Seven Steps of Writing Effective Standard Operating Procedures
Standard operating procedures (SOPs), serve as the foundation for an organization’s operations. As the title indicates, SOPs establish the standard for operations for all internal or external parties associated with the organization’s activities. Without SOPs, operations of the organization are not standardized and activities will be determined by individuals; therefore the operations will be disjointed, cause confusion, waste time, cause frustration and yes money! This article will focus on the benefits of standard operating procedures for the organization and provide simple steps for writing effective SOPs.
Establishes Foundation for the Business
SOPs provide the foundation for an organization. All core activities and even many noncore activities within an organization, should be documented with SOPs. I like to think of SOPs as documenting all the ingredients for success, so that success can be strategically achieved and repeatable. Without SOPs, the recipe for success is not captured; therefore, success is not repeatable and even failure can’t be properly diagnosed. Think about it, if you figured out the perfect ingredients for the perfect cheesecake that people were willing to pay top dollar for, wouldn’t you want to make more the exact same way? You wouldn’t want to guess how much and what ingredients you used? SOPs are the recipes for the organization. Organizations can’t afford for success to be lucky, success must be strategic, repeatable and sustainable. When we have SOPs and the desired results are not achieved, adjustments can be made. Without SOPs the organization is literally operating like a house that is built on a poor foundation and when the storms come, the organization will not be able to withstand the turbulent winds.
Captures Organizational Knowledge
Standard operating procedures, captures organizational knowledge, which is needed for successful operations. Many organizations operate based upon the knowledge of employees, as opposed to employees operating based upon the knowledge of the organization. Yes, the knowledge of employees is critical, but employees’ knowledge, should complement organizational knowledge. We all have experienced the situation where there is only one person in the organization that knows how to execute certain tasks. When that person is on vacation, out sick or leaves the company, everyone else is at a loss; because no one knows how to execute the steps of the process. This is why the organization must capture its knowledge. Organizational knowledge is one of the most important assets within the organization, but its often treated as the least important. If organizational knowledge is not captured in SOPs and an employee leave, the organization is literally watching its most important asset, its organizational knowledge walk out the door. When an organization captures its knowledge in SOPs, it allows other individuals with the required skills and experience, to execute the process and prevents important steps from falling through the cracks. The SOP serve as the training guide for new employees and a reference for more tenured employees. SOPs are not a substitute for good employees, but they allow employees to be more effective and productive.
Allows Organizations to be Nimble and Flexible
Some organizations think that having standard operating procedures, will cause the organization to be rigid or stifle innovation. This thought is simply not true. Good SOPs actually allows organizations to be nimble and flexible, when change or innovation is necessary. SOPs are living documents and should be updated to accommodate the strategic direction or innovation of the organization. One company that is known for being flexible and nimble is Chick-fil-A. You can learn more about Chick-fil-A by clicking this link. Chick-fil-A is a fast food restaurant with over 2,100 restaurants across the United States in 47 states. Chick-fil-A can break ground on a new location, construct the restaurant and start serving new customers in about 4 months. On day one, customers experience the same Chick-fil-A experience of a restaurant that has been operating for years. This is because Chick-fil-A has sound standard operating procedures established, so they are able to repeat their success and do it quickly. Chick-fil-A is a good example of how SOPs allows an organization to be nimble and flexible. Organizations that don’t have SOPs are not able to make quick adjustments, because they don’t have a sound foundation.
Steps of Writing Effective Standard Operating Procedures
Writing effective standard operating procedures doesn’t have to be too difficult, but they do take a sound approach and the discipline to capture processes and document the procedure for each identified process. Some organizations believe they don’t have time to write their SOPs, but the time invested in writing SOPs, will provide a perpetual return for the life of the organization. Here are 7 steps that you can use to start writing effective standard operating procedures for your organization.
1. Identify Your Processes
In order to write effective SOPs, the organization must first identify its processes. This is typically referred to, as a process interaction map. Click this link for an example of a process interaction map. The process interaction map, identifies the core processes within an organization and their sequence. Designing the process interaction map, allows an organization to visually see how its processes interact with each other. Organizations should not attempt to simply write SOPs without understanding their interactions and sequence.
2.Group Processes by Procedure
Once the process interaction map is designed, the organization can then group processes that could be documented in one procedure. For example, the process interaction map in the example has identified the request for quote process, quote preparation process and the quote submittal process. All three process may be grouped in one procedure titled, Management of Quotes.
3.Develop Intuitive Titles for Each Process
Once all processes are identified and grouped, the organization should develop intuitive titles for each process. This will allow employees to find the procedures easily. The example above, Management of Quotes, is a good example of an intuitive title for a procedure. The name indicates exactly what the process represents.
4.Develop a Table of Contents
Once all processes have been identified, grouped and titled, the organization should develop a table of contents. The table of contents will list all of the processes captured during the development of the process interaction map. At this point, a very clear structure of the organization’s processes has been developed. Not only has the organization identified its processes, it now understands how they interact with each other. Click here for an example of a Table of Contents using the process interaction map.
5.Assign Document Numbers
Once the table of contents has been developed, the organization can now assign document numbers to each process. The document number will be unique to each document, so that the document can be registered, indexed and controlled properly. Organizations should come up with simple document numbering systems. For example: SAL-XXX for Sales or PUR-XXX for Purchasing. Again, the focus is on having intuitive numbers, so that employees can find what they need easily. In the example above, we have the title of, Management of Quotes. In most organizations, this is done by the Sales Department; therefore, it would be assigned SAL-001 Management of Quotes. Click here for intuitive numbering in the Table of Contents example.
6.Map Steps in the Process
Process mapping was used in designing the process interaction map, but the focus at that point was to identify the processes within the organization. Process mapping is also used now, to identify the steps of each individual process that has been identified. For example, all of the steps involved in SAL-001 Management of Quotes would be process mapped. Mapping the process before attempting to write the SOP, will provide a clear outline and structure for writing the actual Management of Quotes SOP. If the process map is done well enough, the organization may elect to stop with the map of the process, but there are simply some things that can’t be explained in a process map. This is why I recommend moving forward with writing out the guidelines or instructions for each step in a formal SOP. Writing the narrative, provides the reader with insight as to why certain things should be done a certain way.
7.Write Guidelines for Each Step in Process
As stated above, writing guidelines or instructions provides the reader with the necessary detail to execute each step identified in the process map. Following the process map, will ensure that the procedure has the proper flow. Writing out the steps of a process, should be done in a clear and concise manner, so that the reader can understand the guidelines or instructions. The author of the procedure, must also remember that they are actually writing for someone else and not themselves. Procedures should focus on explaining the how and why from the reader’s perspective. Avoid overcomplicating procedures and providing too much detail, which will turn readers off from reading the procedure. Most procedures should be no more than three pages. Click here for an example procedure of SAL-001.
In conclusion, writing SOPs or standard operating procedures, is the mere foundation of any organization. Without SOPs, the organization is not operating on sound ground and will not be prepared to withstand the turbulent winds or be able to build for the future. Writing SOPs, allow an organization to capture its most important asset, its organizational knowledge. This article provided seven steps for writing effective standard operating procedures for your organization. If your organization wants to define the recipe for its success, standard operating procedures is a great tool.
Oscar Combs, Senior Consultant of The ISO 9001 Group, a management consulting, auditing and training firm based in Houston, Texas. Oscar has over 22 years of experience working with management systems. Oscar has worked with clients throughout North America, South America, Europe, The Middle East, Asia and Africa helping companies manage risk and improve their business operations. Oscar holds an MBA from the University of Houston. He is certified by Exemplar Global as a Principal Management Consultant and Lead Auditor. Oscar is also a Senior Member of the American Society for Quality and has served as the Programs Committee Chair for ASQ’s Houston Chapter 1405.