SOPs

How to Implement Standard Operating Procedures: 5 Tips for Making Them Stick

SOPs improve the speed, quality and compliance of work. How can you actually get your team or company to use them successfully?

Introduction

In 2001, Johns Hopkins Critical Care Specialist Peter Pronovost created a checklist to prevent ICU catheter line infections — which kill tens of thousands of patients per year — due to human error.

After implementing the simple, five-step checklist, Pronovost and his colleagues brought the 10-day line infection rate from 11% to effectively zero. Over the course of the next year, the doctors calculated that in their hospital alone, the checklist prevented 43 infections and eight deaths and saved $2 million.

Your team’s operations may not be a matter of life or death, but checklists (or other types of standard operating procedures) reduce the human errors that can cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars — but only if they’re followed. Here’s how to implement standard operating procedures your teams will actually use.

1. Include context in the SOP to add clarity

The first step to creating and implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) effectively is to make sure the end-user understands why they’re following it. Put the objective at the top of your SOP to make clear to your teams where their workflows fall in the organization’s value chain and why getting it right matters.

What will your employees achieve by following your SOP? Will they reduce costs? Increase quality? Save lives, like Dr. Pronovost’s checklist? Whatever it is, start with why, as Simon Sinek said in his popular TEDTalk. The great leaders of the world, Sinek said, understand people won’t buy into an idea if they don’t understand the reasoning behind it.

Including the objective in your SOP document also gives new employees in onboarding valuable context as to how the work they're doing fits in to the company's broader goals. It's also good practice to include a glossary explaining acronyms used in your SOP for new hires who may not be familiar with them.

2. Use the optimal format for readability

The easier your SOP is to read and follow, the more likely people are to use it. Nobody wants to read War and Peace before they get to work. (Okay, some Russian Lit scholars might, but not most people.)

Keep your audience in mind as you create your SOP. What should they already know? Don’t waste their time with unnecessary descriptions or instructions for routine tasks.

The type of process your team is completing should dictate the style of your SOP. A checklist is an effective SOP format for processes that require the completion of several tasks but no decision-making. Take Dr. Pronovost's five-step process for inserting lines into a patient:

  • Wash hands with soap
  • Clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic
  • Put sterile drapes over the entire patient
  • Wear a sterile mask, hat, gown, and gloves
  • Put a sterile dressing over the catheter site once the line is in

Other SOP formats include step-by-step guides, which are useful for processes with hierarchical steps, and flowcharts, which are helpful when different actions are required based on circumstances or decisions the employee is making.

Whichever format you choose, use simple, straightforward language, keep it concise, and  include graphics or images where appropriate for visual learners.  

3. Confirm employees receive and read SOPs

No matter how well-executed, your standard operating procedures won't do much good if people don't know how to find them. As a manager, it’s your job to make sure new and updated SOPs are properly distributed to your staff members. And in some industries, it’s often mandatory to verify an SOP has been read and understood for an organization to stay compliant with federal, state, or local regulations.

Store your SOPs in your company wiki or knowledge management system, where it’s accessible to anyone on the team, and share a link to the document with the relevant employees. If you create your docs with collaborative software like Scribe, stakeholders receive positive confirmation of who has viewed your SOP (and then you can nudge any team members who haven’t).

Document collaboration software also makes it easy to ensure everyone is accessing the latest version of your SOP. Rather than sending out new documents and creating confusion over which one to use, a tool like Scribe enables you to make updates to your existing document and have the changes reflected everywhere that document is referenced.

4. Test employees on SOPs to verify comprehension

One way to be sure your teams understand a process is to test them on it. Testing may not be anyone’s idea of fun, but it adds another layer of assurance the SOP document is understood — which is crucial for teams working with sensitive information or in highly regulated industries. This can be as simple as sending out a quiz with a tool like SurveyMonkey after distributing the SOP.

For more complex processes, you could test each team member individually by having them execute the process according to the SOP while explaining what they’re doing, step by step. This takes more time, of course, but in addition to confirming your teams are comfortable with the process and able to follow it, it can also help you identify any steps or relevant context that might improve it.

5. Regularly ask employees if they’re using the SOP

Once implemented, make a regular practice of checking in with your team to ensure they’re following it. In the Johns Hopkins ICU, Dr. Pronovost asked nurses to  observe doctors to ensure they were using his checklist (and stop them if they weren’t).

Aside from designating one team member to enforce your SOPs, you can simply ask employees if they’re using them in regular conversations — and if they’re not, follow up by asking why. Ask them what problems they’re having with the SOP or what suggestions they’d make for improving it. You may discover a problem you didn’t know existed, that it’s outdated, or that a team member has found a better way to execute the process their colleagues should put into practice.

Use that feedback to reassess and refine your SOP — don’t wait for the annual review process to make adjustments. The sooner you implement improvements across the team, the sooner you can make an impact on your team’s efficiency.

Employees are empowered when they know how to implement standard operating procedures effectively

Even if your teams aren’t delivering life-saving medical care, effective SOP implementation is critical for preventing mistakes that cost your organization time and money. And with these SOPs in place, you’ll create a workforce of empowered staff who can get things done and troubleshoot problems without disrupting your team’s workflow with questions.