A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing SOPs for Business
Business Process Management
Whether you’re a corporation or a small business, you would benefit from using standard operating procedures—or SOPs.
SOPs document the specific steps your team members need to take to complete any given process.
As you can guess, this process is helpful for onboarding. In other words, you can onboard new employees faster with fewer chances of making mistakes.
But how do you make an SOP?
Well, in this guide, we’re going to teach you everything you need to know, including:
- Defining a standard operating procedure
- Simple steps for writing SOPs
- How to automate your business processes
So, let’s get started!
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What’s a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?
A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a detailed step-by-step set of work instructions that describe how to complete a process from start to finish.
Creating SOPs for all your processes will take some time. So, why bother doing it?
Well, SOPs come with a ton of benefits, including:
- Better efficiency and reduced costs: When there’s no defined way of completing a certain procedure, your employees are all over the place. Each of them has a specific way of doing things. Meaning, each time the process is completed, you’re likely to see different results. And in most cases, this costs you time and money. Using SOPs helps save time and money. So all your employees, including new hires, know the best way to get things done.
- Consistent results: Once you have the standard operating procedure document, even a novice can follow the steps and achieve consistent results as more experienced employees. After all, employees come and go, but you have to deliver the same high-quality product/service.
- Safe working environment: SOPs are useful to supervisors and business owners for maintaining compliance with safety standards. When you have a certain way of doing things, you minimize the risk of hazards. This way, your employees are safe, and your company reduces the risk of possible liabilities.
How to Structure a Standard Operating Procedure Document
A typical SOP usually has the following necessary information…
- A title page
- Title of the procedure
- SOP identification number
- Publication or revision date
- Names of the organization and division that will use the SOP
- Names of the people who created and approved the document
- Table of contents: Include a ToC only if the SOP document is too long. This way, you allow for easier navigation through the different sections of the document.
- Preparatory information
- The purpose and scope of the SOP
- The roles and responsibilities of the people who will be completing the process
- Any additional resources and materials you will need to complete the process
- Safety measures that have to be complied with when working with certain materials or procedures involved in the process
- Procedures section: That’s the core of the document. Here are all the step-by-step instructions that will help your employees complete the process in the right way.
If more complex procedures are involved, you can break down the steps into sub-steps to ensure nothing goes wrong.
And you can also use different visuals like graphs and diagrams to get your point across better. Sometimes too much text can be more confusing than helpful.
- Quality control and assurance: This section helps your employees to measure their performance against:
- The best practices related to the specific process
- Samples of previous results
- Additional guidelines on measuring performance
- References and glossary: Here, you can include additional readings and further explanations on definitions you mentioned in the previous sections. This way, if an employee has knowledge gaps, they can refer to this section to get all the information they need.
And that’s pretty much how an SOP document looks! But how, exactly, do you make one?
How to Write a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)
1. Choose an SOP format
Choose the format of your new SOP based on the size of your company and the complexity of your operations.
The most practical SOP formats are:
If your processes are straightforward without too much complexity, you can use something as simple as a checklist.
All you need to do is outline the exact steps required to complete the process, and you’re good to go!
If your processes are a bit more complex, though, you’ll need a more detailed format.
The hierarchical checklist helps you break down more complicated steps into sub-steps. This way, you get more detailed instructions that leave no room for ambiguity and reduce the risk of getting something wrong.
This checklist is also a great option if you’re looking to analyze existing processes and see where they need improvement.
2. Gather the relevant stakeholders
Create the SOP in collaboration with the people who are already involved in the process at hand. They know the process inside out and might have some useful suggestions on how to construct it.
You should also decide on who is going to prepare the standard operating procedure document. Your best choice would be an in-house expert who knows your company, the industry, and the process you’re creating the SOP for. But if you don’t have such an option, you can hire outside consultants. However, make sure they’re up-to-date with your organization and its internal processes.
3. Identify the purpose of the SOP
What do you want to achieve with your SOPs?
Before you start working on it, you should identify your goal.
Usually, the goal is to either create a standardized process for your employees, document an existing process and analyze it for potential improvements, or create an SOP template—a repeatable SOP for many processes.
4. Specify the SOP structure
If your company is small, or if you’re a startup, you can keep things more informal. Just make sure that whatever structure you choose will work for the whole team. Once you start expanding, however, you might have to decide on a more formal structure, like a flowchart. Hence, the SOP is more defined and clear, leaving less room for ambiguity.
Suppose you are in a medium or large company. In that case, SOP documents usually have a specific structure that needs official approval by the upper management or a special quality assurance department.
5. Define the scope of the SOP
Some processes span over a few departments, and it might be hard to decide to what degree you should include their roles in the SOP.
Should you mention them as reference points or include them as active participants?
You don’t want to start your SOP and then lose focus and deter from your goal. When you think of the targeted process, ask yourself:
- What action triggers the process?
- What action ends it?
- What’s the purpose?
These questions should get you back on track and help you define your scope clearly.
6. Have a consistent style
The SOP is a document that provides guiding instructions to your employees on how to get their job done. Therefore, you have to keep a consistent and clear style to help them navigate the instructions easily.
To do that, consider the following:
- Use action verbs. Start each instruction with an action verb. This way, you emphasize the task the employee has to complete.
- Keep a concise style. SOP is not the place to add empty filler words. Your employees need the SOP when they’re in the middle of a task, and they need a glance to see if they’re doing things right. Also, avoid abbreviations and acronyms when possible for clear communication. If not possible, provide a glossary for definitions.
- Write easy-to-follow instructions for each step. After the action verb, you might have to offer some additional explanations. Keep your instructions short and clear to make it easier for your employees to follow them with little room for decision-making.
7. Choose the right notation (if you’re using one)
This step applies mainly to corporate organizations. If your company is big, you are probably using notation to communicate your processes across the company.
However, think about using a universal notation like BPMN or UML.
This way, if you need to share the SOP with someone outside the company, there’s a higher chance they will know how to navigate through it.
8. List out all steps of the process
To list all the steps in their correct order, you can observe your employees perform the process or ask someone who does it daily.
Once you have this first draft, double-check if the document makes sense to the employees or missing an important detail. Sometimes you have to add an extra step or two for more clarity.
9. Determine the performance metrics to assess the SOP
To understand whether the SOP is achieving the desired results, you should identify the right metrics.
In other words, which KPIs will tell you whether you’re getting closer to your goals.
If you’re constructing a product manufacturing SOP, for example, these might be:
- Produced units per month
- Defect rate of produced units for the month
- The time needed for the production of one unit
And you can come up with many others depending on the process in mind and the end goal.
10. Test the SOP
Now, as you have the first SOP draft, you can test it out on a smaller scale to see how it functions. You can ask an employee who works with the process to follow the SOP guidelines and tell you if anything is unclear.
Their feedback can be insightful and give you ideas where you can improve any miscommunication.
You can also give the SOP to both a senior employee and a novice, so you can see how each one performs. This way, you will understand whether the instructions are detailed enough for the less experienced people.
And finally, read the entire SOP carefully to ensure it’s free of grammar, formatting, or style mistakes.
11. Give the SOP to superiors for a review
In a bigger company, senior-level management will review the SOP draft after you complete it.
Make sure you give supporting documents and the SOP test results along with the document itself. If approved, then the document is moved forward to the quality and assurance department for final approval.
12. Implement the SOP
You’re finally ready to implement the SOP!
If you followed all the previous steps, your standard operating procedure is good to go!
At this stage, you’ll need to decide on how to distribute your SOP:
- Is it going to be a physical document?
- A file uploaded on a cloud-based platform?
- Or a Word file sent to everyone in your organization?
How you do this is up to you. Still, we recommend you to have a folder on the company cloud storage that’s easily accessible for the relevant employees.
13. Identify all potential problems in your SOP
Once your SOPs are up and running, you might be tempted to forget about them and move on with your day.
Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. You need to keep track of your KPIs and ensure that the process is as efficient as possible.
For example, let’s take the manufacturing example from before. Let’s say that the SOP managed to increase product output by 15% through standardization. You’ll also need to make sure that this didn’t have any unintended consequences.
For example, this could’ve led to an increase in defect rate alongside the output.
So, if something like this happens, you’d have to go through your SOP again and see if you can identify the issue and fix it.
14. Revise and update the SOP regularly
Your business operates in a constantly changing environment, so your SOPs should change along the way too.
The SOP manual is a living and breathing document. Your employees use it all the time and refer to it when they need help. So, making sure that your SOP is up-to-date is important.
You should revise all your SOPs every 6 or 12 months to make sure that they provide relevant information and helpful instructions daily.
Use SaaS management to Automate Your Processes
Efficiently storing and distributing your written SOPs is as important as the SOP itself.
If you distribute all your SOPs as a physical copy and then give out updated versions every 6-12 months, your employees might lose track of all these documents.
So, it won’t matter if you created the best SOP ever, if your employees can’t find it, or worse, use the wrong one.
That’s why it’s much better to create, store, and distribute all your SOPs with the help of workflow management software.
With our Employee Portal, a part of the IT Collaboration feature, you can ensure that the right people have access to the right SOP at any time from any place. The Employee Portal is a central location for employees to manage their tools, tasks, and requests and communicate with team leaders.
On top of that, the software automates the specific tasks and parts of your processes, allowing you to streamline the procedure further.
And that’s all you need to know about SOPs—why they’re relevant, what’s their typical structure, and how to write one.
Having SOPs for all your processes will significantly improve the efficiency of your business and the performance of your employees.