standard operating procedure (SOP)

What is a standard operating procedure (SOP)?

A standard operating procedure is a set of step-by-step instructions for performing a routine activity. SOPs should be followed the same way every time to guarantee that the organization remains consistent and in compliance with industry regulations and business standards.

SOPs provide the policies, processes and standards needed for an organization to succeed. They reduce errors, increase efficiency and enhance profitability. They also create a safe work environment and produce guidelines for how to resolve issues and overcome obstacles.

How to write a standard operating procedure

An effective standard operating procedure explains the steps taken to complete a task and informs the employee of any risks associated with the process. The instructions should be brief and easy to understand, with a focus on how things should be done rather than what needs to be done.

Before writing an SOP, the author should perform a risk assessment of all the steps in the procedure. The assessment should identify any obstacles that might arise during the process and any risks associated with those obstacles.

Key questions to answer as part of an SOP include the following:

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

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 routine tasks that multiple employees handle should be considered for SOP creation.

The following are the six main steps involved in creating an SOP:

Step 1: Define the task's goal and why it needs an SOP. Employees in decision-making roles and other stakeholders define the task's goal and explain why that goal needs an SOP.

Step 2: Determine format for the SOP. The author decides on the SOP format. Some organizations might have premade templates. Others let the author design their own format. The following are examples of possible formats:

  • A flowchart or workflow diagrams that displays procedures with unpredictable or various outcomes.
  • A bulleted or numbered list of simple steps that are short and easy to follow.
  • Hierarchical steps written as a bulleted or numbered list but intended for procedures with many steps and decisions; these might have a primary step followed by a collection of substeps.

Step 3: Decide on the delivery medium. Once a format has been chosen, the author decides whether to make the SOP available as a written hard copy or online and stored in a database.

Step 4: Identify task dependencies. It's possible that the task of the SOP in question relies on other procedures within the organization. The author should identify these dependencies and decide how to incorporate them into the new SOP. Another option to consider is incorporating the new procedures into an existing SOP.

Step 5: Identify the audience. The author determines who the audience is for this SOP to ensure it's written appropriately. For example, an SOP written for employees with previous knowledge is different from one written for new employees.

Step 6: Write the SOP. Once all these decisions have been made, the author writes the SOP. These instructions use present verb tense and an active voice. If the organization has a style guide, then the author should adhere to it. It's important to allow anyone who will be using the SOP to review it throughout the writing process to ensure all necessary steps are included.

Step 7: Test and gather feedback. Once the draft is written, it must be reviewed, edited and tested multiple times, with feedback collected. This process repeats until the SOP has buy-in from all stakeholders. At this point, it is distributed to every person who will use it as part of their job. The target audience should try out a draft SOP to ensure it works as intended. If these employees have difficulty understanding or following the SOP, it might need to be updated.

Step 8: Implement the process. The SOP is made official once all issues are addressed, and its intended audience can use it without issues.

Step 9: Update regularly. SOP creation and enforcement are iterative processes. Once the detailed instructions are written, the SOP process should be analyzed and updated every six to 12 months to guarantee it remains relevant to the regulatory standards and compliance requirements of the organization. All changes must be recorded, and versions tracked.

Step 10. Provide ongoing training. Regularly scheduled continuous learning sessions will ensure employees become familiar with new versions of the procedures.

Flowchart detailing a travel request
Flowcharts show who's responsible for each step in a standard operating procedure. Business process modeling notation is used in this flowchart to explain each action involved. Different shapes symbolize different BPMN actions.

Components of an SOP

A standard operating procedure should include these components:

  • Title page. This would show the title of the procedure, who it's intended for -- the specific role, department, team or agency -- its SOP identification number, and the names and signatures of people who prepared and approved it.
  • Table of contents. This provides easy access to the various sections in long SOPs.
  • Step-by-step list of procedures. This includes 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.

SOP best practices

Some best practices for writing and using SOPs include the following:

  • 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 headings, fonts, layouts and graphics should also be chosen.
  • Ensure employees can easily find content within the SOP. This can be done with the addition of a table of contents.
  • Keep all SOPs in one place, preferably online. Organizations can use a knowledge base or other management system to accomplish this. These systems make it easier to locate a specific SOP and change and update them.
  • Develop an ongoing review and maintenance plan for SOPs to ensure they stay relevant and error-free. SOPs should grow and change with the organization. Out-of-date SOPs are useless.
  • Distribute the SOP to the employees who will use them and train those employees in the procedures involved. Regular training -- in addition to the initial orientation training -- is beneficial and ensures all employees know and understand the most up-to-date procedures.

Using techniques like gamification could better engage trainees and help them retain information.

Uses of a standard operating procedure

Standard operating procedures let organizations gain a better understanding of their business processes and identify areas that need improvement. Reasons to use an SOP include the following:

  • Helping employees stick to a defined schedule.
  • Assisting in training employees.
  • Guaranteeing regulatory compliance standards are met.
  • Certifying that the procedure doesn't negatively impact the environment.
  • Incorporating safety standards in routine operations.
  • Avoiding manufacturing issues and failures.

SOPs are still needed even when other published instructions or methods of describing procedures are available. An SOP often describes a procedure in more detail than the published content and might explain any differences between the SOP and the published method.

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

Standard operating procedure examples by industry

SOPs are essential in many industries. The following are some SOP examples from various industries:

  • Manufacturing. SOPs are used to record production line procedures used to train employees and ensure a consistent workflow.
  • Finance. SOPs are used to record billing and collection processes. Banks also use SOPs to determine the identity of a customer who has walked in.
  • Customer service and retail. In customer service and sales environments, SOPs explain service delivery processes and response times, and instruct employees in how to manage customer complaints and prepare documents such as sales quotes.
  • Healthcare. Medical providers use SOPs to create workflows for the collection and input of patient data, as well as for billing patients and collecting payments.
  • Government agencies. Government departments and agencies have various processes to ensure standards are met. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses an SOP to certify that a company's operations meet its standards.

In many industries, SOPs are frequently used in hiring and training employees. They ensure that the orientation and training of new hires is consistent with how existing employees are doing a job. An SOP can guide managers through routine tasks, such as discipline and corrective actions, and performance reviews. They can also be used to collect, track and store key performance indicator reports and create client onboarding processes.

Benefits of using a standard operating procedure

Standard operating procedures offer numerous benefits to an organization, including some that aren't immediately apparent:

  • Consistency. Employees in all departments understand and follow set processes, creating a common workflow and consistency.
  • Fewer errors. Standardization ensures everyone is informed of how to correctly complete a process, thereby reducing errors and contributing to quality assurance efforts and high-quality outputs.
  • Consistent training. SOPs simplify employee training, saving time and guaranteeing consistency. This, in turn, reduces operational risks.
  • Communication. SOPs can streamline communication throughout an organization. If a task changes, the SOP is updated and redistributed to anyone who uses it, helping the organization quickly communicate the change to anyone affected. SOPs also reduce the chance of miscommunication because the detailed steps leave little room for debate, questioning or misunderstanding.

Challenges of using a standard operating procedure

Some challenges involved in SOP creation, include the following:

  • Rigidity. If a task or problem could benefit from a flexible approach or creative thinking, an SOP might not allow for that if it's enforced as a rigid framework.
  • Inadequacy. Knowing what to include in an SOP document or flowchart could pose a challenge; it won't always be clear how to make an SOP for a specific task as comprehensive as possible. Also, the SOP must be continually maintained if they are to remain useful.
  • Noncompliance. Employees could fail to comply with an SOP if it isn't strictly enforced or too difficult to understand.
  • Training issues. A good SOP could be hard to understand for trainees or they might be reluctant to learn new skills.

Standard operating procedure templates

SOP templates help organizations craft standard operating procedure documents. They provide guidance on what elements to include, such as the following:

  • The background or reasoning behind implementing the SOP.
  • Who the target audience is.
  • How frequently the SOP must be implemented.
  • Which roles and employees use the SOP, and what their responsibilities are.
  • Each step within the procedure, including the step number, the team members involved in the step, the tools used and actions taken.
  • A version history of the number of times the SOP doc is updated, providing a form of version control.

It's common for an organization to follow up its implementation of a new SOP with a business impact analysis. BIAs ensure the new SOP doesn't pose risks or potentially cause business losses. Learn about the benefits of conducting a BIA.

This was last updated in June 2024

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