SOPs, more formally known as standard operating procedures, are documented practices designed to ensure consistency in business practices and operations. Many people think of SOPs as only applicable in hands-on laboratory and manufacturing contexts. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one of the main goals of SOPs is mandating how equipment is maintained, adjusted and used. However, SOPs can also cover more analytical processes, meaning that they can be applied in a variety of business contexts.
Health and Safety
Standard operating procedures maintain the health and safety of all workers. Especially in manufacturing settings where heavy equipment is involved, SOPs can help ensure that employees operate equipment to prevent injuries. SOPs can mandate regular cleaning and maintenance schedules. These activities are important for safe operation of machinery, but are easily forgotten when employees are switching shifts and no written records exist. SOPs also show how to run equipment safely during regular use. A document from Iowa State University suggests using diagrams along with words to make instructions crystal clear.
Consistency of Results
In laboratory settings, the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that following rules set by regulatory bodies isn't always enough. Workers sometimes make slight changes to standard procedure based on the more specific requirements of a particular experiment. When these changes aren't documented, experimental results may differ between teams of technicians using slightly different methods. Writing standard operating procedures specific to your company's line of business ensures that everyone's working the same way, limiting the cost of additional trials to explain inconsistent results.
Regulatory and Legal Compliance
Writing a standard operating procedure with a regulatory body's requirements in mind ensures that practices at your organization line up with industry expectations. Documented procedures help to streamline internal and external audits as well. For example, if your company maintains ISO certification, you can assist outside auditors by providing written copies of your ISO-compliant procedures. They can then advise you where exactly in the process workers are falling short. SOPs also protect you from lawsuits -- for example, if an employee is injured at work after failing to follow documented best practices. SOPs in office settings can also ensure legal compliance. For example, an SOP for negotiating business deals overseas can stop executives from stepping into illegal bribery territory.
Increased Efficiency and Productivity
People need consistency to be their most productive. When there's no doubt about what format a document should take, whether equipment should be cleaned and where supplies should be stored, people can simply do their jobs without stopping to ask questions. Standardizing everything is impossible and counterproductive, as employees need some flexibility to problem solve. However, writing SOPs for regular, rote procedures can increase efficiency at work. For example, an SOP for file naming can reduce the time required to find documents and promote teamwork across departments.
- Environmental Protection Agency; Guidance for Preparing Standard Operating Procedures; April 2007
- Iowa State University: Dairy Farm Standard Operating Procedures -- a Writing Guide
- Leanmanufacture.net: Standard Operating Procedures -- SOP
- Environmental Protection Agency: Frequent Questions -- Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
- Cornell University; Developing Effective Standard Operating Procedures; David Grusenmeyer
- BNET; How to Ensure Your Company Doesn't Break Federal Anti-Bribery Law; Alain Sherter; March 2011
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