What is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP): How to Write SOPs Effectively

Lauren Funaro
October 19, 2022
min read
October 20, 2023
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What is an SOP? Standard operating procedures are documented processes that direct employees through specific activities and tasks. Here's how to get them right.
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We've put together a comprehensive guide with everything you need to know about SOPs.

What are standard operating procedures?

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are step-by-step instructions that direct employees through a specific task, process or activity. Procedures are basically the rules that put our policies into action

The instructions are sequential (one at a time) and outcome-oriented. Typically, if you follow standard operating procedures to the letter, you can pretty much predict the results.

An SOP can cover anything from using equipment to filing grievances. Most businesses have multiple SOPs — for example, a hotel chain might have separate SOPs for:

  • Emergency evacuation procedures.
  • Laundry operations.
  • Food and beverage operations.

What is the difference between SOPs and guidelines?

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and guidelines are both used to help companies efficiently execute processes, but there are key differences between the two.

  • SOPs are detailed step-by-step instructions used in industries where precision and accuracy are crucial, like finance, healthcare or manufacturing.
  • Guidelines are more general and flexible, providing recommendations or suggestions on how to approach a task or process.

In short, SOPs leave little room for interpretation, while guidelines allow for some flexibility. Both are useful depending on the industry, department and context.

Learn more in our article that breaks down the differences between instructions, guidelines and rules.

SOP format

Standard operating procedures typically follow a similar structure. The SOP format will likely include:

  • Purpose: Define the task that’s related to your specific SOP.
  • Procedures: A step-by-step guide outlining every phase of the process.
  • Scope: How much should your SOPs cover?
  • Responsibilities: Who should perform the tasks the SOPs outline?
  • Accountability Measures: Who takes ownership of the SOP? 

When to use standard operating procedures

Our goals drive SOPs. And though there are different types of SOPs, they share the same purpose. 

Overall, an SOP aims to improve operational quality, consistency and speed. 

It gives staff a framework for how to do their jobs properly (the first time). If everyone follows the same procedure, there’s less room for error.

You can customize these SOP guidelines to fit the needs of any company or industry. In that sense, following the SOP strategy of another company doesn’t always make things easier for you. You need to create your own SOPs to align with your unique processes.

Here are examples of a few industries that use standard operating procedures across different use cases: 

SOPs in software development

Engineering managers can use SOPs to define coding standards and outline procedures for incident management, quality assurance, and bug tracking. These SOPs keep software development and issue resolution consistent so engineers can work more efficiently.

SOPs in project management

All business functions within a company use SOPs to codify standards and processes for initiating, executing, documenting, and reporting on projects. With SOPs, team members can quickly use a proven playbook to plan, launch, and measure projects with minimal confusion, miscommunication, and errors.

SOPs in onboarding and training

HR and IT departments are two examples of key business functions that benefit from using SOPs to scale processes for new employee onboarding and training.

Defining SOPs from the get-go saves you much more time than building onboarding and training programs from scratch whenever there’s a new hire or office system.

SOPs in regulated industries

SOPs simplify documenting and distributing best practices in detail-oriented and heavily regulated environments.

For example, Healthcare organizations can use SOPs across all areas of healthcare operations — from patient care to billing, software usage, data privacy and medical administration.

SOPs in manufacturing

In manufacturing facilities, an SOP is an essential part of ensuring the safety of all personnel, equipment, and products.

You can use manufacturing SOPs to define standards for operating and servicing machinery, conducting quality control checks, managing inventory, and more.

SOPs in laboratories

Laboratory personnel use SOPs to define protocols for conducting experiments, managing substances, and minimizing risk every step of the way.

Without SOPs, it becomes difficult to keep track of emergency procedures and best practices for managing different scenarios — which is crucial in a laboratory environment where hazardous materials and chemicals are present. 

💡 Related Resource: Laboratory Procedure Examples

SOPs in legal compliance

Whether it’s healthcare, manufacturing, software, or human resources, there are many industry standards and legal regulations for companies to consider.

An SOP in compliance helps business leaders implement company-wide procedures that adhere to all regulatory bodies and policies.

SOPs in procurement

Procurement teams often deal with many moving parts and very strict deadlines.

The processes of selecting vendors, approving purchases, and keeping track of inventory are very specific.

One small error can throw entire production timelines off.

A procurement SOP helps every team member adhere to the right protocol to minimize hidden delays and surprises. 

Why standard operating procedures are important

The average American worker spends 2.9 hours a week on unnecessary meetings and duplicate work. It’s a major cause of lost productivity and miscommunication. 

How often do you hop on a “quick call” to answer a question on an undefined process? How often have you had to do the work again because you didn’t do it right the first time?

And that’s no one’s fault. We have to prepare our teams (and, frankly, ourselves) to do their jobs well. 

You'll see benefits in these core areas if you correctly shape your SOPs (and SOP program). 

Here are the biggest benefits of SOPs.

1. SOPs make best practices the norm

According to McKinsey, employees waste nearly 100 minutes (or 20 percent) of each workday looking for basic data to do their job. On the other end of the spectrum: email and other internal collaboration take up 42 percent of the average knowledge worker’s time. 

Without standard operating procedures, there’s no easy solution for someone who just wants to get things done — outside of interrupting busy teammates.  

SOPs are an important way to give employees a framework to do their jobs properly. 

Ronald Miller, Business Owner and Recruiter at MyCoffeeCity, says that SOPS can be essential for streamlining processes and ensuring quality control — when done correctly.

“Every business is different and will have unique needs when it comes to SOPs. However, in my company, we use them for everything from sales to customer service to onboarding… I’ve discovered that if you create the right SOPs with the right mindset and the right tools, they can be extremely valuable.” — Ronald Miller | Owner & Recruiter, MyCoffeeCity

2. SOPs enable thorough onboarding & training

SOPs are onboarding assets — both for HR and the new hire. 

You can combine SOPs to build an employee handbook or guide recruits through their first 30, 60 and 90 days. Give them SOPs that familiarize them with the company and their specific job duties.

standard operating procedure
New Hire SOP made with Scribe

‎SOPs can also guide internal teams through onboarding.

Here’s a quick use case for SOPs in HR. When hiring new staff, an overall SOP might be:

  1. Determine a new hire’s legal eligibility for employment.
  2. Interview potential hire.
  3. If proceeding with their candidacy, set up interviews with other relevant departments.
  4. Call references. 
  5. Collect identification documents.
  6. Reach out to the candidate with an offer, including salary and start dates.

Note that these steps should come with their own smaller step-by-step guides. Keep this in mind when organizing your content.

3. SOPs support risk management

SOPs are often used in highly regulated industries.

If you create SOPs for compliance, or even just with compliance in mind, you can save your organization from infractions, penalties or even lawsuits. Use SOPs to:

  • Identify and mitigate risk.
  • Minimize potential liabilities.
  • Follow regulations and ensure safety.

The U.S. government’s CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) even calls out SOPs as standardized documents that it requires for many areas.

One for drug trials, for instance, states that:

“There shall be written procedures for production and process control designed to assure that the drug products have the identity, strength, quality, and purity they purport or are represented to possess.”

You need an SOP immediately to help prevent violation damages that could result in lost productivity, hefty fines or legal action. 

There’s a high cost to non-compliance. In 2022, JP Morgan Chase paid a $200 million fine for letting employees use company email addresses to conduct personal business. This violated both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission compliance rules.

In addition to that fine, JP Morgan Chase agreed to hire a compliance consultant, pay a $125 million penalty, and an additional $75 million fine for its brokers and bankers.

And that’s the largest record-keeping fine in SEC history. 

4. SOPs maintain organizational knowledge

If all your processes live in one person’s head, they’ll go out the door with them. 

Offboarding SOPs let you smoothly transition from one colleague or administration to another. 

According to the business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, Inc., 219 CEOs left their posts in January 2020, the highest total on record in a single month. And these losses can happen at every end of a company. 

5. SOPs enable continuous improvement

Use SOPs as a starting point for process improvement initiatives.

Encourage an employee feedback loop for identifying process inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

Continuous improvement is an iterative process, and SOPs can be updated and revised as you evolve.

Types of standard operating procedures (SOPs)

Some complex procedures are lengthy and hard to explain, while others are easy to condense into brief instructions.

Thankfully, there’s no one-size-fits-all format for an SOP.

Here are a few examples of SOP types that you'll likely run into.

Step-by-step guide SOPs

This is probably the most common SOP format. It outlines each process in sequential steps, adding illustrations or screenshots to walk you through a procedure.

What are standard operating procedures?
A step-by-step guide SOP made with Scribe

A step-by-step guide SOP will outline each phase in clear, concise detail. It's best to use this type of SOP

Hierarchical step SOPs

Hierarchical SOPs collate several smaller processes in one large procedure.

These phases are broken down into steps and substeps with a parent-child relationship using numbers, bullet points or letters.

what is an sop?
Example of a hierarchical list sop

Typically, hierarchical procedures will also include a table of contents so that the user can quickly find the process they need.

Flowchart SOPs

Flowcharts help teams use visuals to understand processes, especially if they have multiple outcomes or involve decision-making with multiple people or departments.

The example below shows how companies can use flowcharts to simplify explanations for complex processes like conducting employee background checks.

(Source: Lucidchart)


Checklists are a quick and easy way to share information on processes that require precise actions executed to completion.

Teams can work their way down a list to check off completed tasks — which is a pretty satisfying motivator to get things done. Here’s what that looks like for employee onboarding.

(Source: Asana)

‎How to create effective SOPs

An effective SOP is about more than one solid set of instructions. It’s about having a process in place for developing, sharing and standardizing SOPs. 

Yasar Dilbaz, Founder and Head SEO at GrowthMar SEO Services, says companies “need an SOP for SOPs.” That’s to say, you need a framework before jumping into documentation.  

You need to clearly understand the following elements of your business before you decide what to include in your SOP document and how you should create them. 

  • Purpose: Define the task that’s related to your specific SOP.
  • Procedures: How do you perform the task in question?
  • Scope: How much should your SOPs cover?
  • Responsibilities: Who should perform the tasks the SOPs outline?
  • Accountability Measures: Who takes ownership of the SOP?  

Let’s explore what these elements look like in action: 

1. Identify the goal and purpose of your SOPs

Ask yourself the following questions to help you identify what processes to prioritize: 

  • What are your most high-impact processes? These could be the ones that generate the most revenue, build the most trust with your customers, or are non-negotiable to your current business goals. 
  • What processes are the most error-prone? 
  • What processes do you spend the most time teaching team members about? 
  • What processes do your key stakeholders care the most about? Don’t forget to ask them!

Once you’ve identified your core processes (or worked in reverse and eliminated all non-priority processes), you’re ready to dive deeper into the goals and KPIs of your SOP program. 

2. Define your audience

SOPs need to be understandable and executable. Before creating an SOP document, you need to define: 

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do their day-to-day responsibilities, technology stack, and priorities look like?
  • What are their goals and KPIs? 
  • How do they work and communicate? (Technical or non-technical? Do they work in an office or remotely? Do they use specific terminology that convey processes more accurately?) 
💡 Related resource: Who should write SOPs?

3. Select the best format for your SOPs

This step is simple because we’ve previously covered everything you need to know about it! Use your audience research to help you decide the best SOP format.

For example, describing a step-by-step process for your customer-facing teams will require a different format than if you were to visualize a decision-making process for QA engineers. 

4. Use tools to help you work faster

Who knows how to write an SOP better than the person doing the process? 

But the problem with relying on subject matter experts is that they’re often too busy doing the real work to write it down.

Here are SOP software that you can use for creating SOPs quickly and easily.

  • Scribe: Generate and share visual SOPs — complete with text, links and annotated screenshots — in minutes.
  • JobRouter: Automate tasks and communication with SOP authors, editors, and approvers.
  • Notion: Centralize and organize SOPs into a company wiki or database.
  • Kahoot: Create games and quizzes to test SOP comprehension.

5. Publish and distribute your SOPs

SOPs should be easy to locate, access and share. Amp up your SOP distribution strategy with these tactics.

  • Digital documentation for easy access and user permissions
  • Interactive formats for better readability and engagement 
  • Shareable URLs for faster communication 
  • Content integrations within your technology stack for more visibility on the job

6. Keep your SOPs up to date 

Nine in ten employees say faster access to the most up-to-date documents will make their jobs easier, especially if they don’t have to search across systems. Imagine handing over a document that causes employees to follow all the right procedures….from five years ago. Nobody wants that. 

You can prioritize version control and maintain SOPs regularly by: 

  • Conducting consistent audits of all processes and SOPs so no processes slip through the cracks
  • Tracking process efficiency as a KPI. If efficiency drops without warning or abnormalities, it might be because a process just isn’t cutting it anymore. 
  • Assign a point of accountability for managing SOP updates. 
  • Use document formats and SOP software that are easy to edit and reflect changes in real-time (like Scribe!)
  • Dedicate time every quarter or year for an SOP review with stakeholders.

SOP challenges

Let's take a look at the top SOP challenges and see what we can do to reframe and resolve SOP problems once and for all.

Updating incorrect or outdated SOPs before it’s too late

“SOPs are not evergreen. If there is no mechanism to imbibe feedback and updates, SOPs become outdated and start causing unnecessary friction.” — Dwarika Sinha | Co-founder, PressLord

An outdated SOP is as bad as no SOP at all. Maybe even worse. If your employees can’t count on your procedures, they won’t be able to work effectively. 

One wrong SOP can ripple into distrust in your systems and cause major issues. For example, the GAO (General Accounting Office) found that 40 percent of drug shortages resulted from incorrect SOPs. 

SOP solution — Schedule regular audits & solicit feedback

I recommend reviewing SOPs at least once a quarter. Break reviews up by department, and make sure the people signing off on your content are the ones who use the SOP every day. 

Maintain consistent upkeep by creating a feedback loop. That way, if someone catches a mistake, you can quickly fix it for everyone. 

And take advantage of process automation. Process documentation tools like Scribe are a great way to save time writing, editing and updating SOPs.

Dealing with irrelevant or inflexible SOPs

“One of the most difficult things for leaders to accept is probably this: SOPs are frequently seen as being ineffective because the needs of the worker and the SOP are not compatible.” — Jenny Ly | Founder, Go Wanderly 

If you create SOPs just to have them, you’ll end up with a drive stuffed with unhelpful documentation.

Structure doesn’t always equal procedure. It’s totally fine to have less formal or ad hoc processes. But if you don’t find the balance between the two, you won’t be able to create a collaborative or productive work culture. 

SOP solution — Communicate with your teams

Get employee input on what SOPs are helpful and necessary. Build a list for each department to review and approve — before documenting.

As a general rule, make your SOPs specific. Remember that the person who needs an SOP isn’t an expert. Make them one! 

Incorporate SOP usefulness into your feedback loop. You can ask employees point-blank, hold a survey or use tools like Scribe to track how often people use different

SOPs. Don’t be afraid to hit ‘delete’ if an SOP is redundant or irrelevant.

Having long and complicated SOPs

“Often, when companies create an SOP, they try to make it as comprehensive as possible — which is excellent! But then it becomes so long and complicated that nobody actually reads it.” — Kimberley Tyler-Smith | VP, Strategy and Growth, Resume Worded

If your employees won’t read your SOPs, then there’s no reason to make them. How far would you have gotten in this blog if it was just a dense block of text?

At their core, SOPs are communication tools. They need to be easy to read and understand. Don’t get caught up in long-winded sentences or heavy jargon. 

The solution — Break your SOPs into bite-sized content 

Create an SOP for each task, then combine them in larger process docs or folders. 

For example, HR can break out the entire recruitment process into 3-4 SOPs. These SOPs can outline each task, making the information specific and relevant. 

Keep the SOPs themselves short and sweet. Kimberly Tyler Smith, VP, Strategy and Growth at Resume Worded, says to make them about three to four pages max — and less than that if you can.

Link SOPs together or organize them by topic in your knowledge base. Now, anyone can find what they need at any point in the process. 

Business owner Matt Wilson says, 

“It's important to communicate with your team regularly about how well the SOPs are working and what you might need to tweak or update.” — Matt Wilson | Co-Founder and Content Writer, Lift Your Game

SOPs take time to create & share

“SOPs need to be easier to create. They should be intuitive and user-friendly, so even those who aren't tech-savvy can quickly build them. [And] Sharing SOPs should be straightforward. Too often, they're buried in email chains or hard to find on company intranets.” — Faizan Raza | Founder and Outreach Expert, 9Listed

Did you know almost 34 percent of businesses spend one to three hours per week just updating policies and procedures for regulatory rules?

It’s no one’s full-time job to create SOPs. So, how are you supposed to get it done?

​The solution — Use tools & SOP templates

There are way too many moving parts for handwritten documentation. As your teams and businesses grow, it’ll get less and less sustainable. 

Automate the process. For example, Scribe auto-generates step-by-step guide SOPs that are easy to create, store and share via link, embed or export.

SOP Templates are another great way to save time. Create one template for your entire team. Build templates for different departments or topics so each SOP serves its purpose. 

SOPs are difficult to find and use

“A lack of organization on how the SOPs are titled and stored in a shared drive or database also prevents their useability if people have to spend time digging through where to find the information and if it's not clear at first glance.” — Eboni Cotton | PMP, ESC Business Management Solutions

We’ve already talked about losing time to create SOPs. But what about when you need to find one?

What if you have several SOPs surrounding the same topic, but they’re all out of order and misnamed? Where do you even start? If it takes longer to find the SOP than to do the process, you’re not going to get a loyal fanbase. 

The solution — Develop a strict filing system 

You need a knowledge database, drive or wiki. 

Whatever your filing system, make sure it’s digital and automated if possible. Avoid PDFs since you can’t make updates. 

Create parent folders for each department, then break down subsections by topic. For example, your SOP filing system might look like:


Free SOP Template

Want to kickstart your standard operating procedures? Our free SOP template can help you save time and resources while keeping your SOP documentation consistent.

Conclusion: The ultimate guide to standard operating procedures

Standard operating procedures drive our processes. They can have a huge positive impact across your company — including establishing best practices, onboarding new employees, compliance and maintaining organizational knowledge.

Success isn’t about creating a single SOP. It’s about establishing a(n):

  • SOP strategy and framework.
  • Distribution, approval and updates.
  • Supporting tools.

It’s a process that never ends. So connect with your teams, ask questions and work to build a foundation that empowers employees to do their best work.

Want to create, edit and share SOPs in way less time? Generate visual standard operating procedures for free.

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