Standard Operating Procedures
Consistency is the key to producing impactful, sustainable results. A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is a step-by-step document covering exactly how to perform a business task. It’s an integral part of many companies, helping them to complete projects like a finely-tuned machine.
Example Standard Operating Procedures
Sections of a SOP
SOP Document Details
Each SOP document should be accessible and quickly interpretable. Employees should be able to understand what SOP document will assist them in what task - appropriately detailing the document’s features is essential for this.
- Company name - especially important for companies that oversee several organisations
- SOP Owner - the SOP owner has full authority of the document. While colleagues may add or make changes, it’s the SOP owner who has final say on the document’s content. They are also available to contact if there’s any questions or issues with the document (if the employee’s direct manager is unable to address them). It’s recommended to include the contact’s email address, especially for larger organisations.
- Revision number - SOPs go through several revisions, both to improve the effectiveness of the document and to keep up with changing systems and guidelines. The revision number should be added so that the most up to date document can be used.
- Creation date - The creation date is also used to ensure the document is up to date. If there are any large external changes (e.g. a new internal system), it’s possible to see if the document is likely to be up to date with these alterations
- Department - both the main department and other departments are featured here. The main department is the one that will be carrying out the SOP tasks. SOP tasks may require work from other departments, these are listed here so the employee can effectively liaise and organise cross-department activity.
- Page number - This is to ensure that no sections/tasks are lost and all pages can be accounted for - especially for when the document is printed.
The SOP introduction covers the purposes, aims and outcomes of the document. It gives an overview of what will be actioned, who will be involved and what the situation will be once it is completed.
- Purpose/outcomes - This explains under what circumstances this document would be required as well as detailing what outcomes will be produced once it is completed
- Scope - Scope is a list of areas covered by the SOPs steps. It explains what macro activities will be undertaken. This is especially useful if those same activities might be used in other SOP documents or if just those parts are needed for smaller projects.
- References/required resources - To undergo the activities, a number of tools, systems or resources may be needed. To ensure they are all available and accessible before starting, they are listed here.
- Definitions - Technical terms may be used throughout the document, to ensure looking up and understanding these terms does not limit the actioning of the tasks, these are explained here.
The overall project is split into separate smaller tasks, each with its own resources and outcomes. Within these tasks, the actions that need to be taken are split into a step by step format.
This is an effective way of breaking large projects down into smaller, manageable actions. It makes it easier to explain any and all intricacies of a task as well as being simpler to follow for less experienced employees.
Not all parts of this section explained below are required, you can remove elements as needed. For example, not all SOP tasks will require Potential Warnings information.
- Task number - Tasks should be numbered to make them easier to follow. If a task is conditional or part of another task, that can also be mentioned here
- An explanation of the task and expected outcomes - This quickly informs the employee what activity will be undertaken and what result they should expect to see. So, if any issues occur and the task deviates from the original explanation, this can be easily spotted.
- Individuals Involved - So that resources and quoted hours can be appropriately assigned, the employees that will be needed for this task are identified here.
- Resources Required - The resources listed in the introduction section are repeated here, only those specific to the task however. This helps the employee assess and acquire the resources only when they are needed
- Conditional Requirements - Some tasks may require other actions to be completed before they can start. They may need the results from a previous task, approval from another entity or are dependent on a specific time. These conditions can be listed here so that the task is only completed when it is possible to do so.
- Potential Warnings - If the employee should be aware of any potential health and safety concerns, potential loss or destruction of property or possible damage to the company, this should be made explicitly clear in this section.
- Steps - This is part of the SOP where the step by step explanation of the actions a user should take is detailed. Ensure you are writing for your audience, are they new to the company, do they have a certain level of language skills, are they lacking in experience? Your writing should be interpretable by any employee that will be assigned to complete it.
Explain any and all potential pitfalls, as well as covering potential outside variables (e.g. if x happens, then do y). You can also add a troubleshooting section for common issues that arise during the task.
- Notes - A notes section can be added, so that an employee can write any issues or improvements they see fit. These notes can be collated and used for SOP revisions.
Review and iterate
The most effective business SOPs are ones that are reviewed and improved. Not only does that allow for SOPs to keep up to date with new technologies and practices, it also affords an opportunity to address any and all issues employees identify with the approach.
To improve your SOP, ensure that you:
- Send your completed draft to employees who are likely to action it. Your experience may be best placed to build the SOP, however other employees may have insights that you may not. As individuals who are likely heavily engaged with the activity you’re writing about, they may spot issues or identify effective methods that you may not have spotted.
- Have a ‘dry run’. Action the SOP with your employees on smaller or practice projects. Oversee and comment on any apparent issues that arise, so that they can be addressed before being implemented on an important project.
- Ask those who are actioning the SOP to provide notes in the notes section. Schedule review opportunities to go through these notes and revise the document accordingly.
- Have a central store of all SOPs, so that no document is missed or rebuilt unnecessarily.
What is a SOP?
In short, a SOP is a way to formalise a set of procedural tasks.
A business will regularly repeat specific projects, it is in it’s best interest to ensure that project is completed effectively each time. A SOP enables an administrator to define the personnel, resources and activities that are required to action that project. The SOP lists all the essential steps that must be taken, ensuring the outcome always reaches a set requirement.
To understand it better, think of a simple task: making a cup of instant coffee. How would you explain this process to someone who’s inexperienced? How would you define the specific actions so that each cup of coffee reaches your standards?
First the resources: let’s say you need instant coffee, milk, a teaspoon, a kettle and a mug. What about the steps? First add two teaspoons of instant coffee in the mug, plug in and turn on the kettle, boil the water and once it’s boiled pour it into the mug leaving around ⅙ for milk. Then pour the milk in til it reaches near the top and clean the spoon. Any potential hazards? Yes, ensure the hot water does not burn your skin. Personnel? I’m sure one person is enough.
Why it’s important for your business?
To understand the benefits SOPs can have to your business, take advice from Sanjay Jain and Bhatwadekar Nikhil’s research paper. They detail a number of different areas where SOPs can be the backbone for any business. These include:
- Health, safety and the wider community: Ensuring the health and safety of all employees is maintained is essential. Many tasks, especially in specific industries, can cause injury or prove fatal. It is important that the appropriate guidelines are followed so as to protect employees. A SOP is an excellent way to detail these guidelines, especially as they can be attributed to each individual task. So employees can understand what health and safety standards are needed for the action they are currently doing. These standards can also extend to the wider community and the local environment, ensuring these remain safe as well.
- Maintain quality control: If each time a task is completed the result ranges widely, a business would likely suffer. It is important a minimum quality level is reached for each and every service, product, etc. Different employees will undertake tasks differently, resulting in varied outcomes. A SOP ensures consistency with all employees’ actions, helping to maintain a standard level of quality for all project results.
- Keeping to schedule: Time is extremely important for all businesses. The amount of time it requires to undertake different projects can have dramatic impacts on any company. Lost time trying to figure out tasks, understanding what resources are needed, misinterpreting and repeating procedures; these are all alleviated when using SOPs.
- Government and company regulations: Business tasks commonly need to adhere to a set number of rules and guidelines. These can be set by a number of different entities, from government, parent companies or from the specific business itself. It can be difficult for all employees to be aware and cognizant of all these regulations at all times. By detailing these regulations in a SOP and ensuring all tasks outlined abide by them, it helps drastically to limit the chances these guidelines will ever be contravened.
- Train new and inexperienced employees: Training a new or promoted employee can be a substantial task, a SOP offers a way of massively assisting with this training. It provides an easy to follow process for an inexperienced employee to conduct the same work as one who is familiar with the procedure already.
- Historical record: Business procedures are regularly reviewed and improved. Sometimes, part of an old procedure may be required as the new process isn’t working as expected. Alternatively, a previous procedure may be needed when using an older system. It could be the case that that older procedure may be needed to assess the result of a previously completed project. Whatever the reason, SOPs allow for historical records helping a business understand exactly how it previously completed certain projects. With new iterations, these older business practices can be quickly forgotten, which is an issue if they are needed once again for a particular purpose.