Definition

standard operating procedure (SOP)

Contributor(s): Kate Brush

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a set of written instructions that describes the step-by-step process that must be taken to properly perform a routine activity. SOPs should be followed the exact same way every time to guarantee that the organization remains consistent and in compliance with industry regulations and business standards.

Standard operating procedures provide the policies, processes and standards needed for the organization to succeed. They can benefit a business by reducing errors, increasing efficiencies and profitability, creating a safe work environment and producing guidelines for how to resolve issues and overcome obstacles.

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It is important for all types of organizations to maintain standard operating procedures to ensure every employee can consistently and safely complete routine tasks in accordance with all standards and regulations.

How to write a standard operating procedure

An effective standard operating procedure clearly explains the steps taken to complete a task and informs the employee of any risks associated with the process. The manual should be brief and easy to understand, with a focus on how things should be done rather than what needs to be done. Once written, the SOP should be analyzed and updated every six to 12 months to guarantee it remains relevant to the standards and requirements of the organization; any changes made should be recorded.

Before writing the SOP, the author(s) should perform a risk assessment of all the steps in the procedure to determine any obstacles that may arise during the process and any risks associated with those obstacles.

Key questions that should be answered in the standard operating procedure include:

  • Who performs what role?
  • What does each role do?
  • What is the goal or outcome of each person's role?
  • Has what needs to happen been explained clearly?

In order to decide which procedures would benefit from an SOP, organizations should make a list of all their business processes. Managers should discuss employees' day-to-day responsibilities and tasks to ensure all procedures are accounted for. Any tasks that are repeated by multiple employees should be considered for SOP creation.

The first step to writing a standard operating procedure is to define the task's goal and understand why that goal needs an SOP. Next, the author must decide what type of format they would like to use for the SOP. Sometimes, an organization will have a premade template provided; other times, authors will have to design their own. Some examples of formats include:

  • Flowchart or workflow diagram -- used to display procedures with unpredictable or various outcomes.
  • Simple steps -- often written as a bulleted or numbered list, including documents such as safety guidelines. This brief, simple list is best used with procedures that are short and easy to follow.
  • Hierarchical steps -- also written as a bulleted or numbered list but intended for procedures with many steps and decisions. This list includes a numbered list of primary steps followed by a collection of more specific

Once a format has been chosen, the author must then decide if the SOP will be available as a written hard copy or if it will be available online.

The third step is to determine any dependencies. It is possible that the task being recorded relies on other procedures within the organization. The author should identify these dependencies and decide how to incorporate them into the new SOP, or if it would be better to add the new standard operating procedure into an existing one.

Next, the author should identify their audience to determine how the SOP should be written. For example, an SOP written for employees with previous knowledge will be very different from one written for brand new employees.

Once all these decisions have been made, the author can begin to write the SOP. While writing, a present verb tense and active voice should be used. The author should not use the word "you," but it should be implied. If a style guide is provided by the organization, then the author should adhere to it.

The standard operation procedure should include:

  • A title page listing the title of the procedure, for whom it is intended -- the specific role, department, team or agency -- its SOP identification number and the names and signatures of the people who prepared and approved the manual.
  • A table of contents that provides easy access to the various sections in large SOPs.
  • A step-by-step list of the procedures, including explanations of the task's goal, roles and responsibilities, regulatory requirements, terminology, descriptions of what needs to be done to complete each step and a discussion of decisions that must be made. This section will make up most of the SOP.

Once the draft has been written, it must be reviewed, edited and tested multiple times. This process should repeat until an SOP has been written that is approved by all stakeholders. At this point, it can be distributed to every person who needs it to do their job.

It is important to allow anyone who will be using the SOP to review the manual throughout the writing process to ensure all necessary steps are included.

Best practices

Some best practice suggestions for writing and using standard operating procedures include:

  • Establish a common style and format for all SOPs within the organization. Using simple, clear language will help employees understand the manual. A defined collection of fonts, spacing, layout and graphics should also be chosen.
  • Employees should be able to easily find content within the SOP. This can be done with the addition of a table of contents.
  • Keep all SOPs in one place -- this is best done by keeping SOPs online. This makes any necessary changes or updates easier to make and ensures employees know where to find the information they need.
  • Developing an ongoing review and maintenance plan for the SOPs ensures they stay relevant and error-free. SOPs should grow and change with the organization. Out-of-date SOPs are useless.
  • Create a plan for distributing the SOP to employees and training them in the procedure. Regular trainings -- in addition to the initial orientation training -- are beneficial and ensure all employees know and understand the most up-to-date procedures.

Uses of a standard operating procedure 

Standard operating procedures enable organizations to gain a better understanding of their business process and identify areas that need improvement. Reasons to use a SOP include:

  • helps one stick to a defined schedule;
  • assists in training employees;
  • guarantees compliance standards are met;
  • certifies that the procedure will not negatively impact the environment;
  • ensures the safety of all employees; and
  • avoids potential manufacturing failures.

SOPs are still needed even when other published methods are available. The SOP should describe the procedure in more detail than the published content, as well as explain any differences between the SOP and the published method.

The SOP will fail if employees do not follow it. Management, specifically the direct supervisor, should monitor use of the standard operating procedure to ensure it is being properly employed and maintained.

Benefits of using a standard operating procedure

Two major benefits of using a standard operating procedure include consistency and a decrease in the amount of errors made. An SOP can also help an organization evaluate employee performance, save time and money and create a safer work environment.

In addition, SOPs can improve communication throughout an organization. If a task changes, the SOP is updated and redistributed to anyone who uses it, helping the organization efficiently communicate the change to anyone affected. SOPs also reduce the chance of miscommunication since the detailed steps leave little room for debate or questioning.

Standard operating procedure examples

One example of how an SOP might be used can be found in a manufacturing environment. SOPs are used to record in detail the production line procedures used to train employees and make products.

An SOP might also be used in finance or administrative environments to record the processes needed to properly bill customers and collect payments.

A third example of how a standard operating procedure might be used is seen in customer service, sales and marketing. SOPs can be used to explain the service delivery process and response times, instruct the management of customer complaints and comments or prepare sales quotes.

Banks may also use SOPs to determine the identity of a customer who has walked in and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can use SOPs to certify that a company's operations meet agency standards.

Standard operating procedures can also be used to train employees to collect, track and store key performance indicator (KPI) reports or to create a consistent new client onboarding experience.

Finally, SOPs are frequently used when hiring and training employees. In this situation, an SOP can ensure the orientation and training of every individual remains consistent with their peers' experience. An SOP can also guide managers through routine processes, from discipline and corrective actions to performance reviews.

This was last updated in December 2019

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