ideal SOP.
  1. The Title Page
    The title page of the standard operating procedure must consist of information that will identify the document. This will include the title of the specific procedure, an identification number assigned to the document (or SOP), and the date of creation of the procedure.

    Other details that can make it into the page include the department or professional title of the entity that will make use of the SOP and the names and designation of everyone involved in the creation of the SOP document.
  2. Table of Contents
    Although it is not entirely necessary to include one, a table of contents would nevertheless aid users in finding the information they wish to implement from within the document.

    A table of contents would also become essential if the SOP document is more than just a few pages. All businesses need to remember while writing this section is to provide users ease of access and save much of their time. Something that is especially required in case of an emergency.
  3. Preparatory Information
    In order for employees, users, and other entities to make full sense of the standard operating procedure at hand, businesses need to lay out everything by way of preparation.

    Essentially, this introductory information includes the following:
    • The purpose of an SOP - Here, you’ll state the reason for writing the standard operating procedure. This would also include talking about the impact you would wish the end-user to have as a result of implementing it.
    • Roles and responsibilities - The preparatory information must also identify and list out all the entities involved in a specific activity or task.
    • Resources and materials - Since an SOP is all about thoroughness, this section is dedicated to defining all the resources and materials an employee, user, or entity would need to complete a specific procedure. It will also contain other necessary information such as how to retrieve and find said resources.
    • Cautions and warnings - If a particular activity in the SOP requires entities to take safety and precautionary measures either because of the pieces of equipment being used or the method involved in completing a task, it must be mentioned here. You can also outline any hazard-related information in this section.
  4. Methodology and Procedures
    The most crucial element of any standard operating procedure -- this section is where the actual description of all the procedures lies, in order for entities to complete tasks.

    Once you’ve picked a suitable format, your next plan of action should be to write a thorough, detailed, step-by-step set of instructions for the user to follow through. Ensure that you leave no stone unturned in explaining the guidelines for the SOP. This means that every illustration, image, video clip, and flowchart is important.
  5. Quality Control and Assurance
    Although the most crucial aspect of your business’s SOP is in its instructions and guidelines -- if you want your end-users, employees, and other entities to be able to assess their performance so that they can improve it the next time they carry out a task or an activity, this section will aid them in their effort.

    As such, for entities to evaluate each procedure, case-by-case, you include elements such as samples (it can be either real or simulated) of procedures gone by, anecdotes that describe what best practices would look like, and other means to measure performance.
  6. References and Glossary
    This section is essentially a glossary that lists out all your sources and references. It allows entities to dig deeper and look for further explanations of elements listed in the glossary should they choose to do so.

Review, Test, and Edit the SOP

Businesses reach this stage once they’ve completed writing the standard operating procedure document. This is a company’s chance to fix anything that is out of place before it reaches the end-user.

Typically, organizations begin the review process by sharing the SOP with stakeholders, and decision-makers in order to check for accuracy, precision, comprehensiveness, readability, and so forth.

Once the writers have taken note of the feedback from different sources including employees who are involved in the implementation of the activity or task, you can go ahead and make the changes required.

To ensure that the standard operating procedure functions without a glitch, you will have to test the document by actually implementing the instructions yourself, perhaps in a simulated environment. You could also bring in the employees who would have to use the SOP in the future to see what they have to say about its outcome and functionality.

After you’ve reviewed, tested and edited the document for errors, you can now implement the SOP for real. This means that it is ready for entities, employees, and the end-user for implementation.

Best SOP Formats

Since standard operating procedures have been around for quite a while now, it won’t be a surprise to note that SOPs are written in a variety of ways.

Essentially, formats vary in terms of the way the instructions have been laid out. Some formats consist of just a single document while others contain a series of documents, complete with a title page and table of contents. You will find flowcharts, checklists, steps, images, and even videos depending on the format.

Here’s a detailed look at some of the most avowed standard operating procedure formats.
a) The Checklist Format
Also referred to as the step-by-step format, the checklist format is often used for operating procedures that are quite simple in nature, and when there are no chances of the procedure ending up in failure. The format is quite short and straightforward and typically follows a numbered or bullet list sort of template.
Checklist Format
Some areas where businesses can make use of such a format include:
  • The setting up and cleaning up instructions for crews, employees, and customers.
  • The sequence required for digital logins.
  • The safety instructions that people need to follow when handling pieces of equipment, products, and so forth.
Often, companies use process automation software to checklist items in question and subsequently distribute the operating procedure to the workforce.
b) Hierarchical Steps
Businesses make use of this format when the task at hand involves a series of steps that you have to follow with careful consideration.
Hierarchial Format
Complicated decision-making procedures are followed through using the hierarchical steps format.

Often each step also has a number of sub-steps that employees must look into. If a checklist format displays the list in the following manner: 1, 2, 3… etc., a hierarchical format will display the steps as so: Step 1a, step 1b, step 2a, step 2 b, etc.

Essentially, procedures that require more than simple or standard instruction are written in this format.
c) Flowchart Format
Flowchart Format
As the name suggests, this kind of SOP format is defined by the elaborate flowcharts that are drawn out in order for employees to determine the best possible outcome, especially when the results might be unpredictable in nature.

This format works best for such procedures mainly because the result of each step will impact the direction in which an employee or team is going to approach the next step and so on.
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