How to Create an Effective Standard Operating Procedure: A Comprehensive Guide

How to Create an Effective Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

standard operating procedure (sop) guide

As the tired old saying goes, there are tons of moving parts in a business or organization of any size. Often, the difference between a productive, successful business and a not-so-successful one is whether or not these myriad “parts” are moving in concert with one another. This can be the difference between a finely-tuned machine and one that regularly breaks down—and eventually falls apart.

For your organization to run like such a finely-tuned machine (and to avoid falling apart at the seams), your team members need to be on the same page at all times—both literally and figuratively. This is where a standard operating procedure or SOP comes into play.

In this article, we’re going to cover:

What is a Standard Operating Procedure?

A standard operating procedure (SOP) provides clear-cut directions and detailed instructions needed to perform a specific task or operation consistently and efficiently. Often seen in a myriad of industries, SOPs aim to achieve uniformity in execution, reduce miscommunication, and adhere to regulatory standards.

Note that an SOP is much more involved than a simple procedural document. While a process document offers an overarching view of a process, an SOP delivers an in-depth, ground-level perspective, describing the exact steps for the successful execution of a task. Think of it this way: a process document sketches the journey from “Point A” to “Point B,” but an SOP offers a detailed map to navigate this journey successfully. An SOP goes beyond being just a procedural document; it serves as a reference guide for problem-solving, a tool for ensuring safety, and a mechanism for standardizing performances across the organization.

Purpose of an Standard Operating Procedure

The fundamental purpose of an SOP is to provide clear and concise instructions for the consistent execution of routine operations within an organization. By offering a step-by-step guide on how tasks should be carried out, SOPs aim to ensure that work is performed consistently, efficiently, and safely, regardless of who is performing the task. Moreover, they serve as a key tool for companies to comply with industry regulations and standards, reducing the risk of errors and deviations.

Why Are Standard Operating Procedures Important?

The importance of standard operating procedures extends beyond their fundamental purpose of ensuring consistency and reducing miscommunication. They serve as a blueprint for success by helping organizations systematize their internal processes and progress in a unified, cohesive manner.

Imagine the consequences of not having SOPs in place – it would leave too much up to chance. Without them, there’s no guarantee that best practices would be followed consistently, that team members would remain in sync, or that the organization would continue to operate optimally.

Standard operating procedures are, therefore, crucial in maintaining the operational integrity of an organization. They play a vital role in setting clear expectations, ensuring quality and efficiency, and keeping all team members aligned towards the common goals of the organization. They serve as the backbone of any successful organization and are vital for long-term growth and sustainability.

Benefits of Implementing Standard Operating Procedures

Let’s delve deeper into the specific benefits that SOPs bring to an organization.

1. Ensures Adherence to Best Practices

An SOP mandates adherence to best practices, transforming them from mere suggestions into actionable, hierarchical steps. These practices, shaped by all involved stakeholders, ensure that your team is always acting in the company’s best interest.

SOPs not only provide a “true north” but also detailed instructions to guide your team. By knowing the most effective and efficient way to handle tasks, your team can achieve optimal results while minimizing resource expenditure.

2. Ensures Consistency and Efficiency

A standard operating procedure is the blueprint for making your organization run like a finely-tuned machine. It establishes consistency in your operations, making decisions and processes more automatic, thus eliminating unnecessary deliberations or miscommunication.

3. Quality Assurance

By ensuring adherence to best practices and maintaining consistency, SOPs enhance the overall quality of work. The workers can effectively and efficiently complete a process or task, raising the quality bar.

4. Enables Proper Onboarding and Training

In clearly defining standard operating procedures within your organization, you’ll inherently make employee onboarding easier as well as improve how you train your team members with regard to best practices in certain situations.

With contingency plans clearly laid out, you can prepare your employees better to navigate potential circumstances. Absence of such detailed steps might leave your team uninformed and ill-equipped to handle challenges.

5. Preservation of Organizational Knowledge

Although your current team might be well-versed with the SOPs, it’s crucial to document them for future reference. Changes in your team are inevitable – retirement, resignation, promotions, leaves, etc. When such changes occur, documented SOPs ensure that the accumulated knowledge and expertise remain within the organization, providing easy access to new members.

6. Reduction of Misunderstandings

By providing readily available and detailed instructions on task execution, an SOP ensures everyone is on the same page, thereby reducing potential misunderstandings and fostering effective communication.

7. Regulatory Compliance

Certain industries legally require SOP documentation, and having well-documented ones can demonstrate compliance with these regulatory requirements. For instance, in healthcare, SOP documents often testify to adherence to the Joint Commission’s standards. Standard operating procedures can also help organizations fulfill general legal obligations, like customer complaint resolution, by outlining necessary steps to meet the terms of service.

8. Improved Safety

By detailing safe practices and procedures, SOPs can mitigate the risk of accidents or injuries. For example, an SOP for handling hazardous materials might include steps for appropriate protective gear and handling techniques, ensuring safety and risk assessment.

How to Write an Effective Standard Operating Procedure

Alright, we’ve tackled the basics: we understand what a standard operating procedure (SOP) is and why they can be such a game changer when effectively creating and implementing them. Are you ready for the next step? Let’s dive in and uncover how to write an SOP that your team will actually want to use.

Below are the general steps to take when writing a standard operating procedure.

  1. Determining Your Goals for Creating an SOP
  2. Determine the Stakeholders and Creators
  3. Define the End-User
  4. Determine the Scope and Format of the SOP
  5. Gather All Information
  6. Outline the SOP Document—and Begin Writing It
  7. Proofread, Test, and Revise: The Iterative Process
  8. Train Your End-Users
  9. Leverage Standard Operating Procedure Software
  10. Implement SOP—Revisit Regularly and Update as Needed

Now, let’s dive deeper into the actual process of crafting effective standard operating procedures. The steps we discuss below are based on our extensive experience and proven success in developing SOPs here at Helpjuice. Our goal is to share our best practices with you, so that you too can create and implement SOPs that streamline your operations and promote efficiency in your organization.

  1. Define Your Objectives for Creating an SOP
    Before the pen hits the paper, or fingers touch the keyboard, you should have a clear-cut answer to the question of why you’re creating this document. It’s like preparing for a road trip; you need to know your destination before you can plan your route.

Let’s explore some questions to help shape your mission:

  • How can SOP documentation amp up efficiency and teamwork among your employees?
  • What does customer service look like when everyone sticks to an SOP?
  • How will implementing an SOP boost the company’s bottom line?

Next, identify any hiccups in your current workflow. That way, you can zero in on how your team can boost productivity with an SOP in place.

Action Step: Set up a meeting with your team to brainstorm and finalize your SOP objectives. Make them SMART goals, and you’re off to a great start!

(Here’s a pro-tip: Consider utilizing robust knowledge base software at this stage—and throughout the entire process—it can take your team’s productivity up a notch.)

  1. Determine the Stakeholders and Creators
    Assemble your A-team: Drawing from our experience in developing SOPs, it’s essential to involve all personnel who will be engaging in or affected by the SOP in the document’s development process.
  • C-level executives are the big guns, focused on crafting lean operations and achieving high-level business goals.
  • Management leaders are the tacticians, who develop best practices and put together a plan for SOP implementation.
  • Ground-level employees are the foot soldiers, who can judge the feasibility of the SOP in terms of logistics and resource consumption.

Action Step: List down all the possible stakeholders for your SOP, along with their respective roles.

Don’t forget that the voice of your customers also matters. SOPs may mainly address internal processes, but these operations can profoundly impact the customer experience. So, keep your audience in mind and let’s design an SOP that hits two birds with one stone: streamline internal processes and create a memorable experience for your clients.

  1. Define the End-User
    Who will be using the SOP? While a variety of individuals may be involved in the creation of SOP, the actual content of the SOP will invariably be followed by a select set of individuals or departments.

(For example, in defining an SOP for the handling of customer service requests, your customer service reps would be the key individuals responsible for following the SOP.)

That’s why it’s important that you know who will actually be engaging in the procedures in question, as this will enable you to create the SOP document with these individuals in mind. The idea here is to be able to create the document in such a way as to be useful to those who will actually implement the procedures defined within said document.

This means:

  • Remaining laser-focused on the actual duties of the end-user
  • Using the correct language and terminology, as expected by the end-user
  • Explaining certain terminology as needed, while not over-explaining processes and terms that are second-nature to the end-user

But, before you can make any of this happen, you need to have a clear idea of who within your organization your SOP is being created for.

  1. Determine the Scope and Format of the SOP
    Determining the scope of an SOP involves considering who will be using the SOP (which we discussed in the previous step) as well as what equipment or materials are needed, and any other relevant factors that may affect the task or process described in the standard operating procedure.

In terms of format, a standard operating procedure typically takes on one of the following formats:

  • Step-by-step written list
  • Hierarchical list
  • Flowchart
  • Simple checklist
  • Video
  • Interactive course

Depending on the procedures being documented, you’ll want to determine which of these formats will be most effective in communicating the desired information.

The best course of action here is to go with the simplest format necessary for the circumstance at hand. If there’s no need to include an additional explanation or potential contingencies, a step-by-step list may be sufficient; if each step in the process can potentially lead to multiple outcomes, a flowchart is likely necessary.

  1. Gather All Information
    OK, so you’ve determined why you need to create the standard operating procedure as well as know who you’re creating it for. You even know who will be responsible for writing the standard operating procedure. The only thing left before writing the SOP is to gather the necessary information which includes:
  • Research the task or process: Look for relevant information about the task or process that the SOP will cover. This may include industry guidelines, best practices, and any relevant policies or procedures.
  • Consult subject matter experts: Seek input from individuals who have expertise in the task or process that the SOP will cover. These individuals may be able to provide valuable insights and information that will help you create a more comprehensive and accurate SOP.
  • Review existing policies and procedures: If there are any existing policies or procedures that relate to the task or process described in the SOP, be sure to review them and incorporate any relevant information into the SOP.
  • Observe the task or process: If possible, observe the task or process being performed to get a better understanding of the steps involved and any challenges or issues that may arise.
  1. Outline the SOP Document—and Begin Writing It
    Once you know what your goals are for creating SOP, who will be involved in creating it, and the best format to use, you can begin planning out the document as a whole.

Here, we’ll discuss the various parts of a complete standard operating procedure document, explaining what information should be included in each.

(Note: One thing to keep in mind as you write your SOP is to use clear, concise language and formatting. Avoid using jargon or complex language, and use bullet points or numbered lists to make the SOP easy to read and follow. When possible, use active voice instead of passive voice to make the instructions more clear and direct).

Title Page:
The title page of your standard operating procedure should contain identifying information regarding the document, including:

  • The SOP being documented
  • The document’s unique identification number
  • The date of creation and/or editing of the document
  • The department or professional title of the entity who will implement the SOP
  • The names and titles of the individuals who created the document

Table of Contents:
If necessary, you can include a table of contents after the title page of your SOP, as this will help those who use the document find the information they’re seeking with relative ease.

Preparatory Information:
As we’ve discussed, certain information will need to be laid out in full in order for your team to be able to adhere to the SOP to be described momentarily.
This preliminary information includes:

  • SOP Purpose
  • Roles and Responsibilities
  • Resources and Materials
  • Cautions, Warnings, and Other Hazard-Related Info

Methodology and Procedures:
This section is the most important part of the overall SOP document, as it’s where you’ll describe the actual operating procedures to be followed at all times when completing a certain task.

Use the chosen format to write detailed, step-by-step instructions for the end-user to follow at every touchpoint. In more simplified cases, these steps will be sequential; in others, the process may involve sub-steps, recursive processes, decision trees, and the like.

Depending on the procedure in question, include any diagrams, illustrations, or other imagery that may supplement your written documentation. It may be more effective and efficient to use such illustrations in certain circumstances where the written word simply doesn’t suffice.

Quality Control and Assurance:
It’s essential that your team members are able to assess their performance with regard to SOP on a case-by-case basis and at specifically defined intervals over time.

Include documentation that allows them to do so, such as anecdotes illustrating best practices, rubrics or similar means of measuring performance, and samples (real or simulated) of past performance evaluations.

References and Glossary:
Refer to a variety of terms, resources, and other documents throughout a given SOP that may require further explanation. Provide this explanation in the necessary detail, or point your audience toward additional resources or documentation for further explanation.

  1. Proofread, Test, and Revise: The Iterative Process
    An SOP, like any masterpiece, isn’t usually perfect in its first draft. Proofreading, testing, and revising are all essential steps to creating an effective SOP. Involve your team in this step because a different set of eyes can catch issues you might have missed.

Action Step: Create a test group within your team to implement the SOP in a controlled environment. Gather their feedback, make necessary revisions, and repeat the process until you have an SOP that works seamlessly.

  1. Train Your End-Users
    No matter how experienced or specialized your current team members are, they will need to be trained (and/or retrained) on the new SOP to be implemented.

This can be a sensitive area, especially for long-time employees who are used to going about tasks in a certain manner and who may not yet see the benefits of making the necessary improvements.

So, it’s vital that these SOP training sessions occur in a relaxed, no-risk atmosphere. Your team needs to have full confidence that this isn’t a “gotcha” type ordeal. It’s to better enable them to put their best foot forward and be as productive as possible in their contractual duties.

That said, training your team with regard to the new SOP deals only in part with the actual procedures in question. It focuses more on instilling in your team a growth mindset.

  1. Leverage Standard Operating Procedure Software
    Utilizing SOP software can significantly simplify the process of creating, managing, and distributing SOPs. With built-in features for easy formatting, revision tracking, approval workflows, and centralized access, it’s an invaluable tool for SOP management.

Action Item: Research and choose an SOP software that fits your organization’s needs. Provide necessary training to your team for its effective usage.

  1. Implement SOP—Revisit Regularly and Update as Needed
    The “final” stage of the process is to implement the new SOP in full.

Review and update the SOP as necessary to ensure that it remains accurate and effective.

Regularly meet with your team to discuss further plans for moving forward, making minor amendments to the SOP or rebuilding the entire document from scratch as needed.

Consider any external factors that may require your team to revisit the SOP, such as legislative changes, technological advancements, and shifts in consumer needs.

In solidifying an effective and efficient SOP, you allow your team to be as productive as possible given your organization’s current overall circumstances. You also keep the door open to make improvements to your processes as these circumstances change.

Finally, review and update the SOP as necessary to ensure that it remains accurate and effective.

Standard Operating Procedure Formats

While companies are free to develop their internal SOP documents in a format that works best for their team, in our experience most organizations choose from one of the following standard operating procedure formats.

1. Step-by-Step Written Format

In some cases, it may be sufficient to create a simple numbered or bulleted list of steps to take when completing a process. This format should be used only when the process in question is straightforward and, in the vast majority of circumstances, can be completed without fail.

2. Hierarchical Format

The hierarchical format for SOPs involves listing the steps of the process to be completed, but also providing additional details within each step as deemed necessary. This format is used when more instruction may be needed to sufficiently complete a given task.

3. Flowchart Format

Flowcharts are best used to illustrate SOPs when multiple outcomes are possible at certain points throughout the process. Each subsequent step depends on the outcome of the previous step, and it simply wouldn’t be logical to follow certain paths if a contrasting outcome were to come about.

4. Checklist Format

Checklist SOPs are presented as a simple list of steps that need to be followed in order. This format can be helpful for SOPs that involve repetitive tasks or need to be completed quickly.

5. Video Format

A video standard operating procedure uses video footage to demonstrate how to complete a specific task or process. Video SOPs can be an effective tool for training and onboarding new employees, as they allow workers to see exactly how a task should be performed.

6. Interactive Course Format

SOPs can be formatted as an interactive online course, combining written instructions, video demonstrations, and quizzes to guide users through a task or process. This format can be helpful for SOPs that need to be completed by a large number of people or that involve multiple skills or concepts.

The Challenges of Developing a Standard Operating Procedure

While there are many benefits to developing SOPs within your organization, creating effective standard operating procedures that are followed comes with its fair share of challenges as well.

1. Compartmentalized Development

Developing SOPs should be an “all-hands-on-deck” affair. If only certain stakeholders are involved, your SOPs may miss the mark. Involve C-level executives, management leaders, and ground-level employees to ensure that the processes being developed are made in the best interest of the company.

2. Problems with Accessibility, Visibility, and Centralization of Information

Even after SOPs have been developed, you’ll need to ensure that all stakeholders can access and engage with said documentation whenever necessary. Use a centralized internal knowledge base to keep the document accessible and visible to all team members.

3. Lack of Management and Maintenance

Team members need to be properly trained and prepared to implement the procedures in question. Additionally, SOPs may need to be revisited and updated over time to adapt to changing circumstances.

Industries That Use SOPs

SOPs can be used in a wide range of contexts, including manufacturing, healthcare, aviation, and food service. They can be used to outline the steps for completing a specific task or for a more complex process. SOPs are useful in any industry where procedures need to be created and then completed in an efficient and consistent manner.

Standard Operating Procedure Templates

While every company will have its own unique procedural format for a particular SOP, here are a few SOP examples that you can start out with and customize to fit your particular needs.

  • General Standard Operating Procedure Template
  • Handling Customer Complaints SOP Example

How a Knowledge Base Can Help With Your SOPs

Knowledge base software can be a useful tool for managing and distributing standard operating procedures (SOPs) within an organization. A knowledge base is a collection of information, typically organized in a searchable database, that is designed to be easily accessible to users.

Here are some ways in which using a knowledge base can help with standard operating procedures:

  • Centralized storage
  • Searchability
  • Version control
  • Collaboration
  • Tracking

Overall, a knowledge base is a useful tool for managing and distributing SOPs within an organization, ensuring that employees have access to the information they need to complete tasks consistently and efficiently.

The Importance of Standard Operating Procedures for Business Success

Creating standard operating procedures is perhaps the best way to ensure your team puts their talents to maximum usage. With clear-cut, comprehensive SOPs on hand at all times, your team members will always know exactly what to do in any situation they face. In turn, your organization’s productivity will all but certainly skyrocket.

Sign up for a free 14-day trial and see first-hand how Helpjuice’s knowledge base software can help you with organizing all your SOP documentation as well as any other internal documents.