SOPs

How to Build an SOP Training Program

Strong SOPs for training clearly define goals, outcomes, and long-term success. Learn how to build an effective SOP training program by following these five steps.

Introduction

SOPs are easily taken for granted. 

You never realize how much you need them until your calendar is flooded with meetings walking employees through their routine processes, technology walkthroughs, and repeat messages about day-to-day responsibilities.

Running through a how-to’s repeatedly may feel manageable, but this time easily compounds at scale, when a few procedures become 10, and then 20. Not to mention the additional time spent following up with Slack messages, screen recordings, more meetings, and scrapping together a document of instructions all over again when you can’t find the fist one.

It’s not surprising that companies are losing productivity because managers spend 62% of their days on 'work about work' — a term Asana describes as the “activities that take time away from meaningful work”. This includes tasks like looking for information, jumping between tools in your tech stack, or communicating about projects instead of actually working on projects.

Situations like this are are common, especially when roughly 31% of the U.S. workforce doesn’t receive any formal job training while the 43% who do find it ineffective. But implementing SOPs for training gives your company a solid foundation to ramp employees up at scale while keeping their morale high. 

What is an SOP training program? 

A standard operating procedures (SOP) training program provides detailed step-by-step instructions that allow processes to be completed accurately and consistently. These documents keep procedures big and small running smoothly, securely, and at the highest quality. 

Imagine baking a box of macarons without a recipe. Despite the amount of time you put into the process or how high-end your ingredients are, you’ll likely still end up with lopsided shells or sticky bottoms in place of decadent little cream sandwiches. Many workplace policies and procedures follow the same philosophy — when valuable resources are used to complete a task, follow with the right methodology for outcomes to reach a desired level of quality . 

Why is it important to have SOPs for training? 

SOPs are a staple component of all high-performing organizations. Whether you’re a large corporation or a small business, working at offices or remotely at home, having an up-to-date and easily accessible set of instructions prevents mistakes, miscommunication, and misalignment of goals. Here are a few ways SOPs can benefit your team

1. Quality assurance across the entire organization:

If everyone in your company has their own interpretations of employee training programs, it’ll be hard to reach a common understanding of company policies and goals. Learning experiences become inconsistent, making it harder for employees across the organization to work toward intended expectations for success. SOPs educate employees to reach intended results in an objective way. Regardless of what an employee’s name is or how long they’ve been working on a project, SOPs don’t change unless workflows as a whole do. This keeps quality in check at all times to meet stakeholder expectations, client standards, compliance requirements, and more.

2. Less time spent on administrative tasks:

Progress happens faster when processes are well-documented and ready to go whenever its needed. For example, the less time spent searching for ways to structure and publish technical documents for new product features, the more time available to focus on creating higher quality content for user retention. Organizations find the most value when its people spend their time on tasks critical to their job and long-term growth. We see this in Google’s vision of “20% time” for their entire team — how could this vision be possible if employees aren’t confident in their ability to carry out responsibilities as intended?  SOPs ultimately guide employees until they can carry out procedures like it’s second nature. 

3. Time and money saved on crisis management:

When there’s lower risk of making mistakes, fewer resources are spent cleaning up the mess of processes gone wrong. We often see this in the management of big data. The Harvard Business Review found that 50% of knowledge workers spend their time hunting for data and correcting errors. This time adds up, especially since companies cite poor data quality as a source for an average of $15 million in annual losses. SOPs for data management are always put in place across industries to minimize losses, damage, and threats to safety and security.

5 steps to building your SOP plan

Building SOPs for training is a detail-oriented process that must be approached with a clear plan. Great training plans help 51% of employees build their self-confidence. Writing down a few basic how-to steps just isn’t going to cut it. 

Employees need to be motivated to learn and retain the information you present them. You can do so by building SOPs that are tailored toward your audience’s roles, goals, and learning styles. Follow these five steps to help create your SOPs

1. Get organized 

Creating an effective SOP isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Some procedures may call for multi-page documents. Others might work better when supported with visual elements, especially if members of your team are working remotely. Regardless, you wouldn’t know until you’ve organized all the materials you need to build out your SOP training program. Here’s a checklist you can use to get prepared: 

  • List down processes to create documentation for
  • Set deadlines to write, review, approve, and implement SOP documents
  • Get ongoing input from leaders or stakeholders involved in these processes
  • Ask for support if needed — whether that’s extra hands on deck or a tool to help you create documents faster
  • Build a post-implementation plan
  • Check-in regularly with employees and managers on the effectiveness of SOPs

2. Identify the goal 

Now that you’re organized, you’re almost ready for your pen to hit the paper. But first, you need to be clear on the goals you want to achieve with your SOPs for training. Do you want employees to quickly ramp on a few key processes within a period of time? Or do you want to build a robust library of tutorials to guide your team through various company processes, protocols, and systems? Depending on your goal, your methods for creating, distributing, and measuring success for SOPs will differ. 

3. Define the audience

Your audience is the pinnacle of your SOP training program. The last thing you want to do is spend hours creating SOPs that nobody reads, understands, and remembers. This puts your efforts to waste, and it’s bound to create problems for your organization as a whole. To build SOPs that effectively engage and train your audience, outline these three things: 

  • Who your audience is: This could mean job titles, departments, or seniority levels
  • What their daily responsibilities are: The core responsibilities that define their success and take up their time 
  • What outcomes they need to achieve: It could be the goal that you’ve previously identified or a specific results they need to succeed in daily responsibilities 

After you’ve determined these three factors, you’ll have a better idea of how your SOPs can best support different working styles, schedules, and workplace motivators.

4. Select a format 

Knowing your audience and training goals makes it easier to determine the right format for your SOPs. Some complex procedures require long descriptions for employees to follow along, while others are better communicated with brief and straight-forward instructions. If you’re working remotely, your format may include images and videos to better support a set of instructions. These are a few SOP examples across different formats you can choose from: 

I. Hierarchical steps 

This is a great way to guide employees who need a deep understanding of complex processes, often through detailed explanations that guide them through decision-making along the way. For example, this SOP on how to write and optimize blog posts is better formatted for hierarchical steps than an SOP for submitting expense reimbursements. Why? Because the process of writing and optimizing blog posts will bring employees through several subtasks, each with its own distinct set of instructions.

II. Flowchart

This is best suited to help employees visualize processes with multiple outcomes or dependencies. In scenarios like this, a written SOP format may become more confusing, especially if the same set of instructions need to be repeated with only slight variations at particular forks in the process. A good example of when to use a flowchart is the describing procedures of conducting employee background checks. Depending on the outcome of a few critical questions, the process might look a little different.

III. Step-by-step 

There’s no need to overcomplicate processes that can be better captured through quick and easy step-by-step instructions. If you’re training employees on how to schedule a post on your social media tool or how to create a lead in Salesforce, long-winded documentation becomes ineffective and difficult to grab key information quickly. Worried that a remote employee won’t follow along? Add visuals and it’s like you’re right there with them!

5. Finally, it’s time to get started 

Now you have everything you need to write your SOPs and train employees with a clear understanding of how to support teams across roles and seniority levels. SOP training documents are structured with several components that you can now easily bring together with all that pre-writing preparation you did. 

  • Purpose: Explain the goal for creating your SOP document.

  • Scope: Define what the described procedure does or does not cover and the employees that it may or may not include. 
  • Responsibilities: Describe the roles and responsibilities of employees involved in the procedure. 
  • Glossary: List down the definitions, abbreviations, or specific terms that employees may not be aware of or do not use in regular day-to-day interactions. 
  • Safety and hazard warnings: Outline any possibility of physical, psychological, or legal damages occurring if procedures are done incorrectly or haphazardly. 
  • Training acknowledgment: Provide a space in the document for trainees and/or trainers to acknowledge that they have read and understood the SOP document. 

Defining success when implementing SOPs for training 

Operating a remote team across the globe isn’t easy. But for Dean Scaduto, the Founder of DINO’s Digital Marketing & Advisory firm, SOPs helped him build and scale a strong virtual culture amongst employees and freelancers based in the US, Mexico, and Southeast Asia. 

With SOPs, Scaduto codified processes that were necessary for business and human capital growth to existing alongside a consistent workplace culture. Not only did this save time, but it also ensured that company knowledge was distributed evenly across the entire organization. 

But is that enough to define success for an SOP? Not exactly. 

Even the most well-written training documents can fail to accomplish their main goals. This happens when the implementation process fails to include initiatives for reviewing and revisiting employee progress. The success of your SOP training is just as driven by your commitment after creating your documents. Here are a few ways to do that: 

‘Beta launch’ your SOPs 

Treat your SOPs for training like a product. You’re not going to release something you spent so much time on until you’ve got some feedback on how it works in real-life scenarios. Likewise, you might not know how functional your SOPs are until you put them through a brief test run with people who haven't done the procedures you’re written about, as well as those who are well-versed in these procedures. Have these team members be part of your SOP ‘beta test,’ gather feedback, and address areas for improvement before implementing your documents into your training program. 

Build custom quizzes 

Employees can find training programs monotonous. For lengthier modules, like security and compliance training, the most common word described by employees in a survey was “boring.” When employees are bored, they’re less likely to pay attention and retain the information they need to retain — especially if there are no follow-up activities to keep them engaged. Custom quizzes are a great way to use gamification and healthy competition when testing knowledge applications. You can also use tools like Kahoot to build interactive quizzes and themed games that match the topic of your training program or the learning habits of your team. 

Go beyond formal training sessions 

Think of your favorite college class. Were you on your own reading textbooks and memorizing material with little to no interaction with anyone else? For a lot of people out there, most probably not.

When employees have to learn something new, the 70:20:10 framework applies. Employees pick up 70% of their skills through their day-to-day work, 20% through peers and colleagues, and only 10% through formal training sessions. The pandemic forced companies to rethink their delivery of training programs. A report by McKinsey suggests that leaders should “rethink the learner’s end-to-end experience as a designer would.” This means focusing on human connection and shorter periods of one-way communication. For example, your training program can focus on facilitated training simulations, collaborative learning cohorts, or Q&A sessions with experienced employees.

Revisit SOPs regularly with  employees and stakeholders  

Scaduto writes that SOPs are “a guide, not a bible — it’s meant to influence, not command.” What this means is that your SOP documents are subject to change, especially if employees and leaders find them ineffective or discover ways to improve on existing systems. Experts say that employee learning should be thought of as journeys that last 12 to 18 months, so be consistent about gathering feedback and reviewing SOPs after they’ve been published and distributed. As time goes on, your employees may discover new tools, processes, and systems that increase their productivity and improve their learning ability. The more they sharpen their skills on the job — as the 70:20:10 framework says — the more opportunities you get to improve and update existing processes. 

A great SOP for training inspires better work 

Consistent and high-quality work is produced by motivated employees. But that’s difficult to achieve if employees don’t have the support and resources they need to grow into and expand on their skills. 

Now more than ever, SOPs go a long way. 94% of employees want to stay at a company that invests in their learning and development. With unemployment at record lows again, attracting and retaining talent is a competitive game. But any company culture that prioritizes an SOP training program is already a strong contender.