What Is the Purpose of Standard Operating Procedures?
The purpose of standard operating procedures (SOP) is to ensure your team carries out its jobs the way you want them done. The objective of SOP for marketing, for instance, might be to see that all marketing materials get reviewed, proofread and approved before they reach the public. In a restaurant kitchen, SOP can cover the steps to avoid food spoiling or becoming contaminated.
A standard operating procedure document details exactly how your staff should complete a particular task, such as billing, collections, dealing with complaints or operating equipment. The SOP gives employees clear guidelines to which they can refer if they're unsure.
When you start a business, you may have a clear idea of how you want to handle marketing, finance, customer service, hiring and so on. You may even be doing a lot of those jobs yourself. If not, your staff may be small enough that it's easy for you to train everyone.
As your business grows, though, you'll have to delegate more tasks to staff. As your staff grows, sharing your idea of how to do the work with every employee becomes impractical. A training program can help, but it requires employees to take the time to train newbies in procedures and do it well enough so that everyone follows the rules.
The objective of SOP is to tell your team in detail how to carry out certain tasks. It can be a written hard-copy document, a PowerPoint presentation, a wiki or any method of communication that gets the point across. You may not need an SOP for every detail of the day, but where safety, health or legal compliance is important, a written SOP has uses.
Having standard operating procedures and requiring everyone to follow them has several advantages:
- Greater efficiency. A good SOP gives your employees the most efficient, streamlined way to complete their duties. That saves time and money.
- Consistency. If everyone is trained in the SOP or can look it up in the employee handbook, then the job isn't dependent on particular employees. Regardless of whether the worker is a newbie or an old hand, he can follow the SOP and get the work done.
- Easier for employees. With SOP, your team members don't have to guess at how you want them to do their jobs. They're also free from having to remember their training perfectly because the documentation makes up for any gaps in their memory.
- Greater safety. One of the SOP uses is to eliminate risks and show employees how to do their job safely. It also protects your customers. The importance of standard operating procedures in a laboratory or a restaurant, for example, is to prevent contamination of the products you sell.
Different businesses need different SOPs. A pharmaceutical laboratory's SOP uses are different from a retro fashion boutique. One purpose of standard operating procedures in skyscraper-construction companies will be worker safety, but that's not a major issue at banks or law firms.
However, many procedures are found in multiple businesses across industries, such as handling money, marketing, hiring staff and complying with the law. The details may vary according to how the owners want the jobs done, but these standard operating procedure examples are common:
- Managing customer complaints
- Billing and collection procedures
- Equipment maintenance and inspection
- Production line processes
- Training employees on equipment
- Service delivery
- Warranty, guarantee and returns procedures
- Approval of press releases, flyers, website copy and other marketing materials
- Procedures for onboarding employees
- Information collection, handling, retention and privacy
- Problem solving
Any standard operating procedure that teaches your employees what you need them to know is a good SOP. When you're drawing up SOP for your business, there are several standardized designs that have proven to be effective:
- A checklist. If your employees work 150 feet in the air or handle radioactive materials, a list of safety precautions they have to take at the start of their work may be what they need.
- A hierarchical checklist. This is a list of steps in the SOP, with a list of incremental actions needed for each step. If, say, the first step in the SOP is to "make coffee," then the substeps might be to grind the beans, turn on the coffee maker, place the beans in the coffee maker and add water.
- A flowchart. If your standard operating procedure requires choices and decisions, a flowchart showing the different paths to take may be the best option. If a store customer has a return, for example, the SOP may require different responses depending on whether the customer has a receipt or whether she paid with cash or a credit card.
The purpose of standard operating procedures is to help employees to better perform their jobs. For that to happen, you need a clearly written document that employees can understand. There are several ways this can go wrong and work against the objective of the SOP.
- If upper management writes SOP, they may not have anything concrete to say about the jobs or even know how they should be performed. Instead, they load the document with business speak and legalese, so it's of no use to anyone.
- The SOP may say what has to be done but not why. Explaining the reasons for following procedures makes it easier for employees to commit to the objective of the SOP.
- The writing is dull, boring and badly formatted. A solid block of text makes eyes recoil, while bullet points and small paragraphs make text more readable. Diagrams and illustrations, if they're applicable, keep the eyes interested.
- SOP that warn employees about doing the wrong thing comes off more annoying and officious than the SOP that tells them the right things to do.
There are several steps you can take to create a SOP to which employees will want to refer:
- Talk with employees before drafting the SOP. Once your company starts to grow, the employees in different departments will know more about how things are done than you do. Get their ideas or have them write the initial draft of the SOP.
- Provide enough detail to make the SOP usable. Don't detail the processes to the point that employees drown in minutiae.
- Keep the language clear and concise. If the initial draft is too wordy, revise it.
Writing your standard operating procedure is not the end of the job. First, you need to confirm that the document is as clear and useful as you think it is. The best way to do this is to find an employee with no experience at the particular procedure and have him try to carry it out based on the SOP.
If the employee can't complete the process, consider the following:
- Did you omit steps?
- Did you assume everyone knows some of the basic information about the process, so it wasn't worth including?
- Do some of the steps listed in the document need more detail?
- Is the writing harder to understand than you thought?
Take the employee's feedback and modify the SOP documentation. Repeat this until you're satisfied that a new employee can read through the standard operating procedure and carry it out without any added instruction.
Even if your SOP are perfectly clear and covers everything necessary, you aren't done. Procedures change over time as you buy new equipment, automate some processes or shift certain operations to the cloud.
To keep your SOP documentation from becoming outdated and useless, review the SOPs every year or after any major changes. If they no longer apply, update the SOP until they are usable and current.