How to write an SOP
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are becoming increasingly important to all operational teams, regardless of industry or size. The benefits are endless. Whether you are trying to increase quality, reduce safety incidents, or simply want to make your organization more efficient, SOPs are your answer.
Here is a helpful workflow to create your best SOP’s.
Begin with the End.
This first step requires more thinking than creating. What is the job or procedure you want your reader to be able to do (or to avoid doing)? Start here. If they do the procedure exactly the way you hope they would, what does that look like? Be as specific as possible.
Writing the problem down, while it may seem simple, will help you define the scope of the SOP. Here are five questions to ask:
- What problem are you trying to solve? Problems tend to be oriented towards quality, safety, consistency and efficiency.
- Who will use the SOP? An SOP may be for everyone in the company, a department, a small team or even an individual.
- Where will the SOP be used? It’s important to understand if the SOP will be read on a computer or tablet or smartphone, and whether in an office, factory floor, or in a transitional place like an airport, car or lobby. This will determine what supporting materials are viable (see below).
- What is the ideal outcome? This will help you determine who gets the specific benefits and how you expect them to feel once the task is completed.
- What are the limitations? If there are times when the SOP doesn’t apply or shouldn’t be used, then those should be clearly documented.
Here’s an example for onboarding new employees. We’ll keep it very simple as we ask our five questions:
- What problem are you trying to solve? Our fictitious company has no formal process to onboard new employees. We are missing required forms for some employees, putting our company at risk. We also don’t have good records for employee demographics that we need for government and contract reporting.
- Who will use the SOP? The SOP will be used by the recruiters on our HR team.
- Where will the SOP be used? This SOP will be used in an office on a computer, so we can use videos, flowcharts and screen captures.
- What is the ideal outcome? We want every employee file organized in the exact same way, with all forms and documents complete. We want the HR recruiting team to feel confident that they aren’t forgetting anything while being super effective and efficient.
- What are the limitations? The SOP should not be used for hiring VP-level staff and above. They require additional processes and a more tailored approach. The SOP should also not be used for any foreign hires, as they have special processes.
Lay the Foundation
It’s time to build your team and setup your SOP environment. Start by deciding the composition of your team.
Generally, you should have three types of people on your SOP team. First, selecting the right leader is critical for all teams. Your leader does more than just guide the process and make final decisions. Leadership consultant Tanya Prive recently noted that the best leaders create psychological safety, leverage personalities, and align the project with individual goals. This causes team members to take risks, voice concerns and contribute in meaningful ways.
Next, you will need to select Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) for your SOP team. It’s tempting to pick the most experienced person, let them write the SOP, and be done. But, that rarely works because it doesn’t address the breadth of what you need. When assembling your team, consider the following:
- Experience – Consider SMEs that run the spectrum of experience. Highly experienced SMEs often overlook activities that are seemingly obvious to them, but are necessary for those with less experience. Consider a variety of tenure at your company, too. New people often bring new ideas, while tenured people often have important cultural perspective.
- Skills – This parallels experience, but is an area where new and younger people can bring new ideas, regardless of experience.
- Demographics – Use diversity to drive improvements to your process. Everyone has unique perspective and its to your advantage to leverage them.
Make sure your SMEs have the time to contribute. This can be challenging, of course, so you may need to lighten their duties or have their boss carve out time for them to help.
Finally, having a good writer, provides consistency in grammar, style and voice. Writing is a skill. Don’t overlook this important function.
This is where the fun begins. Brainstorming sounds chaotic, and it can be with a team. That’s OK. Don’t worry too much about organization yet, that comes next. If you are using Plexie (and you should be), go ahead and setup your Workspace and invite your team.
In Art Markman’s HBR article, “Your Team is Brainstorming All Wrong”, it’s important to have the team work alone first. This gets team members personally vested in the process, and encourages independent ideas. Tell the team to be creative! Writing page after page of text is boring. More importantly, text can only go so far. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a video or infographic worth? Encourage your SMEs to include documents, videos, images, slides, flowcharts and live links to outside content.
Next, have collaboration sessions where you start to consolidate everyone’s materials. Pay particular attention to using the appropriate type of content for your audience. Users on noisy worksites would not do well with video, while office workers in front of large monitors might prefer it. The table below shows the considerations and applicability of various types of content to various audiences.
Refine and Test. Repeat.
Your brainstorming sessions will naturally gravitate towards organizing sessions. That’s a good sign! It means you are getting close to capturing everything you need for your SOP.
Test out your procedures as you go. You’ll want to start with the team to catch the big gaps, but eventually, you will want people outside the team test. Have them perform the task while you unobtrusively watch and take notes. You will be surprised how well you have done, and also discover your blind spots; parts of the process you overlooked or made assumptions about. While testing, be attentive to reevaluating the types of content you have chosen. Sometimes describing a location on a screen or a piece of equipment using text is just too challenging and a picture with a big red arrow pointing to the location gets it done. Other times a video might take too long to describe something simple.
SOPs are step-by-step fundamentally. However, you may consider adding a couple more elements:
- Easy-to-Hard. This is common in healthcare, where a worker may do initial diagnostics with pictorial guidelines, then working down specific paths as complexity of a diagnosis increases.
- Chronological. This is helpful when a procedure extends over time and is gated by various events. An obvious example is a marketing campaign, where the process is gated by certain events.
Make it Engaging
Here’s a fact. Your users aren’t going to read your SOP. They’re going to scan it. There have been countless studies on how we read digital materials, but the fact is that we simply don’t. Yes, SOPs are different than websites and marketing. But the fact is, our brains are now wired to treat digital content differently. We seek. We scan. We do not read.
That’s ok, though. It doesn’t mean all SOP’s are destined to collect digital dust on a virtual shelf. The best SOPs leverage scanning by engaging the user at key points. Entire books (and industries) focus on this, but here are several proven design ideas specifically for SOPs:
- Start with a hard-hitting image that speaks to the user doing the task. This speaks to the visual cortex, the voracious beast in your brain that gravitates to images. Once triggered, the entire brain is ready for more content. Want to let everyone know when the SOP gets updated? Change the image.
- Use color to trigger emotions. Are you doing a safety-oriented SOP? Yellow is proven to invoke emotions of caution. Gray speaks to balance and calm, but women generally don’t respond well to gray. Men don’t like orange, even though its confidence boosting. You need to learn about colors to take advantage of your readers emotions, as leading web influencer, Neil Patel says in this outstanding article.
- Fonts aren’t just for fun. It bears noting that fonts need to be easily readable in an SOP. Use two fonts that are professional but significantly different, as suggested by Curtis Newbold. Use the fonts consistently to make scanning easy.
- Separate sections with contrast. SOPs should be logically broken up into sections, and those sections need to stand out. Simply changing background colors will snap a users attention back to where you want them.
- Despite their importance, make sure images load quickly on all devices. This is relatively simple by using appropriate dpi counts and compression, but definitely don’t ignore this.
- Check out your SOP on mobile no matter what. Over half the internet traffic is now mobile, so you can’t make the assumption that your SOP will never be used on a smartphone.
Creating engaging content is a skill. If your SOPs are important….and we know they are…you need to learn how to make them engaging.
Keep it Relevant
All content is on a path towards obsolescence. This is especially true with SOPs as they are on a constant path of becoming irrelevant. Slight changes to tools, videos depicting former employees, even new paint or labels on an item says to your user, “this SOP is old”.
Maintaining your SOPs and keeping them current is just as important as writing them in the first place. Best practices say you should have both formal and informal processes.
Formal Maintenance Process
Building a formal review and maintenance process is the best way to keep SOPs current. Usually, the team that wrote the SOPs are best for this, but you may want to insert new people for a fresh perspective. Having a team maintain your SOPs divides up the workload, making this easier for everyone.
Then prioritize your SOPs. Safety SOPs usually go to the top of the priority list and often justify very frequent review. SOPs related to regulations are also towards the top of the list, along with SOPs that have wide or frequent use. Next, set a schedule and stick to it. Many businesses tie performance bonuses to such activities, which is fine. Buying lunch for the team works in many circumstances.
Informal Maintenance Process
You should encourage all users of your SOP to provide feedback. Put a prominent message in your SOP along with an email link that goes to all the team members. Those inbound changes should go through a triage process with the team. Decide if they are urgent enough to fix outside your formal schedule, or if they can be queued for the formal maintenance process.
Regardless, you’ll want to take user feedback very seriously. Be sure to acknowledge the feedback and clearly communicate how you intend to resolve the suggestion. A reward system might also be a good idea.
Don’t ignore the small things. Perception really matters and even slightly out of date SOPs will have a marked drop in usage.
It’s a lot to do! Perhaps you should create an SOP for updating your SOPs!
Standard Operating Procedures are the lifeblood of organizations of all types. They are what gets you that delicious, hot cup of Starbucks coffee every time, at every location, every day. It is what allows 200,000-pound aircraft to take off and safely land thousands of times a day, and to allow that tube of toothpaste your ordered on Amazon this morning to show up at your doorstep this afternoon.