Efficiently producing high-quality products at a profit and staying within the confines of laws and regulations requires consistency in operations. Many companies help themselves by instituting standard operating procedures, or SOPs, which provide step-by-step directions to implement important procedures. SOPs help ensure accuracy and quality control. They're used in a variety of companies and organizations, especially in government, manufacturing, research and development, laboratories and academia. Because individual units within companies have myriad procedures, they each need different SOPs. So it's helpful to provide the heads of each unit with an SOP template, which offers a starting point for them to write their own procedures and SOP manuals. SOP templates provide all of the important components each procedure needs.
Guide SOP writers in determining what kind of procedure needs to be written. The template should provide them with an easy decision-making tool based on the number of decisions that must be made by workers to carry out procedures. Advise that routine procedures that are short only require the worker to make a few judgments and can be written out in a simple steps format. For example: Do A, then B, then C. Note that lengthy procedures that require a few decisions can use a hierarchical steps format, telling the worker in what order the procedure must go, and often include substeps that must be performed to complete the entire task. Offer examples of flowcharts or infographics to describe procedures that are complicated, lengthy and require making multiple decisions. For example: Do A. If "normal," do B, C and D. If "abnormal," repeat A to confirm and then do E, F and G.
Describe the nuts and bolts of writing each procedure. For example, each procedure should have a title, purpose, scope and the methods and responsibilities for carrying out the procedure. Encourage or require SOP writers to use a uniform naming convention for titling procedures. Advise them to determine the scope of the procedure, such as who the procedure applies to, when and under what circumstances. You might also describe when not to use each procedure. In the methods and responsibilities section, provide step-by-step protocol on executing a procedure. The template should provide simple, short phrases with action verbs.
Provide definitions and resource requirements. Each procedure should have a section defining the terms used in the document and spelling out any acronyms. In addition, it should tell employees what documents, equipment or other material they'll need to carry out the procedure. Reference any other related procedures that employers either need to perform ahead of time or need to be aware of to complete the task. Don't forget other important components the template must have. These include the effective date for the procedure and the last date the procedure was reviewed.
Depending on your company, it may also be important to assign a security level to the SOP to clarify what level of authority is required to carry out the procedure. Use the template to also describe conditions under which the employee can reliably perform the procedure safely.
Always include guidance on health and safety or regulatory violations where appropriate. Provide a place in the template and use methods to emphasize important warnings, such as boldface or side-boxing these messages. Describe what would happen if the procedure is not followed or is followed incorrectly, whether that results in personal injury, loss of life, damage to equipment, faulty products, fines, litigation or business closure.
- Northeastern University: Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs)
- Environmental Protection Agency: Guidance for Preparing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
- Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural Research and Cooperative Extension: Standard Operating Procedures: A Writing Guide
Angela Ogunjimi has been a prize-winning writer and editor since 1994. She was a general assignment reporter at two newspapers and a business writer at two magazines. She writes on nutrition, obesity, diabetes and weight control for a project of the National Institutes of Health. Ogunjimi holds a master's degree in sociology from George Washington University and a bachelor's in journalism from New York University.