Standard Operating Procedure: What You Need To Know About SOPs

Standard Operating Procedure: How To Write An SOP

Chris Ronzio

August 10, 2020

SOP stands for standard operating procedure. But don’t let the fancy acronym fool you – they are so much more than just your average training how-to!

Your business has a lot of moving parts. And to keep things running smoothly, you need all those moving parts to be working (and to work well together).

That’s where SOPs come in!

They’re the nuts and bolts of how your business keeps everything – well – moving! And more importantly, they keep your business running like a well-oiled machine. (And who doesn’t want that?)

So, when we talk about standard operating procedures, here’s what the heck we mean (plus how to write your own):

What is an SOP?

An SOP (or standard operating procedure) is a set of super clear, step-by-step instructions that describe how to complete complex routine tasks. But that standard operating procedure definition is, admittedly, a bit textbook. More simply put, an SOP is an agreed-upon way that your company does something. And it’s official enough that you wrote it down.

When it comes to getting new hires up to speed, teaching new skills, delegating things off your plate, and making sure everything gets done consistently – SOPs are your best friend. 

But not every process needs to be turned into an SOP. Only the tasks that are routine, scalable, and sit at the core of what your business does! 

SOPs vs. processes

Before we can go any further, we need to address the elephant in the room – SOPs and business processes are in fact different. That’s why not every process needs to be spun into a standard operating procedure document. 

Yes – they are both detailed instructions on how to do something. But there are 2 major differences you should be aware of:

1. Their vantage points

Processes look at a task from a high level – moving through the general ways to do something. Meanwhile, SOPs take the same high-level look as processes and then dives into its nitty-gritty details. 

For example, a standard operating procedure will explicitly answer the questions who, where, when, what and how. While a process might only answer hint at some of these. 

2. Their outcomes

Processes leave space for interpretation and experimentation. This is great when it comes to innovation, but not so great if you need a predictable outcome. With a process, you can’t guarantee that you’ll get the same results every time.  

But a well-written SOP will always get you the same results (note that we said will). That’s because by including all the nitty-gritty details, SOPs remove all the wildcards, leaving nothing up to chance. 

Pro Tip: For all of our SOPs, we include a final step that describes what the desired results look like and how someone can diagnose if they hit the target! 

Why companies need SOPs

In case you need more convincing for why your company needs them, standard operating procedures standardize your best practices, capture tribal knowledge, and keep things consistent. 

Your company needs standardized best practices, captured knowledge, and consistency.

1. Standardize your best practices

No matter what you do or how you do it, you want your company to be a well-oiled machine. (Seriously – name a business leader who doesn’t want this!)

But without standard operating procedures, your team is left unequipped and guessing what your best, safest, or even required way to do something is. And their best guess might not actually be the best way. (In fact, too many times, it won’t be!)

This leaves way too much space for things to go wrong.

Their best guess might be less effective, more expensive, wildly dangerous, or even just flat out incorrect! And if things can go wrong, they will – that’s just Murphy’s Law for you!

“But comprehensive SOPs save companies and employees an incredible amount of time, money, and stress,” explains Quincy Smith, ESL Authority founder and SOP contributor to several global companies.

Plus, without them, it’s nearly impossible to hold people accountable before it’s too late if you can’t point to one, clear-cut, right way of doing things. So most people will do things “their way” and assume it’s best – even if the results don’t back that assumption. 

2. Capture your tribal knowledge

Part of business is that people come and go. But these transitions shouldn’t send your business to a grinding halt. 

Nope – they should be pretty seamless (even when people decide to move on unexpectedly). 

When someone leaves, they shouldn’t be the only one who knows what they know. It should already be documented in an SOP somewhere. That way, when they walk out the door, your tribal knowledge doesn’t go with them. 

Plus, this way, anyone can pick up the slack while you work on finding a top-notch replacement.

And when you find the right candidate, you can easily click them into how your company does things. (Just hand off the standard operating procedures at the end of their onboarding, and they should be good to go!)

3. Keep things consistent

SOPs set your company standard – it’s literally in the name. When you document the right way to do something, you set an expectation that that is how it will be done.

And from that point forward, that’s how it’s done – no more best guesses or reverting back to the old way. No exceptions. 

Otherwise, what’s the point of having an SOP, if you’re going to let inconsistency leak in? 

By getting everyone to do something one way, you reduce the risk for things going haywire. Meaning, there should be no surprise outcomes. 

“SOPs provide predictability and efficiency,” explains John Pinedo, founder of Freedom Bound Business. “After all, if everyone knows exactly how a job is supposed to be done, the company can always expect consistent results.”

3 best standard operating procedure formats

Your company should have standardized (no pun intended) ways of formatting all your company’s standardized operating procedures. This will keep confusion down and make your how-tos easier to put into play. 

Chances are good that your company already has this – even if you’re calling it something else! And while these are great to have on hand, you should also be flexible when it comes to formatting. 

After all, you can’t teach addition the same way you teach derivatives. So why would you present your complex processes and straightforward protocols the same way? 

Here are the 3 best ways to format your standard operating procedure (and when to use each one): 

(Pro Tip: Create a templated version of all 3 formats, so you can quickly drop in your SOP!)

Step-by-step format

Step-by-Step SOP Format Example

Like cooking a recipe, step-by-step formatting takes a 1, 2, 3 approach to standard operating procedures, providing detailed instructions for each step.

Breaking routine standard operating procedures into numbered (if order matters) or bulleted (if it doesn’t matter) steps, this format makes simple tasks easy to follow. The person using the SOP just has to go down the list. 

Each step should be its own action, written as a clear and concise sentence. 

For example, for washing your hands, one step might be to “scrub both sides of each hand with soap.” And another might be to “rinse for 30 seconds with warm water.”

Here’s when you should use this format: When the process is simple and requires no decision-making

Hierarchical format

Hierarchy SOP Format, from documents to need-to-knows to procedures to policy.

Instead of diving right into the how-tos like the step-by-step format, this format uses a top-down approach. This allows you to break down more complex processes.

Starting with looking at the big process picture, the hierarchical standard operating procedures zoom in to look at the nitty-gritty details.

For example, a restaurant SOP would overview their “all employees must wash hands policy.” Then, it would dive into how you should wash your hands, where the sinks are, or how often.

In most cases, you can follow a pretty simple formula for this:

  1. Outline the policy (the “why” for what comes next)
  2. Share your procedures (how to comply)
  3. Tell them any need-to-knows (set them up for success)
  4. Get the documents in order (make things legit)

Here’s when you should use this format: When the process is more complex (10 steps or more) and requires no decision-making

Flow-chart format

Flow Chart SOP Format Example

Similar to a choose your own adventure, the flow chart format leads you through what to do based on the given circumstances. 

Not all processes are going to be as simple as you run through a list of action items. Sometimes, there are still variables that you need to take into account. And the person performing the task will need to assess and react to these variables in real-time. 

By giving a canned response to possible variables, this format standardizes when exactly you should do what. And takes into accounts that depending on what else is happening, not every step might need to happen.

For example, if you’re supposed to wash your hands every time you enter the kitchen, but you washed them within the last 2 minutes – you might not need to wash your hands.

Here’s when you should use this format: For any process (no matter how complicated it is) that involves decision-making

How to write standard operating procedures

Ironically enough, there’s no official SOP for writing a standard operating procedure. And a lot of the times companies over-complicate how they go about it.

But we like to keep things as simple as possible here at Trainual. So, we’ve trademarked our very own 4-step process for SOP writing that anyone (and we mean anyone) can put to use.

We call it: Do It, Document It, Delegate It!

Here’s how it works: 

Pro Tip: Writing out your SOPs that you own can be a great way to see what you should move off your plate or hire for next! This might include things that you don’t love, are below your paygrade, or that someone else can do way better!

Step 1: Do it

You can’t write an standard operating procedure teaching someone else how to do something that you don’t know how to do yourself – it’s just a fact. So, we always recommend documenting what’s on your plate first. 

(When you have the Do It, Document It, Delegate It process down, you can teach other people how to write SOPs. Then, they can create standard operating procedures for what’s on their plate!)

Choose anything on your plate that you do routinely. Make sure it’s something that has a best, safest, or required way of doing it. 

Pro Tip: Don’t know where to start? Look back at your calendar, email, and project management software. Is there a task that you do all the time? Or one that you always delegate out? 

Before you even start to write the SOP for whatever you chose, actually do it!

Chances are good that a lot of your workload consists of things that you can do on autopilot. And most of them you probably do! You probably can’t tell someone off the top of your head what the button says and where it is on the page.

But these are things that someone else needs to know if they’re going to do it and do it right!

By actually stopping to do the task, you refresh your memory on how all the nitty-gritty details involved. And these will end up being the meat of your SOP!

Check Point

When you finish the task, ask yourself two questions:

  • Did the way that I just do it get me the desired results?
  • Do I perform this task the same way every time?

If the answer to both is yes, start documenting!

But if the answer is no to either, you need to pinpoint where things could go astray. And determine the best, safest, or mandatory way that it should have been done instead. (Then, do this step again to double-check!)

Step 2: Document it

In as much detail as possible, write how someone would do the task. (Hint: It should be exactly how you just did it!)

The goal is to document the standard operating procedure as a series of super-simple steps so anyone on your team can use it to complete the described task! This includes the who, what, where, and why – on top of just the how-to. Otherwise, you might leave space for interpretation, which could change the outcome.

Pro Tip: If there’s any niche knowledge or technical jargon that might trip someone up, stop and explain it!

Be sure to keep in mind that your SOP might capture how to do the middle part of a much larger process. (This is common when projects move across teams or departments.)

When this is the case, focus on the steps that you own! The other departments should be writing SOPs for their part of the process – so you don’t have to. (Just be sure to include where to get what you need, how to hand off your part, and to whom.)

Hot Tip: If you are struggling to explain how you did a specific step, show it instead! Using whatever camera you have on hand, take screenshots, pictures, or videos of it in action.

When it’s all said and done, don’t forget to include the desired outcome for this particular SOP that you’re writing (plus ways for people to check that they did it right)!

Check Point

Ask yourself: Have I documented it clearly?

Meaning, if you had never done the task before, would you be able to do it correctly using only your SOP? 

If the answer is yes, then put it to the test and delegate it.

Otherwise, try to figure out where the standard operating procedure is assuming prior knowledge, which jargon could be broken down, or what details are missing!

Step 3: Delegate it

At this point, you should be able to delegate the task confidently!

Choose someone on your team who is unfamiliar with the task. Ideally, this is a team member who has never done it before and has minimal background knowledge. If they can do it, anyone can (and that’s the goal)!

Assign the task to them with only the SOP as a guide – no added directions. Then, let them run with it.

If the standard operating procedure is documented clearly, they should be able to complete the task and get the desired results. No further questions or clarification needed – just the SOP.

But if they do need some help (this is usually the case for the first few drafts) – take it at face value. What are they asking you questions about?

Chances are good that their questions are naturally trying to fill the gap they found in the SOP – even if they don’t know what that gap is.

So, rather than giving them the answer, focus on identifying the gap. Then, make the changes directly to the SOP – and have them try again.

Repeat this step until the delegated person can complete the task using only the SOP.

Check Point

When the person you delegated to is done, ask yourself:

  • Were they able to complete the task without any help?
  • Did they get the desired results? 

If the answer to both is yes, you’re ready to start rolling this standard operating procedure out to your team!

Otherwise, take a good, long look at your SOP to figure out how you can explain something better.

If you’re not sure, don’t guess – ask the person you delegated to! Chances are good they can tell you exactly where they got confused or what they weren’t sure about! 

Make the necessary edits that reflect what they said and delegate it out to someone else!

Pro Tip: Anytime we create a new SOP, we go through this step with a few different team members. That way, we can make sure that the SOP will make sense to anyone who needs it – regardless of their learning style or prior knowledge.

Step 4: Refine

We’ve heard a lot of people voice that once their SOPs are written, they’re afraid to change the process. But to be completely frank, that only holds your business back!

Your company is always going to be evolving how it does things – finding bigger and better ways to get things done. So rather than fighting what your SOPs could be, why not just keep them up to date?

(We’ll let you in on a secret – getting your SOPs ready to roll out is the hardest part! Now that you’re here, it’s all about keeping them updated with the latest information.)

But before you say that this feels like mission impossible, know that it doesn’t all have to fall all on you! 

Try having everyone on your team own a few SOPs. For example, whoever is in charge of your Product team might be in charge of the standard operating procedure for rolling new features out to your users.

Then, set a recurring task every few weeks for everyone to read through the SOPs they own and make any updates (about once a quarter works best).

We like to put this event directly on everyone’s calendar to keep people accountable. That way, your SOPs are always fresh, and there are no excuses like I forgot or didn’t know. 

Check Point

Spot check your team by asking: 

  • What was the last update you made?
  • Which standard operating procedure document did you make that edit on?  
  • When did you make this update? 
  • As a team, are we missing an SOP for anything that we do?

If it’s been more than a hot minute since anyone has made an update, it might be time to give your SOPs a fresh set of eyes.

Try rotating who owns what SOP – just be sure that the new owner also knows how to actually do the process.

Want SOP templates?

Early in the game, we found that tons of businesses are creating standard operating procedures for the same things. And documenting them pretty much the same way. 

So, we decided to put in the grunt of the work and create world-class SOP templates – just for you!

Trainual standard operating procedure Template Library

Today, we have over 100 (and counting) SOP templates ready for you to use in our in-app Template Library. And they cover everything from onboarding processes to using your go-to apps! 

Plus, for more niche processes that we don’t know much about, we lean on top industry leaders! That way, no matter what policies, processes, or procedures you’re business needs, we got you covered.

And here’s the best part: with Trainual, all your standard operating procedures are in one, centralized app. That means you can document your business in one place, assign it directly to your team, and even track who knows what to keep people accountable! 

No more scrambling to find a standard operating procedure when you need it or wondering if it’s the most up-to-date version. So you can have peace of mind that all the moving parts are working (and working together)!

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