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Writing Great SOPs

| James Riley |

Standard Operating Procedures

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege to speak at one of the premier IT industry events in Orlando, FL. One of the sessions was titled SOPs for your SOPs and really covered two topics. The first was how to write great SOPs and the second focused on building a solid culture around continual process improvement. While I tend to focus heavily on finding our flaws and continuously seeking to improve, I can tend to forget to see what we do well. It was rewarding and an honor to share with the attendees what we have learned, often, from our own mistakes. In this blog, I’m going to focus on things that we have found are critical to writing great SOPs.

First, a little clarity. It seems that terms such as process, procedure and SOP are often confused. I’ll start by clarifying what I mean by each. When I talk about a process, I’m talking about the high-level concept and flow of something. The procedure is the step-by-step sequence taken to execute on a process. An SOP is a Standard Operating Procedure so it defines the normal way you perform the step-by-step procedure. Often, I use the term process to encompass the entire group from conception to step-by-step execution.

We have found that there are 6 main things necessary to write great SOPs:

#1 – Standardize the Norm, Humanize the Exception

The clue to this is in what SOP stands for…STANDARD Operating Procedure. Great SOPs are able to solve for roughly 85% – 95% of situations. They should be written with this in mind. This understanding helps you avoid becoming too bogged down in minutia that doesn’t matter but in 1% – 2% of cases while also creating what we call pressure relief valves. Pressure relief valves are escape paths for people to exit the SOP if something is wrong. This allows the SOP to bend without breaking. Additionally, it acknowledges that the author is not omnipotent and encourages the perspective that the SOP can be continuously improved.

#2 – Start with Why

In running your business, it is critical to have a clear Mission, Vision and Values (or some variant) that tells people what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you see yourself doing it. A SOP is similar in that you need to give people a context for the application of the process. This will help them understand the intent and focus of the process while also helping them understand and frame when the process may not make sense due to some unique reason.

#3 – Expect to Make Multiple Passes

One of the most common places I see people at a standstill on writing SOPs is on step 1. It is very easy to get so focused on the granular elements of a procedure that you can’t even make it out of the gate. Or, if you do get out of the gate, you end up spinning yourself in circles. When we write SOPs, we pass over it at progressively lower levels. Think of this as if you were flying in an airplane. The first pass, at 35,000′, is where you can give the high level steps of the process. The next pass might be at 25,000′ where you start to add sub-steps under the high level steps. At 20,000′, you might rearrange some of those sub-steps, add a few more, etc. As you get down to the 1″ level, you could be defining the specific shade of color you are applying to the header of a report.

#4 – Define your Audience

One trap we fell into was writing SOPs that were insanely detailed. The problem was that, when we were telling people to left-click on the “OK” button at the bottom-right of the screen, the SOP became so verbose that people started to skip steps or ignore it altogether. For us, it became critical to define the audience or minimum skill level required to execute the SOP. When we did that, we found that we did not have to inject as much minute detail into each step. This made the SOP much more readable and increased our team’s use of and attitude towards it.

#5 – Engage Team Members

There is a great saying in battle planning that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Please do not read this as me saying that your team members are the enemy but the principle is true. I have written a number of SOPs that, in my mind, were amazing. However, when my team started to look at or work with it, they discovered gaping holes that I just couldn’t see from my perspective. With this in mind, we find that it is critical to engage other team members throughout the writing of the SOP, with more complex processes requiring even more and earlier involvement. Drawing in this input both matures the process and creates team buy-in.

#6 – Develop a Solid Organizational Strategy

When we first started writing SOPs, we did not have a solid way to disseminate those processes and make them accessible to our team. We’d see someone floundering on an issue and ask them where they were in the SOP only to find out that they didn’t even know there was an SOP for what they were doing. While there is the occasional lazy person that just doesn’t look, we found that this was, more often than not, our failure to properly organize and make the SOPs accessible. We had some great SOPs but they were very well kept secrets even within our organization. This is where technology can play a pivotal role. We setup a system that allowed us to put all of our SOPs into one, central, repository. In there, we name the SOPs (using verb/noun sequencing and capitalization to make the subjects easy to read), categorize them, optimize them for searching and have a built-in approval and review process. This made them far easier to find both because of the organization and the ability to search across our SOPs.

If you would like help with building SOPs, engaging your team in SOP building and/or evaluating technology solutions to help you, we would be happy to help. Please click HERE to contact us.