Without a Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) manual, companies face major risks, like:
- Operational inconsistencies.
- Longer training and ramp-up times.
- Significant (and costly) errors.
... and even potential breaches of regulatory standards. All of these issues lead to losses — from time to retention to revenue.
We need SOPs to make sure our company and employees function competitively.
Without them, you're leaving much of the company's operations to interpretation, memory and chance, impacting the overall efficiency and quality of every output.
In this guide, we'll show you how to create an SOP operations manual for your business.
But first, let's clarify what we mean by an SOP manual.
TL;DR: SOP manual
- A standard operating procedure (SOP) manual is an operational handbook comprising a set of instructions for carrying out routine tasks or operations consistently.
- SOPs are essential for companies to ensure operational consistency and compliance.
- SOPs decrease errors, save money, ensure consistent results across the board, streamline employee training, and reduce decision fatigue.
- Best practices include setting writing standards, designating stakeholders, and using software like Scribe to streamline SOP creation.
What is an SOP manual?
A standard operating procedure (SOP) manual is an operational handbook made up of a set of instructions for carrying out routine tasks or operations consistently.
It's a company's way of saying, "this is how we do things here."
SOPs help companies standardize processes and reduce miscommunication, ensuring that every task, no matter how frequently it's done or by whom, is approached in the same way for the same results.
Most businesses have multiple SOPs in place. For example, a restaurant can have SOPs for everything from food preparation and storage to customer service and emergency protocols.
Companies will create SOPs for different functions and tasks to ensure consistent outcomes.
These SOPs will likely vary based on the industry you're in, and what regulations are in place.
Here's an example of an SOP for agencies or marketing departments that explains the process for handling and publishing content from freelance writers:
An SOP manual will combine and sort a company or department's SOPs like the one above, making them easy to find, use and update.
📌 Related resource: 5 Free Digital Marketing SOP Templates for Your Business
Free SOP manual template
While all SOPs and SOP manuals have different content, they'll mostly follow a standard SOP format.
This free SOP template is a great way to start building your own SOP manual. Plug in your own processes and generate step-by-step guides with Scribe.
But before we can build our SOP manual, let's understand why SOPs are important.
Why do you need an SOP manual?
Here are a few reasons why companies should have SOPs and an SOP manual in place:
- Decreases errors: Without SOPs, employees might approach tasks based on memory or their own interpretations, which can lead to errors. Such errors could also be heinous for your brand reputation. SOPs provide a clear and standardized method to ensure tasks are performed correctly the first time.
- Saves money: Having SOP manuals your employees can refer to promotes consistency in workplace and reduces the chances of errors, thereby also reducing the associated costs of rectifying mistakes.
- Ensures consistent results: The primary goal of having an SOP is to bring everyone on the same page. Without an SOP, employees try to approach a task or operation with new methods, which are both time-consuming and expensive. Having SOPs in place cuts these costs out and minimizes errors.
- Helps with consistency in employee training: In the absence of SOPs, training becomes a challenge. New employees or those shifting roles might receive different work instructions from different trainers, leading to confusion and inconsistency. An SOP provides a clear and unambiguous guide for training, ensuring every individual is equipped with the same knowledge and skills.
- Reduces decision fatigue: When there's a set way to accomplish a task, employees spend less time deciding on the best approach and more time effectively executing their duties. This not only boosts efficiency but also reduces the mental exhaustion that comes with constant decision-making.
📌 Related resource: How to Write Work Instructions: An Easy Step-by-Step Guide
3 important SOP types you must know about
SOPs serve different functions for different teams. You might need a different type of SOP based on your industry or job function.
Here are three types of procedures you'll see in an SOP manual, with SOP examples for each.
1. Step-by-step guide SOP manuals
A step-by-step SOP is a straightforward action plan that follows sequential order.
Here's an example of a step-by-step SOP:
This format breaks down a procedure into multiple parts in the form of bullet or numbered lists, with illustrations or annotated screenshots
When to use this SOP manual format
This format is useful for most SOPs, especially if the process involves:
- Tasks that follow a certain order.
- Software or other tools.
- Natural process flows.
We recommend creating and combining several guides if your process involves multiple complex steps.
2. Hierarchical SOP manuals
Many corporate offices opt for a hierarchical format for more complicated processes. This type of SOP includes substeps, so you can more easily breakdown individual steps in a longer task.
Here's an example of a Hierarchial SOP:
While a step-by-step guide template would list steps 1-5, a hierarchical SOP might list 1a, 1b, 1c and so on.
When to use this SOP manual format
This format is ideal for complicated processes that require sub-steps or additional details under each primary step. Hierarchical SOPs provide layers of depth to help the reader to understand the breakdown of each phase.
3. Flow chart SOP manuals
Flowchart SOPs are a diagram or a visual map of a process. They often use conditional logic, which defines different rules (or "conditions") for the workflow, using If/then statements.
Arrows and other visual cues indicate the path you might take, letting you outline more than one option and potential outcome.
Here's an example of a flow-chart SOP:
When to use this SOP manual format
Flowcharts are especially helpful when there are different paths to choose from. This might mean there are several ways to achieve the same outcome or different possible journeys based on the SOP criteria.
How to create an SOP manual in 6 easy steps
There are several ways to build an SOP manual that you can easily share, store and update for your team.
We recommend using an SOP documentation tool like Scribe, which combines your unique processes with AI to write visual SOPs for you. Just download the extension and start building your own manual — for free.
If you'd rather build your own SOP manual from scratch, here's how to get started.
1. Set your business goals.
SOPs are more than just a set of rules.
You need to come up with the 'why' and 'how' for each procedure. This means you need to have the end result in your mind.
Gather your team and brainstorm about the problems you need to solve.
Think about these questions:
- Why is this SOP manual necessary? What overarching goal or objective does it aim to achieve?
- Where and when will this procedure be applied? Are there specific departments, situations, or conditions where this SOP is pertinent?
- How will implementing this SOP benefit the organization, team, or process? Will it improve efficiency, quality, safety, or compliance?
- What are the risks or challenges of not having this procedure in place? Conversely, are there any risks associated with implementing the procedure?
- Where will this SOP live? Will you store your SOPs in an internal knowledge base or similar tool?
2. Choose a format and structure
The next thing you need to decide is — which format is the most useful for this SOP?
If the written instructions are straightforward, having a step-by-step guide is ideal. On the other hand, if they're complex and require sub-points for each step, you should consider a hierarchical or flow chart format.
And once you do that, the next step is to create a structure based on what works best for your company and the SOP.
Here are the common sections you should include in an SOP:
- Purpose: Identify the specific task associated with this SOP.
- Procedure: What are the methodologies for executing the said task?
- Scope: How much should your SOPs cover?
- Responsibilities: Who is designated to carry out the tasks detailed in the SOP?
- Accountability Measures: Who is responsible for ensuring the SOP is adhered to and updated as necessary?
3. Research and gather materials
Depending on the process, you will either need to conduct your own research or connect with a subject matter expert. We highly recommend having your go-to people build procedures, so that the process is comprehensively documented.
We know that this can take some time. Use a process documentation tool to help your go-to people quickly and easy build, edit and share these SOPs.
4. Create your first draft
The next thing that you need to do is to create a draft and write the SOP.
Make sure that you include everything in detail in this draft as much as possible. This means breaking down individual steps that might seem redundant or unnecessary. Remember: The people reading the SOP likely don't have the same context as your go-to people, and will benefit from the extra detail.
It's also a good practice to include visuals, such as pictures, screenshots or videos. Having the right set of reference materials will help your employees understand and implement the procedure(s) quickly.
5. Review and share with subject-matter experts (SMEs)
There might be some errors in the first draft — especially if you're writing several at once. Make sure that you submit every SOP for review and approval. Some tools, like Scribe and Google, offer comments and feedback features, so that teams can easy collaborate.
6. Edit and redraft your SOP manual
Once you've received the comments on your first draft, edit it as per the comments or suggestions. And remember, your SOP manual should constantly evolve according to changing regulations and processes.
Set a reminder and review it every week or month to ensure the SOP aligns with the requirements and updated regulations.
Ryan Booth mentions in one of his tweets how important it is to have a monthly SOP review process, "SOPs are easy to setup. But they usually fail. Why?
Because they lack feedback loops.
1. Define the purpose of your SOP
2. Define what metrics will determine its success.
3. Finally, create a monthly audit process
Feedback loops are how achieve real progress."
Now that we know how to create an effective SOP manual, let's look at a few best practices to make the most out of your efforts.
SOP manual best practices
Here are a few SOP best practices to keep in mind as you create your own SOP manual.
Create SOP quality control standards
If your SOPs are being created by SMEs rather than writers, then it's important to acknowledge that SMEs may not have a lot of writing experience.
You need to have quality control standards in place. You can tackle this challenge by having clear writing guidelines in place. Establish basic writing guidelines for stakeholders to adhere to when crafting SOPs. Provide direction on style, font choices, formatting, punctuation, and other related conventions.
Who is responsible for drafting and writing SOPs?
Usually it falls under SMEs or dedicated writers (who interview SMEs). It's a good idea to assign this to specialists as they bring invaluable insights from their direct interactions with everyday processes.
Use an SOP creation software
Writing SOPs can take time — and as processes and regulations change, you need to be able to audit and update your procedures easily.
To cut down the time and efforts required, it's a good idea to use an SOP software like Scribe.
Create an SOP manual in seconds
Use a tool like Scribe to cut your process documentation time by a whopping 70 percent.
The AI-powered process documentation software writes your SOPs for you. All you have to do it:
- Download the free extension.
- Capture your process at the click of a button.
- Generate step-by-step guides (complete with text, links and annotated screenshots).
- Combine your guides in a complete SOP manual, then let AI do the rest!
Scribe empowers your go-to people to create SOPs — without losing any time. All they need to do is perform their process as usual. Scribe will automatically capture it and turn it into a step-by-step guide.
So, if you're struggling to document your workflows, procedures, and best practices, its time to create an SOP manual without the hassle.