A Standard Operating Procedure, more commonly known as an SOP, is a set of instructions for a frequently performed action. An optimal SOP needs to be straightforward enough to be understood by most people, seeing as it is created to standardize tasks and improve the quality control of administrational details. It is known by many other common names, including protocol, code of conduct, checklist, or procedure.
SOP = standardized sets of instructions for a frequently performed, commonly shared task
Examples are step-by-step instructions, flowcharts, rules list, checklists, etc.
SOPs are absolutely critical for safety, smooth workflow, and efficiency
Why You Need SOPs
Need them? Not to alarm you, but you’re already using them!
Even if you’re not aware of it, the whole world operates based on assumed standards of procedure. For example, most people, upon entering a store and selecting an item, will know to proceed to the checkout counter and, if there are other customers, wait at the back of the line. This is a mutual understanding of “proper” sequential actions in order to produce an optimally organized outcome, which in this case would be, “buying a snack from the corner store.”
Not all SOPs are unwritten understandings, however, or need to be taught precisely in a specific manner to be effective workplace instruments.
Because let’s be honest: not all tasks need to be done perfectly according to protocol. If someone cuts in front of you in the store checkout line, it’s a rude move but it doesn’t disrupt the entire functioning of the store. It may not even have any impact, if you don’t mind waiting a few more minutes and would prefer not to call someone out for bad behavior.
On the other hand, some SOPs are very strict.
Let’s take the personal fire safety protocol, “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” If you were to mix up the order of these actions, it could have disastrous, even fatal, results; the order of operations is critically important and must be followed exactly.
Now, moving to a relevant business example, most companies have SOPs in place for how to process payroll. Businesses know that paying their employees is of utmost importance, and so they need to execute as close to 100% accuracy and timing as possible. This ensures that everyone will receive their allotted pay in expected time, and that in case of any banking or personal complications, any errors or deviations in performance can be found immediately and rectified.
SOP Examples and Applications
There are so many examples of SOPs across the board, from safety protocol, to operation of heavy machinery, to cleanliness and sanitization of shared workplaces, or to entering information into a software system, for example.
Take the broad category of safety protocol, for starters. Here is a list of safety SOPs, which will help demonstrate the broad range of templates available.
Examples of safety SOPs
Evacuation diagram – large transport vehicles like ships or trains will display evacuation diagrams that indicate the safest exits and PPE in case of an emergency
Food prep – prep cooks to chefs alike often have to pass food safety certification, which covers the proper storage of perishables and mandatory temperatures for items that are dangerous when raw
COVID sanitization – sanitizing shared common areas during COVID is an SOP that began in an undefined way (bleaching all surfaces, physical distancing) and evolved to strict SOP standards as the disease became understood (proper air filtration, surface disinfectant, and masking when necessary)
PPE and protective equipment – if you’ve ever stepped foot on shop floor or construction site, you’ll know SOPs that mandate steel-toed boots or eye protection and hard hats are necessary to ensuring workers’ safety in the workplace
Hazardous materials cleanup – we all learned in chemistry that acids neutralize bases and vice versa in the case of spills, and manufacturing plants that use harsh chemicals in production have even more complicated procedures for ensuring safe cleanup of hazardous waste
Medical services and chemical exposure – whether undergoing radiation cancer treatment or getting a dental X-ray done, chemical exposure is a necessary measure in some medical cases, and the proper use of equipment can limit exposure to the intended recipient
Legal safety requirements – even if there is no direct, visible impact of legality SOPs on site, legally standing safety SOPs act as a safety net to cover both workers and employers in case of grave emergency
But there are so many different types of SOPs, so how can I recognize which ones are mandatory procedures and which ones are just helpful guidelines?
It really is often a matter of judgment, but there are a few things that can help you categorize the type of SOP you’re dealing with:
Precision – does it require exactitude?
Repetition – must this be done the same way every time?
Timeframe – how long does one have to perform the SOP?
If the procedure in question requires inputting or marking precise measurements, then it’s an SOP and not a guideline.
If the procedure requires a quick reaction rather than a strategic assessment, it’s an SOP and not a guideline.
If the procedure requires 0% variability in performed actions, then it’s an SOP rather than a guideline.
Also, it very much matters which type of template you choose for an SOP. Imagine if “Stop, Drop, and Roll” were a visual flowchart that you had to see to understand. Or what would happen if those instructions were standardized like this?
A Tale of Two Fire Safety Protocols
Are you on fire?
If yes, move to question 2
If no, carry on normally
Is it a grease fire?
If yes, check index under “grease”
If no, move to question 3
Is it an electrical fire?
If yes, check index under “electrical”
If no, move to question 4
Stop, then move to question 5.
Is there space around you?
If yes, “Drop”
If no, take no more than two seconds to move to a place you can “Drop”
Roll around, then move to question 7.
Is the fire still going?
If yes, roll around more
If no, check for burns and secure area
Using this example, it’s easy to see how the format or template of an SOP can make it or break it in actual practice. In this case, the first SOP is useless because by the time you read and respond to every step (while under intense stress, no less), you’ve probably crumbled into dust. In the conventionally known SOP, the direction is quick, comprehensible, and with less possibility of miscommunication than in the former SOP.
SOP Template Examples
There are so many different types of SOPs, but there are definitely a few commonly used templates that work due to their visual appeal and easy-to-understand format.
These SOPs are probably the most reading-intensive, because they can sometimes be whole textbook chapters! Certain in-depth, multi-step SOPs are optimized for a highly skilled, expert crew in a specific area. For example, an SOP could be made for dating and filing various documents so they can be easily retrievable by any department. Lengthy SOPs like operating heavy machinery may require training or certification because the stakes for error are incredibly high.
Step-by-step instructions are the most thorough of all SOPs, but they can also potentially be the most difficult to implement because there are many more points of error where the user can become confused by the next step or boxed out because of incomplete parameters.
Yes/No (or if/then) flowcharts are particularly good for performing tasks with specific orders of operation. This is because you don’t necessarily need to understand the entirety of the process before taking the first few steps. These types of SOPs are common in routine mechanical tasks, quality control assessments, and coding and programming (specifically when it comes to system architecture).
If it doesn’t particularly matter in what order steps are completed, a final checklist might be a good SOP to implement. An example of a checklist would be, for example, a mandatory itemization of products loaded onto a shipping container or cargo truck, for example. Aside from any safety and handling SOPs about how to go about loading the items, a final checklist SOP can be implemented at the end to double-check that all necessary products have been addressed in the shipping process.
Final checklists can also be used to prompt subjective conclusions, to remind the operator of all the side details that are easily forgotten but don’t require inputting data.
Usually these are limited to one-liners (or one word). Examples include “KISS,” which stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid” – a common refrain meant to combat overthinking and rumination in decision-making. Another would be the mnemonic “ROY G BIV,” which is a memory aid for recalling the order of colors in the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet). Acronyms and mnemonic devices are types of SOP that are closely related to best practices, because they are short reminders for details like orders of operation (e.g. “I before E, except after C”) or overall safety practices (e.g. “Lift with your knees, not with your back”).
Did you know that even the ABC’s is a mnemonic device? Acronyms and mnemonics are best used for nuggets of critical information that need to be recalled quickly but otherwise need little cognitive understanding.
How to Write SOPs
What is the task that needs to be done, and what are the markers of its success? How can you track whether SOPs are followed correctly or incorrectly? For example, if an “incorrectly” performed SOP means that the click of a mouse virtually files data somewhere completely different, it’s easy to assume the SOP is working perfectly, since no “incorrect” entries are showing up. Make sure you’re aware what the “correct” SOP looks like, and also what “incorrect” entries may look like so you can test the SOP framework later based on output/outcome.
Identify the user base of the intended SOP. This will determine the level of detail and ease of comprehension required to make the SOP optimally effective. If the SOP is only designed to be used by a small team for a specific use, it can use more shorthand familiar to those skilled individuals. If the SOP needs to be more applicable to large amounts of the workforce, such as the proper process for clocking in and out of shift, for example, then it needs to be designed to be more accessible across the board, which limits the potential for variability in performance.
What visual and informational style best serves the SOP’s purpose? Taking an example from above, the SOP “Stop, drop, and roll” wouldn’t work as a yes/no flowchart, for example, because the format does not match with the time urgency. Similarly, SOP instructions for payroll don’t usually involve colored diagrams, because it’s not a task requiring quick visual layout for object identification.
Test SOPs in their intended environments and ask for employee feedback. The perfectly designed SOP is easy to understand and follow. You can account for every detail in a process through visual diagrams or flowcharts, but if the instructions are unclear or overwhelming, people won’t be motivated to dedicate themselves to your SOPs. Upon the creation of new SOPs, determine a testing period complete with feedback, so that employees can provide input to iron out any kinks of actually performing those SOPs.
Finally, enforce standardization through software or digitization. Many companies will create, test, and implement SOPs without any long-term followup. The result of this lack of foresight is that over time, companies amass different versions of the same protocol, either via electronic document, physical binder, personal notes at the end of a virtual entry, or scraps of paper. Especially as employees may come or go, the previous efforts at SOP creation are forgotten or rejected in favor of an individual’s preferred process. Avoid these pitfalls by highlighting and indexing SOP templates and making them easily accessible. For example, digital work instructions integrate procedure with usability to maintain standardization throughout all steps of the production process. Taking this final step will ensure that your SOP will remain reliable for years to come, so that you do not have to undergo the whole process every time there is process variability.