How to Write and Use SOPsWhat are standard operating procedures and why does your business need them?

Dealing with paperwork isn’t anyone’s favourite part of running a business.

However, writing and using Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can make other aspects of managing a business less tiresome.

An SOP is a set of step-by-step instructions that allow employees to perform complex tasks consistently.

Effective SOPs streamline processes and ensure that employees can carry out tasks with little variation in the quality of output.

Furthermore, SOPs can help companies demonstrate their compliance with national regulatory requirements and security practices and international ISO quality standards.

The documents also serve as useful aids for training, job performance auditing, and accident investigations.

This article will walk you through the steps of creating an effective SOP and putting it into use.

Plan your SOP

To get started, write a list of all the tasks your employees perform repeatedly and note which ones would benefit from standardisation. Then prioritise those processes that are frequent, critical, involve complex steps, and apply to many people.

Approach each process with a specific goal in mind: what is the aim of the SOP and how does it align with the priorities of your business? If possible, choose a measurable goal so that you can evaluate the effectiveness of your SOP.

Define the scope of each SOP clearly, too. Which role does the SOP apply to? Consider separating processes that overlap multiple roles into multiple SOPs to avoid creating lengthy and sprawling documents.

Involve your employees

A SOP is more likely to be actively used if it’s clear and easy to follow. That’s why it’s good to involve your staff when you’re writing the document.

Invite your team to submit suggestions and to review your drafts. Your employees might spot missing steps or ambiguous wording, for example.

Consider your audience’s background when writing your draft, too. Everyone should be able to follow the SOP with ease regardless of prior experience and knowledge of terminology, so make use of clarifying visuals or add a glossary, if needed.

Choose the contents

The information you should include in your SOP depends on your company and staff’s needs, but a typical SOP will include at least:

  • A title page

  • Meta information, such as an ID number, a revision number and the publication date

  • A purpose statement, which briefly describes the goal of the SOP

  • Description of the scope

  • A glossary of any technical words, acronyms and abbreviations

  • Supporting information, such as details about related documents

  • A step-by-step breakdown of the process, including relevant safety warnings

  • A table of contents if your document is long

  • The description of the steps will make up the largest part of your document and can be presented in various ways.

Choose the format

When choosing the format of your SOP, think again about your goal and the needs of your employees. Which one will best equip the user to find the information they need quickly and carry out their duties safely and efficiently?

SOPs are usually presented as checklists or flowcharts. A simple steps format is sufficient for straightforward processes with sequential steps, while a hierarchical steps format is good for more complex procedures that require some decision-making and sub-steps.

A flowchart format gives the user a visual overview of the entire process and is ideal for procedures that involve multiple roles, decision points, and sub-processes.

You could download a free customisable template for your SOP or create your document from scratch, but aim for consistency if you’re writing multiple SOPs.

Distribute your SOP

Once your SOP is written, decide how you will distribute and store your document. It should be easy to access and easy to edit to reflect any future changes.

Using an online document management system makes it easy to distribute and keep SOPs up to date, especially if you’re publishing multiple documents with supplemental material.

However, for small teams and a limited number of processes, a folder of printed documents at the workplace may be enough.

Once published, ensure that every employee is aware of the SOP and knows how and when to use it. It’s also helpful to have a specific person assigned to monitoring the performance of each SOP and reviewing them at least once a year.

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