Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are an important way to ensure consistent quality, support training and reduce risk. Unfortunately, these documents have a negative reputation in some circles. That’s understandable. A poorly written standard operating procedure is hard to understand and even more difficult to use.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Learning how and when to use standard operating procedures is a valuable professional skill. Let me unpack that last point further. A defining point for professional work is consistent quality. For example, when you seek a lawyer’s advice, you trust that they will complete all of the required steps in a legal process. Likewise, a professional physician will generally use proven procedures with patients. By codifying standard work, you have more energy and credibility to propose and implement innovations while getting the fundamentals done.
How I Discovered The Standard Operating Procedures
A few years ago, I read “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael Gerber which explains why so many small businesses struggle. The problem? It all comes down to systems. As a company grows beyond the founder, other people become involved. Informally training these staff on new activities is one approach. It is fine to start with 1-on-1 training. For better results, systems and standard operating procedures make a big difference. Dedicated readers may remember that I previously wrote about how to build a checklist and wonder how procedures are different. Checklists are short documents designed to prevent serious errors. In contrast, procedures are detailed documents that specify each step.
Four Reasons To Create Standard Operating Procedures
Whether you are a manager or an individual contributor, there are good reasons to create and use standard operating procedures at work. They may not make for entertaining reading yet they do serve a valuable purpose.
1. Support Training
In many organizations, there are ongoing cross-training programs to ensure that all important tasks can be performed by multiple people. It is much easier to train another person on your key work tasks when you have a procedure document. Why? Creating a document forces you to note each step rather than vaguely thinking that certain steps are “common sense.”
2. Improve Quality
Delivering consistent and high quality results is a key reason to use procedures. In fact, delivering quality results in operations and the basics is an excellent way to build your reputation at work. The opposite is also true: failing to deliver quality will quickly undermine your professional reputation.
3. Support Continuous Improvement
With constant pressures to cut costs and innovate, you need all the improvements you can get. Fortunately, procedures help with productivity. I have improved productivity on several tasks over the years by creating procedures. It is easy to find steps to eliminate or document once all of the steps are visible. If you are interested in greater productivity, then you have a good reason to create a procedure document.
4. Increase Capacity For Creative Work
It may sound counterintuitive to learn there are creativity benefits to creating standard operating procedures. Let’s explain this point. When you have a clear process to follow, you don’t have to work as hard at recalling each step. Procedures help you reach the unconscious competence skill level much faster. At that point, your mind may wonder and you will start to ask new questions about your work. It’s difficult to have those thoughts if you are worried about getting the basics executed.
Key Practices For Writing Procedures
My suggestions for best practices assume you are working in an office environment and using a computer for much of your daily work. If you are an engineer working in the field, you may need a different approach.
1. Use the “ITO” model to summarize the process.
I recommend using the “ITO” (Inputs, Transformation, Outputs) model to document a process. When I write a procedure in Microsoft Word, I like to use the Smart Art feature to represent these parts. This basic model is widely used in many circumstances including cooking (Ingredients and equipment are inputs, the cooking approach is transformation, and the final meal is the output).
For small to medium complexity activities, the ITO diagram will generally be one page or less.
2. Document systems and applications
Systems and applications are important aspects to creating a successful procedure because they are used in every step of the process. Pay special attention to applications that require accounts and permissions as such accounts often take time to arrange. Also include settings, codes and other details needed to make the application perform in the procedure.
3. Add screenshots
Screenshots make procedures MUCH more useful even if you are a highly gifted technical writer. Why? Even if you properly describe each feature and click, some people find a verbal description difficult to master.
Tip: Press “Print Screen” (sometimes shown as “PrtScn” on some keyboards) to take a snapshot of your computer display on your computer. You can then “Paste” this image into Microsoft Paint or any other software for further editing.
Resource: Snagit is a great application for producing screen capture images and videos.
4. Add validation steps
In accounting, software development and other fields, there are established methods to prove that a given step was performed correctly. These steps are important to produce quality results and to help new people learn the procedure.
Tip: If your procedure relates to a recurring activity (e.g. the activity is performed each month or each week), one validation step could be “compare this month’s numbers to last month – are they significantly different?.” If so, recommend the procedure user determine if the change is valid or an error.
5. Test the procedure with fresh eyes
The final best practice for creating an effective standard operating procedure is to test it with someone new. After all, it is easy to forget a “basic step” when you are documenting a familar process. For the best results, provide a copy of the procedure to the other person. Then ask them to mark it up every time a step is unclear or confusing.
Further Resources For Technical Writing
There is an entire industry and profession dedicated to the art and science of creating procedures, manuals and similar documents. If you find yourself creating procedures for your projects and other work with regularity, explore these resources.
Standard Operating Procedures: A Writing Guide. Published by PennState, this article provides a great overview to guide you through the process of creating a SOP.
How to Master Technical Writing. Standard operating procedures are a type of techical writing. This article explains technical writing techniques and methods to create procedures and other technical documents.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) – Airports. Learning a new process is easier when you study a live example. This webpage provides Federal Aviation Administration procedures.
How to Create a Standard Operating Procedure Template. Clear and simple design makes procedures easy to read. Take a look at this webpage for a Microsoft Word template you can use.