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What is a Standard Operating Procedure?

11 - January - 2022

It’s easy to keep track of processes in the early stages of a business. However, as your operations expand and become more complex, you require a more effective documentation method for recording critical business procedures.

This is where a Standard Operating Procedure comes in. 

This article provides a simple explanation of what Standard Operating Procedures are and how they work.

Here's What We'll Cover:

  1. What is a Standard Operating Procedure?
  2. What are the Benefits of Creating Standard Operating Procedures? 
  3. Write Standard Operating Procedures
  4. Common Formats for Standard Operating Procedures
  5. Best Tips for Creating Effective Standard Operating Procedures
  6. Frequently Asked Questions 

What is a  Standard Operating Procedure? 

A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is documentation guiding a workplace's processes

A well-written Standard Operating Procedure defines routine workflows and tasks, leading to consistent and efficient organisational operations.

For example, you can think of it as a "single source of truth" that spells out what happens in your organisation, how and why it happens, and when it should happen to guarantee smooth operations and quality output.  

Standard Operating Procedures exist in every organisation, but they are vital in larger companies that operate within technical industries and have complex procedures.

The fundamental reason for this is that, unlike small teams, large organisations do not have the luxury of time to coordinate activities manually, so they rely, almost entirely, on proper documentation to standardise their internal and external operations.  

For example, a car factory producing thousands of vehicles daily requires clear documentation explaining in step by step instructions how to perform specific tasks like shutdown operations, request inventory, troubleshoot, use equipment, and do other similar tasks in a way that makes sense so employees understand what's required.

Without these, it is nearly impossible to ensure quality output at scale. 

How Do Organisations Benefit From Well Documented Standard Operating Procedures? 

A properly-documented Standard Operating Procedure is the secret ingredient that top-tier teams leverage to deliver high-quality work effectively and consistently.

By defining the best practices for core organisational processes, Standard Operating Procedures serve as "excellence frameworks" for measuring the performance of employees and other stakeholders in small and enterprise companies. 

Let's outline other benefits of creating well-defined Standard Operating Procedures

  1. It helps you identify and plug any gaps in existing processes.
  2. It is a training document that enables companies to upskill their workforce effectively.
  3. It can be used as a measure of competence for performance evaluation. 

Write Standard Operating Procedures

Standard Operating Procedures typically have the following structure: 

Introduction  

  1. The title of the process, e.g. How to Handle Client Complaints
  2. An identification number that makes the document easy to track
  3. Initial publication date plus the most recent revision date, if applicable
  4. Names and signatures of the relevant persons who worked on the documentation

Body

  1. The scope and purpose of the Standard Operating Procedure
  2. Detailed information on the process or procedure
  3. Limitations and regulatory requirements

Conclusion

  1. Clarification of terminologies
  2. Where to find additional information

Depending on the process, some Standard Operating Procedures list risks and health and safety precautions. 

Common Formats for Standard Operating Procedures

Depending on the size and type of your organisation, you can use one of these four formats for creating Standard Operating Procedures to guide your workforce:

  1. Listicles
  2. Checklists
  3. Hierarchies
  4. Flow Charts 

Listicles

Small organisations operating lean structures prefer writing Standard Operating Procedures as listicles. You'd find a collection of simple actions listed as a bulleted or numbered list

Checklists

Small teams and enterprise companies use Standard Operating Procedure checklists in similar capacities. 

Checklists, often laid out as a step by step process, are the best formats for documenting simple, routine processes.

For example, you can create checklists for employees' day-to-day routines during onboarding, write out explicit safety guidelines, or launch processes for various technical applications. 

Hierarchies

The hierarchical format is best for writing Standard Operating Procedures that require lots of explanation.

This is why complex operational processes in large teams are usually documented in hierarchies. It breaks down the big picture of a complicated procedure into more minor details, making it easier for employees to follow through and implement detailed work instructions.

For example, a Standard Operating Procedure for health and safety warnings, listing detailed steps from the most critical information to minute details. 

Flow Charts

Like hierarchies, flow charts illustrate complex processes. However, the primary difference between both formats is the number of outcomes.

While hierarchies present complex operations with a single result, flow charts illustrate activities with multiple outcomes in more detail.

Here's a simple example that better explains this point. 

Suppose you created a Standard Operating Procedure for addressing client complaints. In this case, you would account for several outcomes depending on the nature of the dispute.

This means the way you handle an issue regarding damaged goods would be pretty different from how you resolve complaints about extreme time lags on customers' deliveries. 

You see here that outcomes differ based on the issue being resolved, which determines how the employee handles different stages of the process

Best tips for creating effective Standard Operating Procedures

Work With a Template

Templates help you to create Standard Operating Procedures faster, and consistently.

Instead of building a standard operating procedure document from scratch, you can find and edit free templates on the internet, or build a custom template that sets the tone for similar documents. 

Standard Operation Process templates provide a basic structure that you can modify quickly to suit your organisation's specific needs. They are easy to update and help you maintain consistency throughout your documentation. 

Download this Standard Operating Procedure General Starting Template to get started.

Use a Learning Management System (LMS)

A learning management system provides a better way for training providers to organise Standard Operating Procedures. This system is especially useful for enterprise companies that struggle with creating and coordinating multiple operating documents for a number of complex processes.

For example, rather than having all your documentation lying all over the place, you can create a central database for all Standard Operating Procedures using an LMS. 

More than being an internal knowledge base for Standard Operating Procedures, a learning management system also enables you to deliver information to employees effectively.

With traditional Standard Operating Procedures, it's hard to know which of your employees has read through any documents. However, things are a lot different with LMS software. 

A learning management system enables you to seamlessly track participation metrics for multiple Standard Operating Procedures.

Cloud Assess, for instance, allows you to integrate quizzes at the end of the standard operating procedure which yields excellent knowledge evaluation benefits for both stakeholders and employees.

Stakeholders can use these test results to identify employees who do not fully understand core processes and help them resolve the grey areas. 

Set Up an Effective Quality Assurance Procedure 

A quality assurance system vets the Standard Operating Procedure to verify information, ensures that the processes are up to date and corrects any documentation errors before publication.

Standard Operating Procedures serve as single sources of truth, so any wrong information can distort processes in your workplace and result in far-reaching implications. Thus, organisations must prioritise quality management before, during and after the documentation. 

FAQs

How much information do you need in a Standard Operating Procedure? 

Standard operating procedures should be written with sufficient detail so that an individual with a basic understanding of the field can successfully replicate the activity or procedure without supervision. 

Where do you keep  your Standard Operating Procedure?  

You can develop an online database of your Standard Operating Procedures using a learning management system such as Cloud Assess

What is the Standard Operating Procedure Writing Process?

  1. Define your goals
  2. Identify your audience
  3. Map out your scope 
  4. Choose an appropriate format
  5. Get stakeholder input

Wrapping Up

Standard Operating Procedures are specific to the organisation or department that created them. Hence, the final documentation differs from one company to the other.

Therefore, your ultimate goal should be to create a Standard Operating Procedure that efficiently communicates the required information to employees and enables smooth and effective operations.

Standard Operating Procedure

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