Entrepreneurs and leaders of fast-growing businesses stand to benefit greatly by using standard operating procedures — commonly called “SOPs”.
SOPs are documents that describe the specific steps your employees should take to complete a single process. SOPs prove especially valuable for onboarding because new team members become competent faster and make fewer mistakes along the way.
The question becomes, how can you do SOP writing that’s effective?
In this guide, Great Lakes Advisory teaches you everything you need to know, including:
- The importance of SOPs for your business
- Why you should put SOPs in a manual
- The structure of a written SOP
- And more!
Before we dive in, let’s first define what an SOP is.
What is a standard operating procedure (SOP)?
A standard operating procedure (SOP) provides step-by-step instructions for a single task in the form of a written document. SOPs help ensure efficient activities with minimal variation and high quality in the end result.
An SOP describes who is responsible for the task and ensures that your business complies with any relevant industry regulations. SOPs help team members follow the best methods for the most vital tasks in your business. These tasks can include everything from operating machinery to running reports. In fact, all facets of your business such as manufacturing, operations, marketing, sales, and customer service should have SOPs.
What is the purpose of SOPs?
Standard operating procedures are designed to improve the consistency and effectiveness of operations.
SOPs provide team members with clear instructions on how to do their tasks correctly. Rather than letting employees determine their own processes, they can use SOPs as a guide to ensure they’re following proper procedures. This allows your business to run smoothly and reduces the likelihood that costly mistakes are made.
For example, your business might write an SOP that describes the correct process for reporting instances of harassment in the workplace. This SOP would detail what information must be included in the report, which manager would need to review and sign the report, and how the report should be filed.
Having this type of SOP in place ensures the report doesn’t fall through the cracks and that it is compliant with relevant regulations. This also allows your business to handle the incident in a timely manner and take appropriate steps to prevent future incidents from occurring.
What’s the importance of standard operating procedures for your business?
Without a clear set of directions, your employees will inevitably use many different methods for completing the same type of task. After all, each team member is unique and so is their approach to work. What naturally occurs in this context is that you will receive different work results from each of your employees. Unfortunately, these discrepancies end up costing your business valuable time and money.
Conversely, when you use SOPs, all your team members follow the correct method for completing their tasks. The end result is that the operations of your business are more efficient, effective, and consistent, which leads to reduced costs and more profit. With SOPs, even new employees can follow the steps described in the document and produce consistent results. Plus, your business will experience employee turnover, but having SOPs allows you to always deliver the same high-quality product or service.
SOPs are also incredibly valuable for helping business owners maintain compliance with safety standards. Having an established set of procedures allows you to minimize the risk of accidents and hazards. Plus, you are more likely to keep your team members safe on the job, which reduces the threat of workers’ compensation and negligence lawsuits.
Why do you need to put your SOPs in a manual?
A standard operating procedure manual is a handbook that includes every set of written instructions for the most important tasks in your business. In other words, an SOP manual contains all of the individual SOPs for your business in one place. Team members can reference the SOP manual when they have questions about the correct method for completing a task. At Great Lakes Advisory, we do the heavy lifting of creating SOPs and organizing them into SOP manuals so you can focus on growing your business.
The reality is individual SOPs are written over time as your business evolves. SOPs are also written by different leaders within your company who are responsible for different facets of your business. As a result, SOPs are sometimes hard to locate within a business. They may be located on different servers or even in different offices. Plus, existing SOPs can even contradict each another if they were written over the course of several years.
Creating SOP manuals allows you to consolidate all the individual SOPs of your business and ensure they are consistent and don’t contradict one another. An SOP manual is a guidebook your business can follow in order to comply with regulations and stay in alignment with industry best practices.
A standard operating procedure manual also provides a high-level view of how processes should flow in order for your business to meet its goals and objectives. Additionally, an SOP manual optimizes the training of new employees and strengthens continuity across your company.
What’s the structure of a standard operating procedure?
A typical SOP usually includes the following components:
- A title page
- Title of the procedure
- SOP identification number
- Publication or revision date
- Names of the division or team that will use the SOP
- Names of the people who created and approved the document
- Table of contents: Include only if the SOP document is long. This allows for easier navigation through all the sections of the document.
- Preparatory information
- The purpose of the SOP
- The scope of the SOP
- The roles and responsibilities of the people who will be carrying out the process
- Any relevant safety guidance that must be complied with
- Procedures section: This is the core of the document where you describe the step-by-step instructions that allow your team members to complete the process correctly.
For procedures that are more complex in nature, it’s helpful to break them down into sub-steps to ensure a critical part of the process isn’t overlooked. Visuals such as graphs and diagrams can aid in helping everyone understand how a given procedure flows.
- Quality control and assurance: This section of the SOP provides a means for team members to assess their performance in relationship to:
- The best practices for the specific process
- Reports of previous results
- References and glossary: This is a great place for highlighting any additional sources that further explain definitions that were discussed in previous sections.
How to write standard operating procedures
1. Decide on an SOP format
Decide what format to use for your SOP based on the complexity of your operations:
- Checklists: Checklists are good for small teams and procedures with few decisions to be made. They are also great for processes that require strict adherence to instructions.
- Organization Chart: These are helpful for complex procedures because it allows users to understand the hierarchy of responsibility for processes.
- Flow Chart: Flow charts offer a visual of the entire process and show how a variety of processes relate to each other. Flow charts are immensely helpful when processes have many decision points.
- Steps: This format includes sequential steps or hierarchical steps. Sequential steps are numbered step-by-step instructions for simple tasks. Hierarchical steps describe complex procedures that have more than 10 steps, including branches at decision points.
2. Collaborate with relevant stakeholders
It’s most effective to collaborate with relevant stakeholders when creating the SOP. These are individuals who are currently functioning in the process. They know the process backwards and forwards and their input will be valuable when writing the SOP.
3. Maintain a consistent style throughout the SOP
It’s important to write your SOP with a consistent style to help them interpret the instructions easily. You should make use of action verbs where possible. Also, be sure to avoid wordiness by writing in a concise manner. It can be helpful to include some additional explanations for processes that are more complex.
4. Don’t miss any steps!
The best way to ensure that you don’t miss a step in the process and that they are in the correct order is to observe your team members who regularly perform the process.
5. Test your SOP
Once your SOP is drafted you can test it out to see if it performs as expected. Have a team member who works with the process frequently follow the SOP instructions and observe if anything is confusing or missing. Ask your employee for feedback as this can yield valuable insights on how you can fine-tune the SOP. Additionally, make sure you can do a test run with a new employee so that you can assess whether the instructions are clear enough for a team member with less experience.
6. Map Out Processes
When it comes to writing SOPs, words aren’t enough. You also need to map out your SOP. Mapping means drawing a visual illustration of the process. For example, let’s say your SOP involves lead response on the sales team. First, you would map the various methods of response to the lead whether by phone, email, or text. Then you would map the number of follow-up communications to the lead if the initial attempt went unanswered. You may also include specific sales scripts for each type of communication including a script for when contact is made with the lead.
7. Create a full SOP manual
Once you’ve mapped out all your SOPs and written detailed instructions for each one, it’s time to compile all of them into a full SOP manual. You should structure your SOP manual around each area of your business. For example, your SOP manual might have sections for sales, operations, and distribution. Each of these sections should be broken down further into the respective SOPs of that area. Be sure to include a table of contents at the beginning of the SOP manual that has each procedure as a bolded subheader.
8. It’s time to implement the SOPs in your manual
Now the time has come to implement the SOPs in your manual! At this point, you need to determine how you will distribute your SOP. This distribution can take the form of a physical document, a file stored in the cloud, or an electronic file that you email out to all of your team members.
9. Monitor the performance of your SOPs and correct any problems that arise
Once your SOPs have been implemented, it’s not uncommon for business leaders to move on and forget about the SOPs they spent so much time creating. You should avoid falling into this trap. Instead, you should closely monitor how your SOPs are functioning in your business. If you begin to notice that mistakes are being made and things are falling through the cracks, you need to review your SOP again and determine the cause of the problem so that you can correct your SOP accordingly.
10. Nurture your SOP manual by updating it often
The reality is your business is continuously evolving. As a result, your SOPs will need to evolve as well, especially if your company is growing rapidly. You should think of your SOP manual as a living document that needs to be updated on an ongoing basis in order for it to stay relevant and effective for your business. As a best practice, revise most of your SOPs every 6 to 12 months to ensure they are providing your employees with the information they need to do their jobs.
Standard operating procedure template
Templates make it easier to write SOPs because they allow you to focus on the content rather than the formatting. We’ve designed an SOP template that is free to use! Feel free to customize this template for the unique needs of your business.
Describe the process for (INSERT OFFICIAL NAME OF SOP)
Describe relevant background information
Identify the intended audience and/or activities where the SOP may be relevant
Outline information required before proceeding with the listed procedures. For example, checklists, forms, worksheets, reports, etc.
Identify the personnel that have a primary role in the SOP and describe how their responsibilities related to this SOP. If necessary, include contact information.
Clearly provide the steps required to perform this procedure (who, what, when, where, why, how). Include the process map.
List resources that may be useful when performing the procedure. For example, company policies or other SOPs. If no references apply, state “N/A” within this section
Identify and define frequently used terms or acronyms. Provide additional and/or relevant information needed to understand this SOP. If no definitions apply, state “N/A” within this section
The bottom line
An SOP manual is a game changer for your business. SOPs significantly improve the efficiency, consistency, and effectiveness of the processes that run your business. Plus, your team members will feel empowered and more capable of performing their roles to exceed expectations.
It’s true that writing SOPs and compiling them into a manual will require a substantial investment of your time and energy. However, by working with Great Lakes Advisory, we do this heavy lifting for you so that you can stay focused on growing your business. With our SOP consulting services, you can be confident that the best SOPs will be written to serve the needs of your business for a long time to come! Contact us today to learn more.