SOPs

SOP Format Guide: Build an Effective SOP to Strengthen Your Team

Where to start with process standardization? Here’s how an operations manager can build a clear SOP framework that’s easy to collaborate on.

Introduction

Locking the office doors, paying invoices, and handling product returns – do you know what these processes have in common? All of these can (and should) be standardized and documented. 

A successful business grounds on standard operating procedures. The less time your teams spend reinventing repetitive processes, the more time they can spend working

However, while SOPs are aimed at simplifying things for your business, there’s a huge risk of completely opposite outcomes. You need a proper SOP format to avoid confusion and build consistent documentation. What’s an SOP format, and how do you create one?

What is an SOP format

SOP stands for standard operating procedures – a set of instructions on routine operations aimed at eliminating friction and improving team efficiency. But what is an SOP format?

An SOP format is a template defining the structure stakeholders should follow when creating SOPs. It allows organizations to create a predictable, standardized process for building new SOPs.

Since SOPs can come in different forms and shapes – checklists, flowcharts, step-by-step instructions, etc. – having a template is critical for maintaining a consistent style of all your SOPs. 

SOP formats always include:

  • SOP layout
  • Style guidelines
  • Stakeholders
  • References (e.g. links to the company knowledge base or internal wiki)

The difference between SOPs and work instructions

Aren’t SOPs basically work instructions? Not exactly.

Work instructions are step-by-step guides on performing specific activities. They’re very granular and detailed, with a deep focus on how a process is carried out.

SOPs are top-level documents focusing on who does what and when they do it. 

For instance, an SOP for the last person to leave the office will cover the entire process on the top level:

  • Turn the lights off;
  • Close the windows;
  • Make sure all the devices are plugged out;
  • Enable security;
  • Close the door, etc.

On the other hand, an instruction will split each process into steps:

  • To enable security, make sure the door is tightly closed;
  • Activate the control panel by pressing any button;
  • Dial the ‘1245’ code;
  • Press the green button;
  • Open the door and leave the space within 30 seconds;
  • Lock the door.

Usually, work instructions are a part of standard operating procedures.

SOP use cases

Who needs SOPs? Literally everyone at your organization will benefit from written standard operating procedures. Let’s back it with some evidence:

  • HR representatives may use SOPs to standardize screening, interviewing, onboarding, training, promotion, and other procedures in human resource management.
  • Sales teams may use SOPs to streamline pipeline management, pitching, contact management, deal closing, and customer interactions.
  • Marketers may use SOPs for introducing new projects, running marketing tests, evaluating test results, qualifying leads, etc.
  • Customer service may use SOPs to handle customer complaints, collect feedback, and analyze customer data. 
  • IT teams may use SOPs for troubleshooting, project management, code reviews, and other repetitive processes.
  • Finance departments may use SOPs to run bank operations, handle taxes, track money flows, etc.
  • Call centers may use SOPs for call load forecasting, call handling, feedback processing, and more.
  • Office managers may use SOPs for event planning, managing supplies, establishing workplace rules, and regulating offboarding employees. 

How to create an SOP framework that works with all teams

Paradoxically, you need to develop a dedicated SOP for creating effective SOPs. In other words, you need an SOP framework. 

You can’t expect one person to document all the procedures. Great SOPs are a result of cross-departmental collaboration – and if you fail to regulate it, you’ll end up with hundreds of documents that have nothing in common. 

An SOP framework introduces rules for writing SOPs that can be easily interlinked and adopted. Here’s how you build one and streamline SOP creation.

Step 1: Build a centralized system

To make your future SOPs easily accessible, you need to store them all in one place. 

There are a ton of options available allowing you to maintain accessible, organized procedural documentation. But before you pick one, make sure it includes some critical features:

  • It’s centralized. Everyone involved should be able to access the necessary documents whenever they need them.
  • It’s cloud-based (right, no Microsoft Word files). The only way to make your documentation accessible at any time is by storing it inside a cloud-based system. 
  • It’s easy to update. SOPs are never finalized. Procedures will change and improve often, and you’ll need to be able to document the changes quickly and without friction.
  • It’s easy to collaborate on. There will be a lot of stakeholders working on SOPs together. Your system should enable seamless collaboration and offer features, like permission management and a real-time editor.

Based on these criteria, there are quite a few options you can choose from:

SOP software

This is the most sophisticated solution for SOP creation. SOP software provides you with SOP templates, enables social collaboration, and ensures easy adoption of new procedures. Sometimes, SOP software offers automation features for documenting repetitive processes on the fly. On the downside, it’s usually expensive and aims at serving the needs of enterprise-level companies.

Internal wiki

If you already have an internal wiki, you can store your SOPs there.

Collaboration platform

An online collaboration platform is also a good place for storing SOPs. Your teams use it every day, and it’s likely they’ll want to access SOPs to get guidance on some tasks – why not let them do it without leaving the platform?

Google Drive

You may also choose to create SOPs in Google Docs and organize them with Google Drive. It’s free and collaborative, and the editing process is simple. 

Step 2: Categorize SOPs

Next, create categories. Which areas should your SOPs cover? 

Most often, companies split SOPs by department. Marketing SOPs, sales SOPs, HR SOPs, etc. – these are department-specific and aren’t useful for anyone outside of the team.

For small businesses without large departments and clear role division, it might be better to categorize SOPs by a product or task.  

Step 3: Assign stakeholders

An SOP is a collaborative document. To make it actionable, you need to bring in expertise from all the subject matter experts. People working on SOPs should have hands-on experience with particular tasks, processes, or workflows that will be described in the documents. 

Before you build an SOP format, gather all the stakeholders and communicate your vision to them. It’s important that they understand the benefits of implementing SOPs and feel motivated to spend their time on the process.

Step 4: Identify existing procedures

You’ve been getting things done somehow up until this moment, right? It means you already have quite a few standard procedures you and your team have been following. Now you need to document them.

After you identified and assigned stakeholders, ask them to specify procedures their teams have been performing successfully. Documenting them will allow you to preserve the knowledge and transmit it to new people joining the organization.

Step 5: Identify current procedure gaps 

You can’t expect all of your internal processes to be seamless. Many of them need improvement, and it’s the right time to work on it.

Where are your existing procedures letting you down? Look into the company’s performance metrics as well as employee and customer feedback – most of the problems you’re struggling with can be solved by creating better, standardized processes.

Include these procedures in your outline to dwell on them once you document existing SOPs.

Step 6: Decide on the format

SOPs come in a wide range of formats. Using all of them will create inconsistency and make it difficult to follow the processes. 

Your choice of the format is determined by the size of your organization in the first place. Large companies and enterprises often need complex, detailed SOPs, following strict internal policies and standards. 

Small businesses can present information in a simpler format allowing for greater flexibility and scalability.

You may choose from the following formats or develop a custom one:

Checklists

SOPs are organized in a form of to-do lists. If you don’t have multiple levels of management and complex procedures, this is the fastest way to build your SOPs.

Complex linear checklists

SOPs are to-do lists with sub-checklists improving clarity and expanding on the process. These checklists typically are used to document procedures multiple people work on simultaneously.

Flow diagrams

SOPs are transmitted with complex graphical representations. These diagrams help to contextualize information and give a better idea of a process hierarchy.

Step 7: Create a naming convention

A naming convention is a framework for naming documents in a way that makes it clear how they relate and what kind of unique information they transmit.

People contributing to the SOP documentation shouldn’t name files randomly. They need standards, like these:

  • Include a date. Specifying when a file was created and/or updated right in the title allows employees to distinguish it from earlier or later versions.
  • Adhere to a naming convention case. How do authors split or combine words in titles? A consistent naming convention case improves the readability of titles.
  • Avoid vague words. Common words such as ‘draft’ or ‘current’ won’t mean anything to readers in a few months. 
  • Follow a hierarchical name scheme. You might want to use a tree structure for titles to reflect SOPs’ relation to top-level categories.

Following this logic, your SOP names will consist of at least three components: (1) Category - (2) Subject - (3) Date.

Mind that specifying the names of departments and teams that SOPs are intended for is impractical. As time passes, departments split apart, units merge, and teams disappear. Keep your SOP titles specific to business functions instead.

By introducing a naming convention for your SOPs, you’ll improve their findability significantly.

Step 8: Develop style guidelines

To keep a strong company culture, you need to maintain a consistent brand voice. Establish SOP style guidelines that will introduce contributors to your tone of voice, give them all the necessary branded assets, feature communication policies, and provide other critical information on the company standards.

Most of the subject matter experts don’t do much writing on a regular basis – they need your guidance on how to draft and structure content. That’s why your style manual should guide them through bullet point styles, capitalization rules, punctuation techniques, etc.

It’s also good to include guidelines for SOPs targeting different objectives. For instance, the language and style of SOPs written for new junior-level employees will inevitably differ from the ones of SOPs that guide the decision-making process for the management team.

Step 9: Introduce the SOP format

When you are done with the SOP format, you should inform everyone concerned about where they can access it and how they can use it. The template should be included in your internal wiki and other company-wide channels. To make it easy for employees to build their SOPs upon the template, enable sharing, copying, and editing of the document. 

Just like SOPs, the SOP template isn’t set in stone. As your organization grows and develops, the current SOP format might no more be effective. Let employees share their feedback and suggest ways to improve the template by implementing comments or notes.

SOP format checklist for an operations manager

As stakeholders define the procedures that need to be documented and get familiar with your style guidelines, they need a template to build SOPs upon. Start with a simple SOP template structure and customize it if necessary: 

  • Title: An SOP should be named with a descriptive title summarizing the purpose of the document. Provide naming guidelines at the top of your SOP format to enable future collaborators to maintain logical information architecture.
  • Identification: This is a place where the date when an SOP has been created as well as the dates of all subsequent updates are specified. Stakeholders that created, revised, and updated an SOP should also be defined.
  • Scope: Here collaborators should describe where the procedure starts, when it’s considered finished, what is needed to perform it successfully, and what are the limitations to the expected workflow.
  • Purpose: An author should be able to specify the final objective of a given SOP in just one sentence.
  • Glossary: Including definitions of jargon and abbreviations helps to introduce readers to the subject before they begin.
  • Procedure: This is where the process walkthrough begins. As an operations manager, you need to guide future contributors through the format(s) they can use to guide readers through SOPs. Should they create a step-by-step guide? Should it be a flowchart? You need to give them a sense of an SOP structure and style with your template. 

That’s it. A standard operating procedure format is a way for you to communicate your expectations from the resulting SOPs. This is a manual allowing subject matter experts to focus on standardizing procedures instead of thinking about fonts and content formats.