It’s easy to fall into the mindset of “I can do it faster myself” or to believe that “no one else can do it right.” But what happens when the task can’t wait and you’re out of office? Reluctance to delegate can hinder long-term growth, but this kind of thinking can be remedied by taking the time to create standard operating procedures (SOPs). SOPs can ensure that key businesses processes aren’t confined to the knowledge of just one or two individuals, and they can make it easier to efficiently delegate tasks so that business can proceed, regardless of who’s in or out of the office.
What Is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?
The meaning of SOP is a set of in-depth, step-by-step instructions describing how to perform any routine activity required to keep your business going. SOPs are usually presented as written documents, but they can be supplemented with videos, screen shares, checklists, flowcharts, or other complementary materials that will help make sure tasks are performed correctly and in the right order.
SOPs can be stored in one location accessible by all relevant team members – a binder, a private website, or a shared computer folder, for instance. Anytime a team member is ill or out for the day, someone else can seamlessly step in to complete tasks without disrupting operations.
By investing time in SOPs now, businesses can lay the foundation for sustained growth and stability in the future.
Why Are Standard Operating Procedures Important?
Using SOPs to document how to perform tasks can help businesses minimize knowledge loss. Too often, companies can make the mistake of having just one or two individuals be responsible for mentally retaining all information related to a given task or procedure. But what if a crucial team member takes a sick day, goes on vacation, or leaves the company?
Without a SOP, all that knowledge would need to be recreated on the fly. This can tie up resources, cause inefficiencies, and introduce otherwise preventable mistakes. With a SOP, key tasks can be completed in exactly the same way every time, regardless of who’s on schedule. When a core team member goes on maternity leave, for instance, even a new hire could pick up the slack by following a clearly and thoroughly outlined SOP. Business operations can then proceed as normal without impeding productivity.
Besides minimizing knowledge loss, following standard operating procedures can help businesses in many other ways, enabling them to stay organized, offer consistency in products and services, minimize errors, prioritize safety, and adhere to relevant regulations, for example. In fact, many highly regulated industries, such as health care, food, and manufacturing may require SOPs for compliance purposes. Moreover, a SOP can help cut down on the time and money required to onboard and train new hires, as key processes will be clearly laid out.
How to Write Standard Operating Procedures
Creating a SOP can be a project in and of itself. Most entrepreneurs may already be busy, so it’s not uncommon for smaller companies with limited resources to delay or neglect writing SOPs unless absolutely required. However, sometimes you may need to take a step back to take two steps forward, and the return on investment of an SOP can be worth the effort. Here are five steps to get started:
- Identify which tasks warrant an SOP. Not all tasks need such detailed instructions. One-time tasks or those that require a high degree of creativity, for example, might not be suitable for a SOP. Ideal SOP candidates can include usual, routine activities that require consistency; tasks involving adherence to regulations; complex or critical processes; and emergency protocols.
- Name an owner for each SOP. Ideally, this can be someone who is highly familiar with the process and can be trusted to create thorough, step-by-step instructions.
- Write the SOP. For each SOP, the owner outlines the detailed steps in the process, so that any employee knows exactly how to complete the task from start to finish. It’s important that the process be easy to follow, so even a person from outside the organization could execute the procedure.
- Test the SOP. Consider giving the instructions to an employee who has never handled said task before. Going in “blind,” they can raise questions and identify gaps that should be resolved. The owner can then address any questions or issues, ensuring that the SOP is as clear and concise as possible.
- Update the SOP. The owner can also be responsible for updating the SOP process in the aftermath of any changes or newly introduced methods. Even if changes aren’t made, it’s still wise to consider reviewing SOPs every 6 to 12 months to verify accuracy and efficiency – what works best today might not be the best approach in six months.
Best Practices for Writing and Using SOPs
To get the most out of SOPs, businesses may want to keep the following best practices in mind:
- Keep it simple: Each SOP can be comprehensive yet brief. Try to use clear, simple language. Try to avoid jargon if possible. If specific terminology or acronyms are necessary, consider defining them.
- Stick to a template: Try to use the same format and style for all SOPs. Consistency can make it easier for employees to find what they’re looking for. For example, consider including a title page to name the procedure and identify for whom it’s intended, followed by step-by-step instructions. Try to make sure the SOP manual has a table of contents.
- Use SOP-creation platforms: For businesses that need to keep track of many processes, using SOP-creation software can make it easier to maintain consistent formats, manage and update SOPs, track revisions, store history, distribute SOPs to employees, and more.
- Keep the SOP manual accessible: Try to make sure all relevant employees can readily access SOPs. Whether laminated printouts are kept in a manual or SOP documentation is stored in a shared cloud folder, easy-to-access materials can improve the likelihood that employees will reference the documentation rather than wing it. Easy-to-access materials can also minimize productivity loss.
- Routinely update SOPs: SOPs aren’t a one-and-done document. They can grow alongside the business. Consider establishing a regular cadence to review and update SOPs to make sure they are always relevant, up to date, and free of errors.
The Bottom Line
The “do it myself” approach might seem efficient in the short term, but the benefits of SOPs can be invaluable for long-term success. Crafting them can feel like a daunting task, especially for smaller companies or busy entrepreneurs, but it can be a process that pays for itself through greater efficiency, reduced errors, consistent quality, and more resilient operations. By investing time in SOPs now, businesses can lay the foundation for sustained growth and stability in the future.
A version of this article was originally published on June 18, 2018.
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