A standard operating procedure is a written document detailing specific actions to take to complete a repetitive task or process. SOPs follow no set outline or template, as they vary by organization and usage. For example, an SOP for production operations in a manufacturing plant would vary greatly from one established for training sales staff in a retail environment.
Businesses may carry out SOPs to reduce waste and increase profits. A nonprofit may use an SOP to serve the community better. Some companies use SOPs to ensure adherence to government regulations or to improve safety in the workplace. Although the reasons for seeking improvement may vary somewhat, regardless of the environment in which an SOP is utilized, the main purpose is to improve efficiency in some capacity.
David Grusenmeyer, a senior extension associate at Cornell University, calls variants in an operating system the "enemy" of quality and efficiency. Thus, a standard operating procedure can be used to streamline operations by setting up an unchanging set of steps to accomplish a specific goal.
Why Use SOPs?
Organizations from the U.S. military to nonprofits to large corporations use SOPs to:
- Improve efficiency.
- Increase quality.
- Ensure safety.
Specific SOPs can be written for production lines, workplace cleanup, employee training, the payroll process and employee performance reviews, among other tasks.
Preparatory Work for Creating SOPs
To create a customized SOP, Grusenmeyer suggests several steps:
- Look for areas in your business where standard operating procedures would be beneficial.
- From your findings, pinpoint one or two areas where success is most likely and profits will be most affected.
- For your focus areas, go over the steps needed to accomplish each operation and rank them by importance.
- Finally, gather a team of managers and employees with the most knowledge about the process and coordinate with the group to create the SOPs.
Writing the SOP
Name the SOP and describe what tasks are included. In the description, provide details about:
- Who will do the work.
- What materials and equipment are required.
- What the end result should be.
Give specific step-by-step details of how to accomplish the task, to the point where an unsupervised employee could perform the task adequately by following the guide. Educate all employees who will work in some capacity on the task about the details of the SOP, and monitor and evaluate the SOP consistently.
If your organization or business were going to conduct an operation or procedure once, such as for a special project, an SOP would be irrelevant. However, when repetitive procedures are part of doing business, creating an SOP is sound business management.
- Brampton Small Business Enterprise Centre: What is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?
- Cornell University: Developing Effective Standard Operating Procedures
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: 2 Standard Operating Procedures
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: EPA Quality System: SOPs FAQs
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: Guidance for Preparing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
- U.S. Army: Army Tactical Standard Operating Procedures