Writing Standard Operating Procedures

Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs, are a staple in the manufacturing world. It’s not just factories either; pretty much everywhere you go there are formal instructions available. SOPs are a way to communicate the best way to perform a task. Having a single optimum instruction can improve the quality of products and services as well as reduce cost and time. You may therefore think that SOPs are embraced by most businesses. From my experience however it appears that they are left to languish. This does not need to be the case, and by using teams of two to write and maintain SOPs you can realise greater benefits from your instructions.

Firstly, you need to consider who your team of two will be. Please make it someone who is going to use the instructions. Many businesses use one team to write the instructions and a different team to execute the instructions. In some cases this may because of the technical knowledge required to define the optimum sequence of the steps. Having someone in the background to verify the steps from a technical perspective can help negate this issue. The real power of engaging with the people who perform the tasks is exactly that – engaging. There are many benefits to helping your staff to engage more with the business, but defining the best way to perform their tasks is a great way to do it. If the people who perform the task write the SOP then there will be a better chance that the process is adhered to (providing it is technically correct of course).

Next, having two perspectives can bring with it greater insight. When you get one person to write the SOP you get one point of view. There may be a number of different ways to complete a task and the question then becomes ‘what is the best way?’ Of course if the SOP becomes a contentious issue it might be necessary to go back to the entire team with the various proposals for the best process, but it rarely gets this far in most cases. Having two people combine their skills and knowledge into one instructional document therefore can help you define the best possible sequence of steps. In your quest to develop processes that are as good as they can be this is a great opportunity.

Thirdly, when you have a small team (of two) writing your SOPs there is another opportunity with regards to day to day working. SOPs are great as long as they are being followed. When they sit on a shelf and aren’t being acted upon then their worth is minimal. People seem to have a natural tendency to adjust and deviate from the original process steps over time. Whether this is due to an increased workload and people are trying to find a shorter route, or whether there is a lack of understanding, deviation needs to be controlled. Making SOPs part of the working day is one of the ‘close out’ tasks of creating SOPs. The team you choose to write the SOPs need to be conscious of integrating SOPs with working life. Making them accessible and part of the day to day working (standard meetings, timetables etc...) is vital to make the instructions work.

Standard Operating Procedures can be wonderful tools or a burdensome admin task. Getting a team of two to inject reality and optimisation into your instructions can give them a boost. Helping your team to follow a single best way of working can bring tangible results to your business and should not be underestimated. Getting the instructions to become part of the day to day and not rot on a shelf (or hard drive) is paramount if you want results. Engaging with your team via this practical writing approach can make a real difference and I urge you to review the state of SOPs today.

Giles Johnston
Author of 'Visual SOPs', a practical guide to making SOPs support your business improvements.