Streamlining Your Processes: SOPs vs. Work Instructions

Lauren Funaro
April 11, 2022
min read
March 15, 2024
Photo credit
SOPs vs. work instructions: what's the difference? Discover the benefits and differences between SOPs and work instructions and learn what works best for your organization.
Generate SOPs!


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

  • Are SOPs or work instructions better for my business?
  • How do I implement them?
  • Can they work together to create an ultimate operational program for the company?

If all these questions and more have been running through your mind lately, you’re in the right place.

This article will examine the SOPs vs. work instructions debate and help you determine which would benefit your organization in the long run.

TL;DR: SOPs vs. work instructions

  • SOPs explain what actions to take under various circumstances, while work instructions provide a more detailed, hands-on approach to performing tasks. Both are important for a company's operations.
  • SOPs are top-level documents that describe actions to be taken.
  • Work instructions provide detailed guidance on how to perform specific tasks.
  • SOPs focus on specifics like tools and responsibilities, while work instructions offer step-by-step instructions.
  • The choice between SOPs and work instructions depends on the type of business, but having both can create an ultimate workflow program.
  • Best practices for creating SOPs and work instructions include process mapping, using appropriate formats, and ensuring employee accessibility.

Try the top AI tool for SOPs and work instructions ➜

What are SOPs?

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are a detailed set of instructions on performing specific organizational tasks.

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 and,
  • 2 to 3 extra steps and sub-steps.

For example, this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) Template can be customized to fit any process. It includes the format and structure for creating clear, concise, and consistent SOPs:

Scribe's Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) Template

‎Who needs an SOP?

Use SOPs when you want employees to complete a task from start to finish in one continuous time frame.

What can SOPs be used for?

  • Ensuring tasks or processes are performed consistently and accurately.
  • Employee training and streamlining the onboarding process.
  • To assign responsibilities and accountabilities for specific tasks, making it clear who is responsible for what within an organization.
  • As reference guides to troubleshoot problems and find solutions.
  • As a foundation for continuous process improvement efforts.

Types of SOPs

SOPs can vary widely depending on the organization, industry or the specific processes they are designed for. Here are a few common types of SOPs:

Each SOP will be tailored to your organization's needs and the specific department. For example, this free Customer Service SOP Template can help operations teams define the steps and processes involved in delivering high-quality work:

‎What is included in an SOP?

Standard Operating Procedures usually 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).
  • Other relevant information, tools, and other resources required.

Scribe's SOP Manual Template

Build SOPs in seconds with Scribe ➜

What are work instructions?

Work instructions are also a set of instructions but more detailed than a standard operating procedure. 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 might wonder, “Why does my organization need a work instruction after we’ve written an SOP?” Good question! Sometimes, your employees need more details than 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, like in this Work Instructions Template.

Who needs work instructions?

Use work instructions when 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 performing a task.‎

What can work instructions be used for? 

  • Project work instructions for organized project execution.
  • Quality assurance processes.
  • Workflow processes.
  • IT and software development instructions for coding and development of IT system administration and cybersecurity protocols.

Types of work instructions

The specific type of work instructions you choose will depend on the nature of the task, complexity, industry requirements, and your company's needs. Here are a few of the common types of work instructions:

What is included in work instructions?

Work instructions usually contain the following sections:

  • A clear, descriptive title.
  • A brief statement explaining the purpose or objective and why it's important or necessary.
  • Define the scope of the task or process.
  • Safety guidelines and precautions.
  • A list of materials, technology, equipment or tools required to complete the task.
  • Detailed, sequential step-by-step instructions for the task, with clear and concise descriptions of each step.
  • Visual aids like images, diagrams, or videos.
  • Troubleshooting information on common problems or issues and the steps to resolve them.
  • Links to additional information like relevant documents, standards or external resources.
  • Clarification on who is responsible for carrying out specific steps or tasks within the process.

Try Scribe's Work Instructions Generator to get started for free!‎

SOPs vs. work instructions: what's the difference?

An organization needs 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:

SOPs are important, high-level guidelines that provide recorded instructions for specific tasks and duties.

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. They focus more on specific tools, methods, measurements, equipment, or even responsibilities.
  • Work instructions show how to perform the said procedure. They serve as a direction for implementing the processes outlined in the SOPs.

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

Let's look at manufacturing companies as an SOP 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.

📌 Related resource: Procedures vs. Work Instructions — Learn How You Can Leverage Both for Your Organization

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 labeling 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 while the blade is spinning.
  • Turn off the chainsaw before refueling. 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.


When to use SOPs vs. work instructions

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 write work instructions on how to edit clients’ work. But, you would 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 complies with internal policies and statutory quality (QHSE) and to streamline multiple production lines running seamlessly. 

Look at the business and ascertain if it needs an SOP, work instructions, or both. At Scribe, we recommend that whatever the nature and size of your business, you’re better off having an SOP. 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.

Build fast SOPs & work instructions

Companies often struggle to maintain efficiency in the creation, distribution and accessibility of standard operating procedures and work instructions. These documents are crucial for ensuring consistency and quality control, but they can quickly become outdated or difficult to access.

Automating your document creation and management using work instructions software or SOP software can streamline the process, making it easier to share with employees and other stakeholders.

‎Looking for a free tool that lets you create SOPs and guides in minutes? Look no further!

Build fast SOPs & work instructions with Scribe - SOPs vs. work instructions

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.

It's time to automate your documentation. You can now create and share training materials in seconds. Onboard new hires, answer questions and produce consistent results by building a knowledge base with SOPs you can rely on—fast.

  • Create training materials with one click.
  • Standardize procedures using Scribe's pre-built templates.
  • Drag-and-drop functionality and an intuitive interface make creating SOPs and work instructions fast and easy.
  • Use Scribe's generative AI to add titles, descriptions and more—or ask it to write the SOP for you.
  • Using Scribe Pages, you can combine multiple guides with images, GIFs and video elements. 
  • Track changes and revisions with version control features.
  • Enhance accessibility by allowing employees to search for and access procedures quickly.
  • Easily share SOPs and work instructions by adding your team to your Scribe workspace, sending a link, embedding it in your preferred platform, or export to PDF, HTML or Markdown. 


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. It saves time by ensuring 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 will be presented the same way. For example, a short video would suffice sometimes, 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 importance, but different purposes.

4. Use technology to automate your SOP and work instructions. Digital tools and software can help you streamline the entire process, from creation to distribution and accessibility. This saves time and effort and improves the overall effectiveness of these crucial documents.

5. Always include the appropriate sections in the correct order. For example, suppose essential equipment or tools are needed to perform a specific task. That information should be relayed early in the document so that users know what to gather before beginning the task. Using work instructions templates or SOP templates can help you standardize your documents.

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

7. Use lots of white space.

8. Use legible fonts and font sizes.

9. Add visual elements and multimedia. Elements like images, screenshots, videos, and GIFs offer a more intuitive and engaging way to convey information. They enhance understanding and retention, improve accessibility, and support employees with different language backgrounds.

10. 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

When it comes to SOPs vs. work instructions, only you can decide what works for your organization (based on its needs). Whatever you decide, make your SOPs and work instructions searchable, visually appealing, and interactive, and use a format that enhances legibility and quick understanding. You can do all of that (and more!) with Scribe. Sign up for Scribe today and get started!

Ready to try Scribe?

Scribe automatically generates how-to guides and serves them to your team when they need them most. Save time, stay focused, help others.