SOPs vs. Work Instructions: Benefits, Differences, and What Works For You

What are the difference between standard operating procedures (SOPs) and work instructions?



Work Instructions…

As an operations manager or director, you might be wondering:

SOPs vs. Work Instructions:

  • Is one or both of them better for my business? And why?
  • How would I implement SOPs? How would I implement work instructions?
  • Which one of them has the path of least resistance, and which one would be the most effective for the organization in the long run?
  • Can the two work together to create an ultimate operational program for the company or not?!

If all of these questions and more have been running through your mind lately, and you’re stuck on which to choose for your organization — then, you’re in the right place. Let's take a dive into…

SOPs vs. work Instructions: benefits & differences

It’s important for an organization to identify its procedures and work instructions when documenting its quality management system. Why? Because it meets the regulatory requirements in ISO 9001:2015.

This is what ISO 9001 requires companies to define:

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are top-level documents. They describe what actions are to be taken under certain circumstances.

Standard work instructions are the lowest-level documents. They provide detailed instructions on how to perform procedures. They are the “how” of a procedure. They provide detailed guidance on how to perform a specific task at a given position and may relate to the workflow of operations sequences from one post to the other.

An SOP enforces the process of getting tasks or activities completed.

Work instructions show how to perform the said procedure.

What does this mean? SOPs focus more on specifics such as specific tools, methods, measurements, equipment or even responsibilities. Work instructions, on the other hand, serve as a direction for implementing the processes outlined in the SOPs.

In this article, we will examine the SOPs vs. Work Instructions debate and help you determine which would benefit your organization in the long run.

What is a standard operating procedure?

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a detailed set of instructions on how to perform certain tasks within the organization.

Typically, they're standardized procedures that explain how a series of sequential tasks should be carried out to achieve a specific result. In this case, you're most likely writing or using an SOP when the task has 10 to 15 separate actions, with 3 to 5 small tasks, with two to three extra steps and sub-steps; before the job can be completed.

Therefore, this clearly shows that you use SOPs when you want employees to complete a task from start to finish in one continuous time frame. Standard Operating Procedures contain the following sections:

  • The scope of the SOP (what the SOP aims to accomplish) and the method(s) for execution.
  • The criteria for using the SOP. Would it be strictly accessed by a certain department or is it general? Would it be accessed by junior staff or senior-level executives?
  • Where would the inputs be generated from, and where would the outputs be delivered to?
  • Definitions, terminology, glossary, explanations, etc.
  • Who performs what responsibilities and at what period or duration?
  • Geographical requirements (where applicable).
  • Information, tools, and other resources required.

What is a work instruction?

A work instruction is also a set of instructions, but more detailed than a standard operating procedure. In fact, it is the most detailed description of a task. When drafted, a work instruction’s sole aim is to give step-by-step instructions on how to complete a specific task. 

You are reading or writing a work instruction when the task has fewer than 10 separate steps. Ultimately, the project is completed within a short period of time and is performed by one person from start to finish.

You might wonder, “why does my organization need a work instruction after we’ve written an SOP?” Good question! Sometimes, your employees need more details compared to what was outlined in the SOP. It’s easier to mitigate risks or avoid mistakes since work instructions provide step-by-step instructions on how to perform a task.

What is the difference between SOPs & work instructions?

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) Work Instructions
It is a particular set of ways to complete a process. Explains the necessary steps required to perform a specific task.
Its purpose revolves around: What is the aim of this procedure? How would the procedure be performed? Its purpose revolves around: How do we ensure that no mistakes are made in the completion of a specific task? Answer = Create detailed guidelines.
A must-follow procedure that employees must conform with when carrying out that specific procedure. Compulsory guide employees should refer to when carrying out responsibilities.
Fulfils more than one role. Fulfils only one role.
Demonstrates how to do the work, but doesn’t give a detailed explanation of how to get that specific task completed. Creates a step-by-step explanation of how to perform an activity.
Provides documentation, usually aided by images and narratives. Mostly designed in the form of use cases and workflow diagrams. Provides documentation that shows step-by-step instructions that should be performed in different tasks.
Criteria for documentation: To effectively plan a company’s operations, and control its processes to achieve consistent results. Criteria for documentation: Work instructions are not mandatory for systems based on ISO 9001. However, they can be included to ensure and maintain consistency in operations.
Ensures that Quality Management principles (QMS) are properly and consistently implemented to conform with regulatory standards and policies. Ensures that Quality Management principles are correctly defined to run smoothly as per required regulatory standards and policies.
SOPs explain what actions to take under various circumstances. Work instructions describe those actions in detail.

Practical examples of SOPs vs. work instructions

Take manufacturing companies, for example. If you haven't achieved the lean stage (minimal waste manufacturing) in your production process, your SOPs should be straightforward and thorough. Procedures are needed for the actual, hands-on work stage and having everything perfectly planned should be of utmost importance.

Your SOPs should include the following areas:

  • Foresight (backed by data, if applicable) of future risks/occurrences (what could go wrong), accompanied by appropriate safety measures to handle them.
  • Provisions for whether all or some parts of the manufacturing process should begin and continue at once or not.
  • Dividing the work into its smallest sections (think steps and sub-steps).
  • Creating an inventory of tools/equipment and a maintenance schedule for each job.

Now, let’s take the maintenance of tools as another example. An SOP for that would be a set of standardized procedures on maintenance overview, personnel and departments involved, the budget allocated, and any other necessary information. However, note that each category of tools would most likely come with its own SOP, which could contain information such as:

  • Personnel(s) by role/position responsible for maintaining the tool.
  • Exact materials (e.g. oil or grease) and brand to be used for maintenance. 
  • The exact amount (where applicable) of materials to be used per cycle.
  • How and where the tool should be stored after maintenance.

Work instructions examples

We could use a set of chainsaws as an example of the tool(s) mentioned above, the work instructions would consist of a diagram labelling all its different parts and protective gear to gather and use. The specific set of instructions could mirror something along the lines of:

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Required are:

  • Face masks.
  • Gloves.
  • Welding mask.
  • Eye protection.
  • Hearing protection.
  • Boots or any other required appropriate footwear.
  • Protective clothing.

Safe work Instructions/Checklist

1. Pre-Operation:

  • Ensure the operator has been trained in the safe use of the chainsaw.
  • Wear adequate and appropriate PPE.
  • Identify the ON/OFF switch.
  • Check that the chainsaw is in good repair.
  • Check that the chain is lubricated, sharp and the tension is correct.
  • Never operate a chainsaw without a front hand guard (it protects the operator in a kickback situation).

2.  Operation

  • Start chain saw while placed on the ground or stable surface.
  • Hold the chain saw firmly with both hands and maintain a secure grip. Using a loose grip can cause kickbacks.
  • Always begin your cut at peak revs.
  • Stand to the side of the cutting path of the chainsaw.
  • Do not cut above shoulder height.
  • Never hold the chainsaw in one hand or by one handle only.
  • Do not walk with a chainsaw whilst the blade is spinning.
  • Turn off the chain saw before refuelling. Refuel the chainsaw only after the engine has cooled down.

3. Post-Operation

  • Ensure the blade has stopped spinning before removing waste material/workpiece. 
  • Ensure the blade has stopped spinning before placing it on the ground.
  • Use the chain guard (scabbard) when the machine is carried or not in use.
  • Ensure equipment is returned to the storage area after use.


SOPs vs. work instructions: which one is better for my business?

The answer depends on the type of business you run. If your business requires its employees to run simple but repetitive tasks that do not require explicit instructions, you would want to work with only an SOP.

For example, if you run an editing business where your employees sit in front of their computers all day, you could create an onboarding guide on how to edit and format digital documents, but this is something they would most likely know because that’s why you hired them. You could have your own in-house style guide, but that’s where it ends. 

Also, you could give clear instructions on how to sit at their desks without hurting themselves, suggested eyewear to reduce the amount of light that enters their eyes, how often to take breaks, etc… But, these are employee safety protocols.

In this scenario, there’s no need to create work instructions on how to actually edit clients’ work.  But, you would definitely need to write an SOP on how the business should be run (e.g: what internal deadlines are, who gets assigned what, whether copyediting and proofreading should be done by one person or transferred to another employee, etc.

However, if you run a manufacturing business, for example, it’s important that you write SOPs to ensure that your staff comply with internal policies and statutory quality (QHSE), and to streamline multiple production lines running seamlessly. 

Take a good look at the business and ascertain if it needs either an SOP, work instructions, or both. At Scribe, we recommend that irrespective of the nature and size of the business you’re running, you’re better off with having an SOP than without. We also believe that both documentation can work together in an organization to create an ultimate workflow program. 

The differences between SOPs vs. work instructions can be leveraged as a positive organizational tool if a common ground is found.  SOPs can be broken down into sub-procedures (work instructions) and can be related to each other while covering different aspects.

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Scribe uses automation to document your processes for you. Just turn on the extension and go through your process. Scribe creates a visual step-by-step guide, complete with text and screenshots.

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SOPs vs. work instructions best practices

1. Use process mapping to determine where the process should start and end. And while process mapping might seem like an extra step, it has its own advantages. For starters, it saves time because it ensures that writers or subject matter experts (SMEs) do not add irrelevant information to the SOPs or work instructions.

2. Don’t assume that all SOPs or work instructions would be presented the same way. For example, a short video would suffice in some instances, while a flowchart would be better in other scenarios.

3. Don’t mistake SOPs or work instructions for guidance documents, descriptions or checklists. All of these documents have their places and serve important, but different purposes.

4. Always include the appropriate sections in the correct order. For example, if there is important equipment or tools needed to perform a specific task, that information should be relayed early in the document so that users can know what to gather before beginning the task.

5. Provide terminologies and acronyms, as well as numbering and bulleting (where appropriate) to improve the readability experience.

6. Use lots of white space.

7. Use legible fonts and font sizes.

8. Determine which term or word you’d like to use to describe things in your SOPs or work instructions. Do not use different words for the same processes, as it could confuse your employees.

SOPs vs. work instructions: choosing what's right for you

As mentioned above, only you decide what works for your organization (based on its needs). However, if you decide to choose either an SOP, work instructions or both, remember to make them accessible. Your employees cannot look up stuff if they aren't given access to these documents.

Make your SOPs and work instructions searchable, visually appealing, interactive and use a format that enhances legibility and quick understanding. Finally, do not forget to do proper training. When updates are made to either documentation, ensure these documents are quickly communicated to your people to avoid mistakes and confusion.

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