If you want something done right, write a good Standard Operating Procedure, or SOP. A well-written standard operating procedure manual helps companies run efficiently and consistently by telling employees how important procedures are to be done correctly. Maintaining quality and consistency through easy-to-understand, step-by-step instructions also can provide benefits like increasing productivity, eliminating waste and reducing workplace injuries. An SOP manual can help businesses comply with regulations and improve training for employees as well.
Step 1: Choose Your SOPs
Identify procedures that should be standardized, like assembling parts for a product or handling a customer’s complaint. Focus each SOP on a single activity. Only write about procedures that you know how to do correctly. Or, find someone who is qualified so that they can show you how to do the procedures. Compile all of the information that will be needed.
Step 2: Prepare to Write
Give each SOP a meaningful title, like “How to Assemble Your Product” or “How to Handle a Customer Complaint.” Include SOP numbers or categories if needed, like “SOP - Production - Assembly” or “SOP - Customer Service - Handling Complaints.” This will allow you to group related procedures for employees. Draw rough flowcharts for processes to confirm that you have all of the information and that it is in the right order. Focus on the employee who will carry out the procedure when preparing your approach.
Step 3: Standardize Sections
Outline your SOPs. Each SOP should have the following sections:
- Revision History
- Approval Signatures
Step 4: Detail Procedures Step-by-Step
Break down each procedure step-by-step in the order they should be done. Start with the major steps, like “Get the Parts for the Product” or “Answer the Phone.” Then break them into smaller steps, like “Confirm that each part is correct,” or “Introduce yourself and thank the customer for calling.”
Step 5: Write Each SOP
Write simply. Use small words and short sentences. Put the main idea first. Follow up with details. Use action verbs and an active voice. Avoid ambiguity and confusion. Don’t use abbreviations, acronyms or jargon.
Step 6: Format SOPs Consistently
Each SOP should be written in the same font and font size. Break long paragraphs into short ones. Use bullet points instead of long sentences. Add visual aids like flowcharts. Highlight important information, such as using boldface type or italics.
Step 7: Assess the Effectiveness of Each SOP
Check SOPs for legibility, readability and comprehensibility.
- Legibility: Is the type large enough and easy to read?
- Readability: Are the instructions simple? Or do the protocols have a preponderance of complex concepts and obtuse words?
- Comprehensibility: Does a reader learn what they need to know to do the procedure correctly?
Step 8: Review, Revise and Approve
Have employees who perform the procedures review the SOPs to confirm that they understand everything. Ask employees who are not familiar with the procedures to read the SOPs as well. A reader shouldn’t have to do the procedure to know how it’s done. Have each set of changes reviewed by the same readers until they are acceptable. Managers who will be responsible for ensuring that SOPs are followed should sign off on them before they are released.
In business, uniform systems work. Creating a Standard Operating Procedure manual ensures that every employee follows every step in a system in the same way, every single time.
- The FDA Group: A Basic Guide to Writing Effective Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
- Public Library of Science: How to Write Standard Operating Procedures; NIDIAG (Neglected Infectious Diseases DIAGnosis) consortium
- N.C. State University Extension: How to Write Standard Operating Procedure
- Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases: The Art of Writing and Implementing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Laboratories in Low-Resource Settings: Review of Guidelines and Best Practices; Patricia V. Aguilar, Editor
Jim Molis has more than 20 years of experience writing for and about businesses. He has been a business reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, a managing editor of the Atlanta Business Chronicle and an editor of the Jacksonville Business Journal. He also has written for management consultants, professional services firms and numerous publications as a freelancer.