What Is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?

Answered August 19 2020

Standard operating procedures

Industries have an array of standardized processes that almost everyone in that industry is familiar with on some level. On the next level down, each company/business has its own way of doing things, and processes that come into play at specific points in time. Finally, different departments within those larger structures use a standard operating procedure in order to get things done. 

What are these documents, and what do they offer? 

What Is a Standard Operating Procedure?

A standard operating procedure, or SOP, is a document that lays out the steps to do something in a clear and concise way. They are used in all sorts of fields and in almost every business function that requires a specific process or way to do things. 

What are some of the other functions of an SOP? Many of these documents are important training material, particularly during the onboarding process. They provide a clear set of instructions for people who are not familiar with the company or the company’s processes, but who need to learn them quickly. 

Standard operating procedures may also be used to bring contractors up to date on company policies without the involvement of a trainer or specialized training programs. They promote cross-communication between departments and a common ground to work from when issues arise. 

Why Standard Operating Procedures Are Important

At their core, standard operating procedures are essential to the process management of companies because they are clearly defined ways of getting important tasks done on a regular basis. Without standardized methods, the potential for confusion and chaos is much higher. 

For example, consider an instruction manual for a complicated manufacturing machine. A properly written manual stands as the ultimate authority about any decisions to be made about the machine. If something happens that the manual does not cover, it provides a reference for all of the parts that go into the machine and their functions. Finally, even for the most experienced people, the manual is there to remind them of the way and order that things need to be done to make the biggest impact. 

The same holds true for standardized maintenance programs.

That being said, if no one can understand the document, it can’t perform its function. Here’s how to write a quality standard operating procedure, and tips on editing existing documents to bring them to their fullest potential.

The Three Major Types of Standard Operating Procedures

There are two major, different types of standard operating procedures. The first one is step-by-step. The other is hierarchical. While there are some hybrid combinations, the majority of those fall under the hierarchical SOP. Let’s take a look at each one of them, and what they offer to an organization before we move into the basics of writing an SOP.

Step-by-Step

Step-by-step SOPs, as the name suggests, outline the process one step at a time in a linear way. They are most useful when the task or process is also linear and fairly straightforward. Some subsets of step-by-step standard operating procedures include: 

  • Annotated picture SOPs
  • Sequential process outlines
  • Guided checklists

Linear SOPs are not the ideal choice when creating instructions for complicated, multi-process procedures. They also struggle with multi-approach strategies and aren’t very good at outlining alternate ways of doing things. That’s where hierarchical and hybrid SOPs come into play. 

Hierarchical

Hierarchical SOPs fill the gap that linear standard operating procedures leave. In a hierarchical SOP, the process is a combination of larger processes and step-by-step pieces. These are sometimes interchangeable. A great example is a complete facility maintenance check. Multiple pieces of machinery, rooms, equipment, and employees must be examined and evaluated during this process. If some things are not in place, alternate steps must be taken. 

That’s where a hierarchical SOP shines best. However, if the process is simple or a set of simple procedures, it may not be a good choice. Hierarchical SOPs struggle with keeping things simple and clear. When they become too complicated, the entire point of the SOP is lost. 

Hybrid

Finally, there are hybrid standard operating procedures. These are typically a collection of standard operating procedures under one main process that has to be accomplished in a set series of events. Unlike a hierarchical standard operating procedure, hybrid combines linear methods with a variety of media, checklists, and other, smaller SOPs. They are most commonly found in situations where multiple approaches are needed to get to one unified result.

Now that we have covered the three major standard operating procedure types; how are they created? Let’s look into the work that goes into these documents and how to write each type. 

How to Write a Great Standard Operating Procedure

The fundamentals of great SOP documents are clarity, conciseness, and simplicity. The different types of SOPs focus on a different aspect, making it easy to write different types—at least in theory.

Here’s how to write SOPs in a way that will make sense to every employee in your department.

In general, the best SOPs rest on three pillars:

1. Clear directions

This is the backbone of any instruction document. As soon as an SOP can’t be understood, it’s not going to help.

2. Brief and to the point

Long, rambling instructions leave a lot of room for misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

3. Simple and easy to understand

Standard operating procedures should be simple enough that any person in the company can take it, read it, and understand what needs to be done. They are not specialized procedures that need particular people involved. 

That’s all that goes into a great standard operating procedure. However, it’s extremely important to get them right because they rest on so few things. Let’s dive into specifics of writing standard operating procedures before we move on to their true value in a company setting.

Writing a Step-by-Step SOP

When writing a linear standard operating procedure, your focus should be on the sequence of steps that makes up the document in question. Each step should be outlined clearly, leaving as little as possible up for interpretation. Frequent checks are required to make sure that every step is outlined, and that it makes sense in the sequence. 

For example, consider the phrase “After checking the electrical infrastructure (see step 3), examine all light bulbs in the building for malfunctions.” By itself, in a standard operating procedure, it would seem that any malfunctioning might just need to be noted. But there is plenty of room to assume that the light bulbs simply need to be looked at and no further action should be taken. 

A better way to phrase this would be “Examine all light bulbs and report any defective ones.”

Writing a Hierarchical SOP

Unlike a step-by-step standard operating procedure, a hierarchical SOP must focus on the clarity of instructions. Since there are a lot of instructions and processes that it covers, the clarity of the document takes precedence over everything else. 

Special care must be taken in order to ensure that the instructions are the correct instructions for the process, that they are in the right order, and that the alternate instructions are laid out clearly. This is particularly true in larger procedures, such as general facility maintenance and heavy equipment preventive maintenance checks

Writing a Hybrid SOP

Hybrid standard operating procedures are the most prone of all to the problem of overwhelming length. This is typically because a hybrid SOP is trying to cover multiple standard operating procedures. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to split out multiple procedures into multiple documents in order to avoid scope creep.

While this all may seem simple on the surface, it’s much harder than many companies anticipate. However, having this information on hand is worth it when you need it. It can also be very hard to explain why you need these documents. How can you quantify the true value of a well-written SOP to your manager and the c-suite in a way that makes sense to them?

The True Value of a Standard Operating Procedure

A good standard operating procedure allows companies to function at accelerated speeds by cutting down the time needed to teach new people or employees company basics. It helps the entire department out whenever that process is called into question by providing a standardized document to turn to when anyone has a question. 

A badly-written standard operating procedure clogs everything up. It leads to confusion, chaos, and ultimately, avoidance of the document all together. This only creates problems as there is no reference document when issues arise. It also leaves the power in the hands of people that know how to do the procedures, making them the only ones who can help new people.

To put it in perspective, the true value of a standard operating procedure is that it allows companies to reach a much greater potential with a small expenditure of effort. From the simple task of cleaning your workspace to the complicated task of installing new machinery, a standard operating procedure is there to guide, direct, and monitor. 

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