SOPs

What is an SOP: How to Write SOPs & Why Yours Aren’t Working ‍

What is an SOP? Standard operating procedures are documented processes that direct employees through specific activities and tasks. They're also a major backbone of almost any business. This article discusses how to write an SOP, SOP challenges and how to create a strategy that makes your SOPs successful.

Introduction

Let’s talk procedures. 

It’s probably not your favorite topic. I’d be surprised if the thought of developing, organizing and sharing SOPs doesn’t cue some horror movie flashback sequence in your head. 

Because the truth is… SOPs can kind of suck. 

We build businesses on a foundation of interlocked systems. Those systems are managed by processes. 

And who manages those processes?

I have a feeling you do. Or at least you’re trying to. While procedures are the best way to get things done, I’ve realized that just having a procedure isn’t enough. 

In fact, you can have process after process and get nothing done. Why is that?

It’s not because SOPs aren’t a good idea. They’re likely one of the most critical parts of any successful organization. An Asana study found that structured procedures can save workplaces up to 270 hours a year

So what’s the problem? It’s not the SOPs themselves; it’s how we create, share and even think about them. 

I’ve researched several studies and asked experts about their business SOPs, what’s working and what isn’t. In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • Everything you need to know about SOPs and how to write them. 
  • Challenges of SOPs (or what I call: the SOP problem). 
  • How to create procedures that work for us. Not the other way around. 

SOPs can be game changers, but you need a plan to make them relevant, useful and impactful. 

Let’s work together to plan an SOP strategy that (actually) works!

What is an SOP & how to write one

what is an SOP?

What does SOP stand for?

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a list of 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 an SOP to the letter, you can pretty much predict the results.

Business SOPs aren’t just a single set of rules that apply to every department or team. 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. 

… and so on.

Since your organization likely has countless employees with different goals, you need to prioritize and organize your SOPs to make them useful. 

What is the purpose of an SOP in Business? 

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

Overall, the purpose of an SOP is 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 way less room for error.

Business SOPs should outline the following elements:

  • 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? 

Who writes SOPs?

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In the best-case scenario, we leave SOPs to the experts. That’s because your standard operating procedures should follow best practices

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

Of course, the problem with relying on subject matter experts is that they’re often too busy doing the real work to write it down. If they prioritize SOPs, you’ll run into workflow bottlenecks. 

Historically, we build SOPs by cluttering our desktops with screenshots, then painstakingly writing step after step. 

That’s why it’s so important to:

  • Have a strong strategy behind your SOPs.
  • Get universal buy-in.
  • Take advantage of tools that automate SOP documentation for you. 

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Why SOPs are important

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Let’s go back to that Asana study. The average American worker spends 2.9 hours a week on unnecessary meetings and duplicate work. It’s a major cause of lost productivity, along with miscommunicated deadlines and expectations. 

How often do you hop on a “quick call” to answer a question on an undefined process? How many times have you had to do the work again because it wasn’t done 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. 

If you correctly shape your SOPs (and SOP program), they make your business more efficient and effective. 

Plus, you’ll start seeing benefits in these core areas. 

SOPs socialize your best practices

There’s a reason we lean on SMEs to write SOPs. 

For maximum efficiency, you want all of your employees aligned and ready to perform their jobs — fast. 

Standardizing best practices in an SOP is like creating a blueprint to improve operational quality and consistency. 

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 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

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. Here’s an SOP example made with Scribe and Scribe’s newest feature, Pages.

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.

Scribe top tip: Scribe and Scribe Pages enable you to instantly create step-by-step guides (Scribes), then combine them with video, images and more in larger process docs.

SOPs keep you compliant

You can’t play the game if you don’t follow the rules — and compliance isn’t optional. If you create SOPs for compliance, or even just with compliance in mind, you can save your organization from infractions, penalties or even lawsuits. 

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. Last year, 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. 

SOPs maintain organizational knowledge

We can’t keep employees forever. 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. 

But if you have your offboarding employee building SOPS as they leave, that doesn’t give them much time to close out projects. And you can’t always count on a standard two-week exit. As organizations onboard and offboard rapidly, it can get harder to know who even knows what.

So how do we solve that problem? With an effective SOP strategy. 

SOP framework: What makes an SOP effective?

what is an sop? People running in line on track
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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 documention.  

An effective SOP strategy thinks about:

  • The purpose of your SOPs. 
  • How to get buy-in from all ends of the company. 
  • Who creates SOPs, when and why.
  • Which processes to build SOPs for.  
  • Your standard SOP format. I recommend using SOP templates when possible. 
  • What tools you’re building SOPs with (Like Gdrive or Scribe.) 
  • How to store and organize SOPs. (Are you using a knowledge base? A wiki? An in-platform solution?)
  • When to review SOPs. (The answer? Often.)
  • How to update and socialize new SOPs so that everyone’s in the loop. 

One SOP is just a tiny part of your bigger SOP training program. But what makes a good SOP? You want a procedure with:

  • A clear set of goals, steps and responsibilities. 
  • Well-defined sections for different tasks and steps. 
  • Visual elements, like images or illustrations (Going in without reference? No thanks!) 
  • SME input and sign-off. 
  • A great database and folder-system (what good is an SOP if no one can find it?)
  • A defined nomenclatures (Is there a title or numbering system?)
  • A glossary for tough keywords. 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Want to start building useful SOPs? Check out our standard operating procedure outline. 

SOP challenges: Why your SOPs aren’t working & how to fix them 

Okay, it’s all well and great when SOPs work out. But they don’t always. And we want to get to the bottom of why. 

We said SOPs are important because they:

  • Outline best practices.
  • Enable thorough onboarding and training. 
  • Keep you compliant.
  • Maintain organizational knowledge. 

The problem? SOPs are everyone's and no one's job. And too many of us are building SOPs as the solution to our problems, not realizing that an SOP is only as effective as the system it operates in.

The TLDR; answer? Fix the framework first.

Let's take a look at SOP challenges in those above categories, and see what we can do to reframe and resolve the SOP problem, once and for all.

SOP challenges: best practices

The problem — Incorrect or outdated SOPs.

“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

Imagine you’re finishing up a new process. You’ve followed the procedure step-by-step. Finally, it tells you to click “Submit.” You look and… nothing’s there.

You retrace your process and review the SOP. Everything’s in order — except the button. After frantically asking your teammates, you learn the process changed a month ago.

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. 

The solution — Schedule regular audits & solicit feedback

I recommend reviewing SOPs at least once a quarter. That might sound overwhelming, but the job shouldn’t just fall on one person. Break reviews up by department, and make sure the people signing off on your content are the ones that 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 please take advantage of automation. I remember copying and pasting screenshots into the world’s longest Google Doc just to go back and re-upload after one minor tweak.

Tools like Scribe do the documenting for you — down to capturing and annotating screenshots. Your uncluttered desktop can breathe a sigh of relief. 

The problem — Incompatible 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 

Don’t you just love when someone tells you to check the SOP, and it has nothing to do with your work? 

If you create SOPs just to have them, you’ll end up with a drive stuffed with unhelpful documentation. It wastes everyone’s time and takes away from processes that actually need standardization. 

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. 

The solution — Communicate with your employees

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. When you say step-by-step guide, you mean every step. 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 just plain dead. 

SOP challenges: onboarding & training

The problem — SOPs can be too long & complicated 

“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. 

You might be thinking, “Lauren, you just told me to make SOPs specific. How can I do that without overcomplicating things?”

I’m glad you asked. 

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, 

“I focus on breaking down the process into smaller steps that are easier to follow. I also try to create [SOP] templates so people can easily customize them to fit their needs. And finally, 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

Here’s an SOP example with a larger process doc made up of smaller SOPs, made with Scribe Pages.

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Scribe review. What is an SOP?
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The problem — A top-down approach

“A business’s SOP shouldn’t be circling around the information that the CEO has. I’m sure he is the more informed person about the procedures, but including gem experience that employees face in their everyday working is something which is worth mentioning.” — Kathy Bennett | CEO, Bennett Packaging

Expect to see gaps if your c-suite, HR or even directors write your SOPs. When you have a bird’s eye view of things, it’s easy to miss necessary steps or forget to build instructions altogether. 

Remember, SOPs aren’t policies. You want leadership to set your work strategy, goals and philosophy. Leave the rest to the teams.  

Policies are all about the ‘why.’ SOPs? They’re about the ‘how.’ 

The solution — Build SOPs collaboratively

Your CEO won’t always be an SME. That’s on purpose. 

Identify a few core team members, or crowdsource your SOPs. Typically, there are several ways to complete a task. Identify which ones are:

  • Faster. 
  • Easy to teach.
  • Repeatable. 

C-suite has buy-in, but at the end of the day, it’s the departments that need to create and use SOPs. 

SOP challenges: compliance

The problem — who has the time? 

“When the business is growing fast and the team has a short amount of time, reading several pages of a procedure is definitely a turn-off.” — Eboni Cotton | PMP,  ESC Business Management Solutions

Did you know almost 34 percent of businesses spend one-to-three hours per week just updating policies and procedures for regulatory rules? You have to, with something so important on the line. 

But losing time (and your sanity) is a problem for SOPs in every category. It takes a lot of time to:

  • Build.
  • Share. 
  • Organize.
  • Update. 

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

The solution — Speed up development with automation

SOPs don’t have to be this long, harrowing task. Use process documentation tools and save hours a week building, sharing and organizing SOPs.

Scribe is an SOP generator that does the work for you. An SME can go through a process once, then watch Scribe turn it into a step-by-step guide. Scribes are easy to combine, edit, share and embed. And the best part? Scribe’s universal update feature means that one change can go a long way. 

The problem — No employee buy-in

“The problem isn’t usually purposeful noncompliance or even sloppiness. The problem is that people just don’t read them. It’s easy to point fingers when that’s the case, but more often than not, it isn’t the fault of the employee. All too often, people don’t know which SOPs apply to them, the importance of following them, or even where to find them.”  — Bill Harrison | CEO, ComplianceBridge 

It’s tough getting employees involved when you’re building an SOP program. They’ve been doing their jobs for this long. Why start with procedures now?

Or maybe you already have a bunch of SOPs, but they’re just sitting in a drive. There are no rules or expectations for employees to follow. Maybe you mention SOPs once during onboarding, then forget them altogether. 

This cycle repeats itself. New employees follow the team; if their onboarding buddy or boss isn’t using SOPs, they won’t either.

The solution — Create an SOP-oriented company culture

A common thread in every solution is that everyone needs to be invested in your SOPs. To build SOPs into your framework, ask yourself:

  • How are you socializing SOPs?
  • What channel are you using?
  • Can you track SOP usage?
  • Do you tell employees when SOPs are created or updated?
  • Have you involved employees in the creation process?
  • Did you explain how SOPs make their lives better? 

Make SOPs a priority from day one. Train employees on how to use, create and share SOPs. Encourage and award usage using data analytics companies — and be clear about the ROI. 

Then, clearly define your approval process to encourage employees to build their own SOPs. As tools and efforts evolve, you’ll save time and increase individual investment. 

Jeff Mains of Champion Leadership Group makes SOPs part of the daily routine. He’s built a strong feedback system to foster teamwork and ensure all practices are best practices. 

“Integrate SOP compliance and continuous improvement into your culture… Workers are more likely to support and follow standard operating procedures that they had a hand in creating.” — Jeff Mains | CEO, Champion Leadership Group

SOP challenges: organizational knowledge

The problem — SOPs are hard 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

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: manual documentation sucks. If you use word docs or PDFS, you won’t get teammates on board. 

I remember building SOPs in the dark ages. 

  • My computer froze due to too many screenshots.
  • I was duplicating docs so as not to start from scratch. 
  • I’d accidentally edit the wrong one (more than once). 
  • I’d download the SOP just to re-upload it to another platform.

And if I made a mistake? I’d have to do it all over again. 

​The solution — Use tools & SOP templates

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

Spare the headache and use automation. Scribe auto-generates step-by-step guides — complete with text and annotated screenshots. Now all you have to do is run in and merge or edit steps (and maybe add a GIF or two). Store Scribes in-platform, share with a link or embed in any knowledge base.

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. 

Here’s an SOP template to get your team started. 

The problem — Disorganized SOPs 

“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? Have you ever dug through an email or Slack thread to find one pdf, link or blurb? 

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 (I’m sorry, but paper SOPs need to be a thing of the past) 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:

Conclusion: Build better SOPs with a stronger framework & tools

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Let’s have a quick recap! 

 Standard operating procedures are step-by-step guides that drive our processes. They have can have a huge positive impact across our company — including establishing best practices, onboarding, keeping compliant and creating a fierce organizational knowledge. 

They can also be a real pain. That’s why you need to plan. 

“A consistent approach is important. Rather than referring to them occasionally, it’s better to use them as a framework when giving feedback, discussing projects, or implementing new initiatives.” Jim Trevors | Founder and CEO, We Review Tires

Success isn’t about the single SOP. It’s about your:

  • Strategy.
  • Framework.
  • Methodology.
  • 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.