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Training & Business Systems

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): What Are They and How Do I Use Them?

As I’m writing this in 2020, a LOT of what we do and how we do it has suddenly changed and will continue to change. How will we keep our high-quality products and great service consistent as we adapt to virtual environments, new safety policies, new expectations from our customers, and everything else? Really, how do we keep our products and service consistent in any year, while still leaving room for creativity, individuality, and innovation? 

We’ve found that having clearly defined systems can help us save time and mental energy as individuals and can set clear expectations for everyone on a team to make it easy for all of us to deliver great results. (For more, read The Importance Systems Part 1 and Part 2)

Sounds great, right? But where do we start with defining these systems? We like to start with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

What is an SOP?

A Standard Operating Procedure (or SOP) is any kind of documentation of a process that makes it easy for folks to do the right thing, hard to do the wrong thing, and deliver consistent results. 

Clearly documented SOPs work great to capture best practices or other objective decisions: when data shows us there is a “best way” to do a task that saves time, minimizes waste, and provides a higher quality product. (As opposed to subjective decisions that need to be made on a case-by-case basis.) 

According to Peter Drucker, most of our problems are repetitive and we don’t need to be reinventing those wheels every day! We can instead decide on and document the process, use the process, and move on until we find a better way to do it. 

The best way to start using an SOP is to sit down and write one! For that, you’ll need some ingredients.

Ingredients for Writing an SOP

  1. Existing documentation
  2. A partner
  3. Uninterrupted time
  4. A vision of success OR specific outcomes
  5. Scope of the SOP (where does it start? end?)
  6. Pencils and Notecards

Start with any existing documentation. That might be a previously written SOP or multiple SOPs, equipment manuals, handwritten notes, whatever materials have influenced how to do this task.

Then, find a partner. Really! Ever read a manual for how to assemble something and the directions make NO sense? Having a partner can help you write the directions in a way that makes sense to others. And make sure you don’t skip any essential steps. With your partner, write a mini vision of success for your SOP or the specific outcomes you’re working toward so you’re both on the same page with the task at hand. Make sure you’re both clear on the scope of this SOP: where does it start? Where does it end? Who all is involved?

Now, schedule some uninterrupted time to go through the whole procedure of writing the SOP with your partner. You’ll need that time to get in the zone and dig into the little details without distraction. 

Once you’re ready to start, collect all the materials involved, in whatever location you intend to do the task. For example, if you’re writing an SOP for perfectly sliced rye bread you’ll need to be in the kitchen with the right knife, cutting board, bread… etc. Now it’s time to start writing.

How to write an SOP

Refer to the 4 Steps to Writing an SOP:

  1. Read your existing documentation. Again, no need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s check in on what’s already been figured out.
  2. Do the operation several times to become familiar with the task, environment, and materials. Even if you’ve done the task many many times, this step will help you identify all the little steps you do unconsciously.
  3. Write down all the steps and their key points. Focus on quantity, not quality for this first draft. Use a pencil so you can erase mistakes. Write each step on its own note card so you can shuffle the order around when you realize you’ve missed any steps. Key points are any useful information someone needs to complete the step. For example, if step #3 of your procedure is to select the bread knife, the key point might be a description of the bread knife (red handle) or better yet, a picture of the bread knife!
  4. Use these new steps to do the operation. Based on what you’ve written, can you do the task successfully? If you’re the one who wrote the steps while your partner did the task, switch roles. Correct any obvious mistakes.

Feeling good about your steps and key points? Time to convert your notecards into the next draft. You can type it out into a template like this so it’s easier for everyone to read. To really test out this next draft, give it to someone else who has never done the job before! They’ll surely have some great, unbiased feedback for you.

You’re done… for now!

Great job on writing your SOP! You can now use it to do the task and train others on how to do it. Use it until something changes (new bread knife with a blue handle) or you find an even better way to do the task (with a custom rye slicing board that perfectly identifies the right thickness every time.) That’s why it’s called continuous improvement.

What next?

The SOP you just wrote is what we call a Beginner’s SOP or a Learner’s SOP. It clearly shares all the information a new employee might need to accomplish a task. Before you attempt to write an Expert’s SOP (for folks who don’t need all the details, just the high-level reminders) or try to make any improvements on the procedure, start here! Acknowledging every step of the process is an important part of recognizing what makes our products special, or where we’re spending unnecessary resources.

  • Ready to find a partner and try it out? We’d love to hear how it goes!
  • Ready to train people on using the new or updated system? Come to a virtual Training workshop!