How to Write Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

How to Write Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) – As a business that values knowledge, you might have come across this heavy term multiple times. 

But do you know what SOPs really means and why it tops the priority list of businesses today? 

Let’s spill the beans!

Standard Operating Procedures are the nuts and bolts of how a business operates. In fact, what really differentiates well-aligned businesses from highly-scattered ones is how meticulously their SOPs are created and implemented. 

This blog will uncover all important aspects of a standard operating procedure, including its importance, benefits, types, and much more. We will also explore how to write standard operating procedures that will never let your business fall apart, even in the worst times. 

Let’s go.

Defining Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) 

A Standard Operating Procedure is a written set of step-by-step instructions on how to successfully perform a particular task. It gives employees a clear path to walk on while working on tasks, leaving little room for confusion or misinterpretation. The primary purpose of a Standard Operating Procedure is to bring uniformity in how a company operates, and its employees work. 

Think of it as the Modus Operandi of how to perform routine tasks, and core business functions, and achieve the desired quality level every SINGLE time. SOPs remove guesswork and assumptions by giving employees a clear-cut direction and on-the-ground explanation of what needs to be done and how. 

Why Are SOPs Crucial for Your Business? 

What happens when you leave things to chance? 

Working with this thought process is the worst thing you can do to your business. It is like inviting failure to your doorstep. 

Creating Standard Operating Procedures gives you the magical power to control how your business moves and grows. It systematizes your company processes and helps employees work in complete alignment to achieve your company’s goals. 

When employees work cohesively with maximum clarity, they succeed in their roles, which has a positive snowball effect on your overall business growth and development.

There is a reason Starbucks is able to maintain consistency in the quality and taste of the coffee it delivers across its 32,660 stores worldwide. 

How does a coffee-chain giant like Starbucks provide a familiar experience at such a vast scale? 

The answer lies in its Standard Operating Procedures. The brand’s SOPs have logical instructions for business functions like record keeping, manufacturing, maintenance activities, etc., that are sincerely followed by all its branches. 

It’s now time to dig further into the benefits that building Standard Operating Procedures can bring to your business. 

Key Benefits of Standard Operating Procedures 

You might think that since you are already training employees to do their jobs the right way, so you don’t really need SOPs. But that’s not true. 

These benefits will explain how writing Standard Operating Procedures can turn the tables for your business. 

1. Brings Consistency Across Departments

A business is made up of different moving parts. It’s only when these parts work cohesively that a company successfully marches ahead. 

Consistency plays a huge role in any business to work smoothly like a well-oiled machine. With well-written Standard Operating Procedures, teams across departments know what to do and how to work in the best and, most importantly, worst situations. 

Every employee, right from an intern to an executive, has the same information at their fingertips. This is how you can guarantee consistent performance at all levels.

2. Boosts Employee Onboarding & Training 

Did you know that a whopping 88% of organizations are not that great at employee onboarding, which is a big reason why they face high attrition rates? 

Onboarding report

New employees have high expectations from their new place of work. These expectations are crushed when they are clueless regarding your work processes and have to constantly badger seniors and colleagues for help.

SOPs come in handy for new employees. These procedures help employees navigate daily situations with ease and give their best shot at work. A clearly-defined Standard Operating Procedure acts as a guiding light for new employees from day one, keeping them prepared for the best and worst times.

3. Keeps Confusion & Misunderstanding at Bay 

Leave employees to their own devices, and chances are they will end up creating a mess by attempting tasks based on their understanding. They might have in-depth knowledge of the subject, but what really causes the mess is their lack of clarity on how your business operates.  

SOPs provide employees with a roadmap to follow for the most basic and even the most complex of tasks. They clearly state the “Right” way to get a job done, leaving little to no scope for any kind of confusion, misunderstanding, or errors.

4. Keeps You From Falling into Legal Troubles

No matter how hard you try, some things are bound to go off-track, leaving you in legal trouble. 

What if an employee misses a key step while using a piece of equipment and ends up hurting himself? 

Situations like these can damage your brand’s hard-earned reputation. 

Standard Operating Procedures guard you against such legal troubles. They prove that you did your bit in providing employees with a safe and healthy work environment. Moreover, detailed SOPs also help you prevent hazardous incidents from happening in the first place. 

Different Formats of Standard Operating Procedures You Should Know

 Before taking the plunge into the creation part, it’s important to understand which type of Standard Operating Procedures will best suit your unique business needs. 

Here are some of the main types of Standard Operating Procedures you can create:

1. Step-by-Step Instructions

Standard Operating Procedures in the form of step-by-step instructions are best to explain how your business processes work. These are mostly in bulleted form, with each step demonstrated using suitable images and How-to videos. 

The step-by-step SOP format is appropriate for straightforward tasks that do not demand in-depth explanations. 

For example, sign-up and log-in instructions, installation and setup process, etc.

2. Flowcharts 

Another format for creating Standard Operating Procedures is flowcharts. 

Flowcharts are best suited for processes where results are not static. Such processes or tasks can have several outcomes, which is why it is best to illustrate them using easy-to-follow flowcharts. They present the processes visually and give the complete context of how the two steps are connected to each other. 

With steps properly shown in the flowchart and the final outcome clearly defined, employees can easily identify the best route to achieve the right results.

Below is an example of a flowchart SOP format. 

Example of a flowchart SOP format.
Source 

3. Internal Knowledge Base 

An internal knowledge base is the most effective and accessible platform to document your standard operating procedures. Unlike other mediums, the information is stored in the cloud, so your employees can access it on the go, even on their mobile phones. 

With an internal knowledge base, you can give a logical structure to your SOPs and make use of images and videos to explain concepts. The best part is you can involve multiple employees who take charge of building and maintaining the SOPs. 

Watch this video to learn how to create an impressive internal knowledge base: 

3. Checklists/To-Do Lists

A checklist is considered one of the simplest formats of a Standard Operating Procedure. 

Why are they given this tag? Because checklists or to-do lists are not only easy to write but a breeze to read and understand as well. It gives creators and readers an easy time understanding the SOPs and putting them into practical use. 

For every procedure, you can simply create a header and then create a checklist of steps to follow or things to keep in mind. 

The best user manual tools in the market are equipped with modern features that help you create Standard Operating Procedures in a format of your choice.

These tools help you create an SOP document, with articles presented in multiple formats such as checklists, flowcharts, how-to videos, and articles. 

Watch this video to learn about user manual tools:

What Should You Include in Your Standard Operating Procedures Document? 

Most SOP documents have the following sections: 

Table of Contents – This section summarizes the key content of the document. It gives readers a glimpse into what the document contains and helps them jump to the right sections quickly. 

✅ Purpose & Scope – This describes the goals of the SOP, the benefits it will provide to employees, as well as, its limitations. 

✅ Home Page – This page gives a brief overview of what readers can expect from the document. It comprises key topics of the SOP, FAQs, popular articles, etc. 

✅ Signatures of Stakeholders – The document also has the signatures of all stakeholders involved in the procedure-building and approval process. It’s easy for employees to rely on a document that is signed by the relevant stakeholders. 

✅ Roles & Responsibilities – The roles and responsibilities of key individuals involved in the creation of SOPs are clearly defined in this section. 

✅ Procedure Information – This forms the major chunk of the SOP document. All processes are explained in detail with step-by-step instructions, images, and how-to videos. 

✅ Glossary – Most of the time, employees are unfamiliar with complex terminology. The Glossary section has all terms and concepts defined clearly for the convenience of employees. 

How to Write Effective Standard Operating Procedures 

Now that we are done with the theoretical aspect of SOPs, let’s get down to business. 

Follow these 9 easy steps to create Standard Operating Procedures that will help you keep your business operations on the right track. 

Step 1: Do Your Research Right

There are countless processes running an organization. Does that mean each and every process should be documented? 

Not necessarily. 

You can identify the important processes and tasks that employees regularly perform and create SOPs on them to make their work easier. Conduct surveys asking employees about the processes and tasks they take up almost every day. Ask them about which processes are extremely important and need maximum accuracy. 

Once you create the list of processes to be documented, consult with department heads for any changes or additions before moving forward with the writing process. 

Step 2: Set Your Goals 

Before going down the writing path, ask yourself, “Is it worth documenting this process?”, “How will it impact our business?”, “Will it really ease up employees’ work?” etc. 

These questions will give you a headstart on what you should document and why. 

Creating SOPs is a laborious process demanding the time and effort of your employees, so get your goals right, before taking the plunge. 

Besides, you should also consider identifying employees’ pain points with specific tasks and processes so you have a clear picture of how exactly the SOPs will be of help. 

Once you have this valuable information at your disposal, setting goals for your SOP initiatives will be a lot easier. 

For example, the goals can be: 

  • Streamlining the customer support process 
  • Minimizing errors in a complex internal process  
  • Maximizing the productivity of specific teams 
  • Preventing hazardous incidents in the workplace

Step 3: Build a Team of Document Creators 

SOPs are built for employees, so it makes sense to have their say in the creation process. 

As SOPs are comprehensive, they demand significant time, effort, and deep knowledge of the subject. Identify employees who possess good knowledge of the topic and have the required bandwidth to contribute meaningfully to your SOPs. 

The team can have C-level executives, department heads, as well as employees working at the ground level. While those at higher levels are likely to bring great insights and advice to the table, juniors can bring in fresh ideas that spark innovation in the existing processes. 

Most employees might bring amazing insights but will step back when it comes to the real work due to bandwidth issues or lack of writing skills. From the bunch of people you involve, identify the ones who specialize in the subject and possess great writing and editing skills. Make them in charge of the writing process and let others focus on the administrative side. 

If a writer goes wrong somewhere, the editor can pitch in and review the work, and the administrator can manage other activities. 

Collaborative team effort is the basis of a content-heavy document like an SOP.  

Collaborative team effort

User manual software like ProProfs Knowledge Base can be of help here. Its collaborative features let you bring key knowledge holders on a single platform and enable them to work in a streamlined way to produce flawless SOPs. 

Add user setting

Step 4: Know Your Audience 

An SOP for a marketing process will be used regularly by your marketing team. If you create an SOP related to Sales, it will most likely be used by your sales staff. 

On the other hand, if your SOP defines the process of catering to customer requests on social media, the document is built for your customer support team. 

Different SOPs have different audiences. 

Before beginning the writing work, you should have a crystal clear idea of who your target end-users are. Keeping the key individuals and their specific needs and pain points into account before you start crafting content. 

To learn about your target audience, ask yourself questions about: 

  • The size of the team
  • The knowledge they hold about the process
  • The roadblocks they face while performing the process

This information serves as the fodder to build SOPs that are really relevant and helpful for your employees. 

Step 5: Pick a Suitable Format for Your SOP

The next step is to choose an appropriate format for your SOP. 

As discussed above, SOPs can be of three formats – step-by-step instructions, flowcharts, and checklists. 

Remember that every format serves a different purpose. Understand the process you are going to document and the requirements of your target audience, and then pick up a format that is most suitable. 

For example, if a process is pretty straightforward and doesn’t need a lot of extra explanation, Checklists can work great. But, if a process is complicated and can be performed in multiple ways, leading to different outcomes, consider creating Flowcharts for the same. Flowcharts are nothing but hierarchical SOPs, giving a quick view of each step. 

Step 6: Start Documenting Your SOPs 

Now that you are familiar with the basics of SOPs, it’s time to get down to writing them. 

As an SOP is a comprehensive document, it’s ideal to start with an outline and then dive deep into each topic. 

An SOP’s outline must comprise of a: 

  • Home page 
  • The titles of all processes 
  • A table of contents 
  • The name of the department you are going to create the SOP for
  • Signatures of all stakeholders
  • The purpose of the SOP

To make this lengthy process easier, adopt a procedure manual template that comes with a predefined format. Such templates will reduce your work to half. They give you a ready-made structure, so all you have to focus on is creating amazing content for your Standard Operating Procedures.

Standard operating template format

When you finally start writing, remember that the simpler your content is, the bigger impact it will leave. The terms you use should be easy to follow. Turn even the most complex data into easy-to-digest information by breaking it down into small chunks of text and bullet points that employees can remember easily. 

Strike the right chords by creating SOPs that feel more helpful and less overwhelming!

Step 7: Quality Check the Document 

Human errors are inevitable. 

“To err is human, to edit is divine.” 

This popular saying conveys it all. While errors are natural to happen, if fixed on time, you can take the quality of your SOPs into your hands. 

To keep the errors to a bare minimum or, even better, eliminate them all, you need to deploy a strict and transparent review system. Make it mandatory for everyone involved in the documentation process to thoroughly review and cross-check the content before rolling it out for your employees.

Once the writers in your team are done writing, the editors with more experience and knowledge of the process can take up the review work – one article at a time. Since they know the process inside-out, they will be able to identify gaps and inaccuracies and use their expertise to add more value to the written content. 

Think of how hard and time-consuming this process would be if taken up manually!

Most procedure manual tools today come with a built-in review system that helps you set the status for each article and get them reviewed by multiple experts before publishing.

Built in review system of procedure manual

Step 8: Share SOPs With Your Employees 

It’s finally time to roll out the SOPs for your employees. 

Your job doesn’t end with creating Standard Operating Procedures. SOPs should be successfully shared with employees to be of real use. 

Employees should be able to access the procedures conveniently on the devices they use – laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. You can even give employees the option to download the SOPs for future reference or use them in printed form – whatever they prefer. 

Share SOPs on a centralized and safe platform like an internal knowledge base that employees can access 24×7, anytime, anywhere. 

This way, they can make the most of your company’s processes in their day-to-day work. 

Read More: How to Create an Internal Knowledge Base

Step 9: Revisit & Improve Your SOPs 

Once your Standard Operating Procedures are out in the open for your employees to use, it’s paramount to keep a constant check on their relevance and usefulness. 

With time, as your company progresses and processes evolve, the SOP should reflect these changes to maintain its relevance. For that, you need to regularly lookout for areas that lack meaningful content and make the required updates from time to time. 

As your employees start practicing the SOP, they will have both positive and negative experiences. Tap into these experiences, understand where your SOPs fall short, and make the necessary amendments to turn your SOP document into a highly-relevant hub of information. 

Keeping a close eye on KPIs like article upvotes and downvotes, total searches, and poor-performing articles will help you maintain the quality of your SOPs. 

Here’s a quick video on how you can monitor these metrics and bring the necessary changes to your SOP content. 

Common Challenges in Writing Standard Operating Procedures 

The process of creating standard operating procedures is fulfilling but at the same time, it is also laden with challenges.  The first step to overcoming these challenges is to first understand them. 

Let’s learn about the common challenges that are likely to arise while building standard operating procedures and even after the process is complete. 

1. Lack of Accessibility 

Lack of accessibility can lead SOPs to go out of sight and out of mind. 

If employees have to toil to search for SOPs hidden in some documents, emails, or drives, it defeats the entire purpose of creating them in the first place. Employees are likely to return to the traditional ways of doing things which is comparatively easier than scouring for information. 

Accessibility is incredibly important for SOPs. By building centralized documentation for SOPs, you can give employees instant access to your business processes and ensure on-the-go learning. 

2. Lack of Regular Updates & Maintenance

As your business grows and processes change, your SOPs can get obsolete if not updated from time to time. And following outdated SOPs can lead your employees to take the wrong path for accomplishing day-to-day tasks. 

For example, your customer service team would stick to the old ways, while your competitors will be way ahead of you. Marketing folks would be using the same old processes at a time when others in the industry would have found a million new and better ways to market their brand. 

Any changes in your current working process must reflect clearly in the written SOPs. For that, your team will have to keep a close eye on the SOPs and review them regularly. This can be done every 2 or 3 months to ensure the content stays accurate and up to date. 

3. Lack of Participation from All Employees 

Lack of involvement from key stakeholders is another major challenge that can affect the quality of your SOPs. Participation from a specific section of employees will not be healthy as there will always be something that your SOPs will be missing out on. 

Just involving the C-level staff in the creation process will result in a goal-focused approach. In such a case, more attention will be given to the ultimate aim of the SOP than the process itself, which can be problematic for the employees working at the ground level. 

On the other hand, if it’s the managerial staff contributing solely to the SOPs, chances are there will be more focus on the process and less attention on the C-level goals. This can result in huge gaps, with your workforce following the processes and still not being able to achieve your business goals. 

Therefore, it’s crucial for all stakeholders, right from C-level executives to managerial staff, to be actively involved in the process and develop SOPs that perfectly align with your company’s goals. 

4. Lack of Interest from Employees 

Another challenge that you might face after implementing SOPs is a lack of interest from employees. 

What if employees do not use your SOPs as much as you would want them to? There is a possibility of teams too stuck in their old ways of doing things that they don’t find interest in going through your SOPs, let alone using them. 

Therefore it’s critical to track metrics like popular and poorly performing articles, upvotes and downvotes, article views, etc. These metrics will help you analyze how frequently the SOP documentation is being accessed and how useful employees are finding its content. 

What Is the Difference Between SOPs and Processes? 

Both processes and standard operating procedures have step-by-step instructions to perform a specific task, yet they are different from each other. 

A process usually shows the general way to complete a task. It doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of the background and the outcome. An SOP, on the other hand, covers all aspects of a task, including the what, where, who, when, as well as how. 

Another major difference between an SOP and a process lies in the end results. While processes give employees the power to experiment, interpret, and innovate, as per their understanding, SOPs do not have such scope. Standard Operating Procedures give predictable outcomes, leaving nothing to chance. 

Take Inspiration From These Examples of Standard Operating Procedures 

Here are two Standard Operating Procedure examples for your reference. Both of these are comprehensive documents covering the procedures from end to end. Have a look. 

Starbucks- Standard Operating Procedure example
Source 

Standard Operating Procedures Checklist

Here’s a brush-up of all the key parameters that must be met for creating SOPs of top quality. 

  • Keep your SOPs clear and concise. 
  • Structure them logically in the form of step-by-step instructions. 
  • Use visuals like flowcharts to demonstrate processes. 
  • Include a home page, table of contents, purpose, and scope. 
  • Document your SOPs in an internal knowledge base for instant 24×7 access. 
  • Involve all stakeholders right, from C-level executives to managerial staff, in building your SOPs. 
  • Track KPIs and improve the way SOPs are accessed and used by employees. 

Maintain Workplace Efficiency With Well-Written SOPs 

By now, you should have gained a complete idea of the importance of Standard Operating Procedures and how you can build one for your business. 

It’s finally time to take your first steps. 

Start by defining your goals, identify processes that need an SOP, and understand your target audience. Once the basics are sorted, build a powerful team and start documenting your company’s crucial procedures. 

In case confused about what is included in Standard Operating Procedures, go through the examples shown above. It will give you a glimpse into what typically goes into an SOP so you can take your next steps with confidence. 

If you already have SOPs for your business processes, nothing like it. And if you are just starting out, we hope you find all the help you need in this blog.

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About the author

Brayn is a knowledge management expert. He has been published in CustomerThink, PointVisible and Apruve. As a customer support specialist at ProProfs, Brayn has been instrumental in building a robust knowledge base and documents that help support executives keep every customer delighted. You can catch up with Brayn on Twitter and LinkedIn.