Creating sustainable business growth can be overwhelming. Whether you’re undergoing a hiring blitz and need to bring dozens of new employees up to speed or you’re selling more products and need to ensure a dependable brand experience, the larger your company gets, the harder it is to maintain control.
But consistency is crucial for creating brand loyalty. Customers want to know that your product (and support from your employees) is reliable and effective.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) can help bring uniformity to the way your team works without requiring manual oversight and instruction. Creating SOPs can help employees navigate complex or confusing situations, keeping everyone on the same page and reducing bottlenecks so processes move efficiently.
What are standard operating procedures?
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are documented processes created by companies to ensure consistency. They establish guidelines or instructions so employees know what to do in specific situations, allowing them to work more productively while complying with regulations and expectations.
SOPs fill the communication gap between employees and upper management, especially when a company is growing quickly and the management team may not be able to provide hands-on instruction. SOPs make it easier for employees to make decisions without direct guidance from their supervisors while still ensuring the choices they’re making are in line with the company’s goals and direction.
What are the benefits of standard operating procedures?
SOPs do more than just provide consistent direction to help companies scale. Here are the biggest benefits of having SOPs.
1. Reduce training time
Whether you’re onboarding a new hire or training an existing employee to take on new responsibilities, bringing them up to speed requires clear instruction and guidance. But asking another team member to sit by them while they learn isn’t always productive — especially when you’re training more than one team member.
Using SOPs in the training process can make the education experience more consistent, ensuring all employees learn how to perform tasks or activities the same (and correct) way. It also frees existing team members up to focus on their own work — and because employees in training can refer back to SOPs when they need a refresher, it cuts down on the amount of time spent waiting on answers or for feedback from supervisors.
2. Increase productivity by reducing errors
When tasks are done incorrectly, it causes a chain reaction that hurts morale and productivity. Those same tasks need to be redone (either by the person who did them incorrectly the first time or another employee — both frustrating situations), delaying the tasks that follow and setting the entire team behind schedule.
While mistakes are bound to happen from time to time, SOPs can help your team do things correctly the first time around. They know exactly what they should be doing and how to do it, so projects move forward smoothly.
As an added bonus, SOPs can also increase confidence in employees. Easy access to instructions and guides can encourage employees to step up and take on new tasks or feel confident in escalating projects to the next level without needing hands-on support from supervisors.
3. Improve brand loyalty
Consistency is one of the biggest contributors to brand loyalty. When customers trust that a brand will deliver on its promises, they’re more likely to purchase products, reach out for support from team members, or recommend it to a friend.
SOPs are the key to creating consistency, especially when it comes to dealing with confusing or complex challenges. You’ll reduce quality errors to maintain high standards, keeping customers happy and increasing their loyalty to your brand.
4. Meet legal and regulatory compliance
Managing compliance obligations can be tricky, especially with new employees still learning the appropriate procedures and requirements. But missing a crucial component of a legal or regulatory process can mean serious consequences and fines.
SOPs help ensure nothing is missed, maintaining compliance without needing strict oversight from a more experienced employee.
5. Avoid knowledge loss
Depending on employees to store and capture steps of a process can result in knowledge loss when an employee moves on from a position or leaves the company. Your team is then left trying to remember how to do things without an expert, which can lead to issues and mistakes.
SOPs create a formal documentation process to get knowledge out of employees’ heads and onto paper. When an employee moves on, onboarding to fill their role can be done faster and more efficiently.
3 types of standard operating procedures
Not all standard operating procedures are treated equally — and they shouldn’t be! There are three main types of SOPs, each with a specific purpose and function.
The step-by-step procedure is probably what comes to mind when you think of an SOP. This type of standard operating procedure is a simple set of instructions that an employee should follow when performing a task or activity.
The same instructions are followed each and every time, regardless of who is performing the task or the context in which the task occurs. Each step needs to be followed in order (rather than treated as a checklist).
Step-by-step SOPs are easy to follow, regardless of skill or experience level. When a step-by-step SOP is written correctly, anyone can pick up the instructions and follow along.
2. Hierarchical SOP
If the procedure you’re documenting is too complex for step-by-step instructions to make sense, you can use a hierarchical SOP. A hierarchical SOP breaks down each individual step with detailed instructions or guidelines on how the task should be performed.
For example, the policy “all employees must wash hands” is a pretty common one, but the steps a chef might take to prepare to work look dramatically different than those a surgeon would take when prepping for surgery. A hierarchial SOP would get into the specifics, telling the employee exactly how long they must scrub, what soap and temperature water they should use, and the important steps to follow when they’re done to ensure their hands remain clean.
A hierarchical SOP might also share details about who needs to follow the policy and when, like at the beginning of a shift or after returning from a break.
3. Flowchart SOP
A flowchart SOP is used if certain conditions or events could change the series of events an employee needs to follow. For example, if a manager or supervisor needs to step in to give approval for certain projects.
Flowchart SOPs help your team work around if-then situations or processes that aren’t always straightforward. They’re often displayed visually, making it easier to follow complexities without creating confusion.
It’s best to keep flowcharts as simple as possible. If you try and add in too many steps or each step involves a number of tasks on its own, it can quickly become overwhelming. If necessary, use a flowchart SOP to push your employee to another (step-by-step or hierarchical) SOP.
How to create standard operating procedures
Creating your SOPs the right way can lead to more efficient processes and greater long-term success. Here’s how you can begin creating standard operating procedures for your business.
1. Set your intention
While the overall intention of creating SOPs is to ensure alignment on your team, each individual process should have a set goal or reason behind why it is being documented. Think of your intention as the ideal outcome for the procedure — for example, to teach employees how to process payments for customer purchases.
You’ll also want to think about why it’s important to have this SOP in place. Maybe your team is struggling to get the hang of the procedure on their own or it’s crucial that specific steps are followed — setting a clear goal can help you stay focused as you begin to dive deeper into writing.
2. Identify your audience
Next, you need to identify who you’re writing to. Who will the end-user of this SOP be? Don’t just think about who will be performing the bulk of the work — you want to make a list of every team member involved in the process, from start to finish (even if they have minimal responsibilities).
You want your SOPs to appeal to both new and experienced team members, but it’s important to understand how much guidance or instruction they will have. This can help ensure you’re giving enough detail without overwhelming them with unnecessary information.
It’s also important to know how those team members work and how they’ll access the SOP on the job. Will they be pulling up instructions from a mobile device, or will they reference printed guides displayed in their workstations?
Having a good understanding of how your employees will engage with the SOPs you create will influence a few of your decisions later on — but for now, just focus on getting to know your end-user and their work environment.
3. Audit your existing workflows
Unless you’re outlining a new procedure, your team likely already follows specific steps to get a job done (even if it’s not necessarily the right way). Before you get started documenting your SOP, conduct an audit of your existing workflow.
Ask the current employees responsible for those tasks to document exactly what they do to get it done. Talk with them about what is working, what isn’t working, and what improvements they would need to see to make their days more efficient and productive. What adjustments can you make to not only fit employees’ needs but the needs of the company as a whole?
Then look at your existing procedures from a compliance and safety standpoint. Are you already doing everything you need to do to meet regulatory or internal standards? Can you make any improvements to make the task safer for your employees?
4. Define your scope
Sometimes, when we sit down to write an SOP, we find that just one set of instructions won’t cut it. If multiple team members are responsible for different parts of the process or certain tasks need to be completed before the process can begin, you might actually need a series of separate SOPs.
Before you start writing, define the scope of the SOP you’re creating. At what point does one process start and another begin? Where can an employee confidently mark this task as “done”?
You might also find that one procedure needs multiple SOPs, one specific to each individual or department involved in the process. Separating SOPs based on the end user can keep your team focused and avoid any confusion about who needs to perform which tasks.
If you find that your process actually needs multiple SOPs, lay out a framework for how employees would move from one procedure to the next. Mapping this out before you start writing can make it easier to cover all your bases and prevent any important steps from being left out.
5. Choose your format
We’ve already briefly covered the types of SOPs (step-by-step, hierarchical, and flowchart) and when they should be used — but when choosing your format, you also want to consider who your audience is and how they’ll be engaging with your SOP.
Based on what you know about your audience and end user, what is the best SOP format to ensure they can quickly and easily absorb the information they need?
If your employees are visual learners or your SOP will be displayed in busy work environments (meaning they need to be able to easily read instructions without stopping to read fine print or detailed descriptions), you might want to make sure your SOPs have graphics or images to accompany each steps. On the other hand, if the SOP is complex and requires detailed descriptions of each step, you can probably get away with a text-heavy document.
Choose a format that fits the nature of the SOP and the work environment in which employees will need to use the instructions or guide.
6. Write out your processes
Now it’s time to get to work. Based on all the information you’ve collected, write your SOP.
You want each process to be detailed without diving too deeply into unnecessary points or topics. Avoid generic descriptions — instead of saying “send confirmation email” say “send confirmation email with itemized invoice, processing date, payment information, and order number.”
Avoid as much jargon as possible. Ideally, any employee — regardless of experience level or training — would be able to follow your SOP and understand what is expected of them. Cut out any language or descriptions that might require inside knowledge or explanation.
Finally, steps should be written using active voice. Action-oriented language can help make instructions clearer, so there is no confusion about what needs to be done.
7. Get user approval
Confirm your SOP flow with the people who use the process every day. Ask them to follow the SOP and see if they achieve your desired outcome, then collect feedback on how the experience was for them. Were any steps missing or were there steps that weren’t necessary?
As a final test, ask a team member who is unfamiliar with the procedure to follow your SOP. Where they able to complete the task? Did it feel overly complicated or like steps were missing? If your outsider couldn’t easily follow along, you might need to revisit your flow and make some adjustments.
Make SOPs easier with Scribe
Scribe automatically generates step-by-step guides as you work, making it as easy as possible to create accurate SOPs. Your team can use Scribe to show the steps they take to complete a task and easily share it with other team members, keeping your team informed and consistent in how they work.
With Scribe, you’re able to create SOPs in real-time, cutting down the back-and-forth of creating lists of instructions from memory or requiring your team to take out extra time from their day to help create a process. Instead, creating a new visual SOP is as easy as clicking a button.