How to Write Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) (And Why Your Business Needs One ASAP)
When you think about standard operating procedures (SOPs), you’re probably picturing a mundane document that no one really uses. You might think to yourself, “My business doesn’t really need that, things still get done,” or “I’ll probably get around to drawing them up at some point.” Well, this right here is how you’ve been selling your business short.
Working from standard operating procedures is crucial to keeping things running smoothly like a well-oiled machine. Think about it, without a contemporary how-to-guide set in place, three different workers are most likely to approach the same process/task in three different ways (in methods that might not be the most efficient or unbiased.) We can’t really blame them either when they haven’t been given the proper helping hand.
So, let’s talk about how SOPs are your best friend when it comes to productivity, and why your business needs one right now (plus how to draw one up.)
What are Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)?
It’s important for your team members and employees to always be on the same page. You may know several important processes within your business, this doesn’t mean that your employees do.
A SOP is a document that provides a set of clear-cut procedures and directions for business processes that every employee should abide by. Basically, it is the secret sauce for how you do what you do. Here you will explicitly answer the questions: what, why, and how do things get done. A collection of SOPs is a modern version of your company’s playbook/manual.
SOPs are much more involved than a simple procedural document and should be followed the same way every time to guarantee that your business remains consistent and aligned with industry regulations and business standards. They are written processes for performing regular activities in a consistent manner so that all members of a team can do their best work in the least amount of time and with the least amount of error.
Why do companies need SOPs?
Many CEOs/founders fear that writing up a SOP would be unpleasant, hard, and complicated. But drawing up SOPs does not have to be much of a big deal and is very much worth the effort! Companies without SOPs often waste resources continuously having to fix mistakes, re-doing things, and just taking longer to do tasks that could have otherwise been done quickly without any hassle.
“I operate a distributed company with a remote-based workforce scattered worldwide. Managers often ask me how that works. First, I recount the business advantage of having access to the best job candidates, regardless of where they live, at my fingertips. Secondly, I talk about the virtual culture I am building for my workforce, to which they incredulously reply, ‘How does that work?’ The answer is implementing standard operating procedures,” says the Founder/CEO of Dino's Digital Marketing & Advisory Firm and Startup investor/advisor, Dean Scaduto
A well-written and carefully constructed SOP improves efficiency, quality control, business processes, and will always get you consistent results by removing wildcards.
Here are seven solid reasons why your company needs SOPs:
1. Ensures Consistency
Not only do SOPs help new hires get up to speed and teach them new skills, but they also help all existing workers to deliver the same optimum results every time with no wild cards. Think of it as an investment, you write a comprehensive, well-written SOP now and you save loads of time and money later.
SOPs can remind employees how to perform tasks correctly. They make repetitive tasks easy to replicate and manage as you scale your business.
2. Cuts Down on Risk and Errors
Bottlenecks and issues arise if employees don’t have a precise understanding of their job duties or how to go about achieving desired results. These problems can start as early as the employee’s first day and if left unaddressed (which happens more often than you think), can last over their service to the business.
SOPs help lower the risk and probability of error.
3. Streamlines Communication and Helps Keep Confusion Down
SOPs provide important information to everyone – all employees have access to vital information at any time.
4. Improves Employee Training and Engagement
Since it standardizes your process into a step-by-step procedure, SOPs play a vital role in training employees and new hires.
Standard operating procedures make training recruits of the team much easier as they are given a go-to document that resolves several issues and early questions that arise during onboarding. They would also become familiar with the specifics of
processes (such as completion signals, responsibilities, time-sensitive triggers) early on, so that they can act fast even during the training period. By providing a well-written SOP, you are allowing your new employees to gain confidence in their work and create the right expectations of work timeframes.
6. Helps Capture Your Institutional Knowledge (Special Sauce)
The natural life of your business will see employees come and go. Often when they go, they take valuable know-how of organizational processes with them. Without SOPs, there are no ways to replicate this lost knowledge. There is no need for your business to constantly reinvent the wheel – well-written SOPs ensure that your business retains its process knowledge and allows your company to carry on as usual while retaining your valuable business processes.
7. Flaws and Gaps in Business Processes Are Revealed
Blind spots in your company’s operations are identified. SOPs allow businesses to gain a better understanding of your business processes and identify areas that need improvement.
Looking at an Example
A telecommunications company like BT that is employing salespeople would benefit from a detailed sales playbook/SOP that includes:
· Email scripts
· Cold call scripts
· Negotiating tactics
· Closing strategies
· FAQs and Rebuttals, among others
This will help the company onboard new salespeople and help existing ones ramp up sales 3-5x faster.
Without Standard Operating Procedures:
· It is close to impossible to hold people responsible for the results
· Companies without SOPs often waste resources continuously having to fix mistakes, re-doing things, and just taking longer to do tasks that could have otherwise been done quickly, without any hassle.
Writing Standard Operating Procedures
Chances are that your company already has some version of a SOP (but you’re calling it something else.) Now is the time to lock it down into an efficient format to derive max benefits.
As a founder/business owner, you’re probably used to doing the most on your own. These are the things that your people need to know if they are going to do a task and do it right!
Your main goal is to go about making complex processes simpler.
Pro Tip: You should be flexible when it comes to your formatting – after all every founder and every business is unique and this should reflect that.
Your SOPs can include multiple forms of media, including checklists, videos, DIY activities, and pictures.
Formatting Your SOP
Before writing your standard operating procedures, you must decide on what type of format would work best for you. Some businesses will make use of a premade template, while others choose to make their own.
SOPs can come in all sizes – it can be a single document or many. When writing your SOP it is important to keep in mind that simplicity is key - there is no need to overcomplicate things.
Examples of formats include:
· Step-by-Step Format
For the simplest of processes/tasks, it may be sufficient to prepare a numbered or bulleted list of steps to take when carrying out the task.
When to use: These are best used in instances when the task is straightforward and can mostly be completed without fail. These tasks also require no decision-making.
· Hierarchical Steps
The Hierarchical format allows you to break down more complex processes using a top-down process. It involves listing the steps of the process to be completed and then providing additional details within each step. It is used when more instruction may be needed to complete a task effectively. Instead of listing steps 1,2,3, etc, a hierarchical SOP may list with sub-steps 1,1a,1b,2,2a,2b,2c and so on.
When to use: When the process is more complex (has ten steps or more) and does not involve decision making.
· Flowchart Format
Flowcharts are best used when multiple outcomes are possible at certain parts of the process. In such cases, the outcome of one step will need to be considered in approaching each step thereafter. For example, a Sales employee whose task it is to provide more information about a product/service will not need to if the customer explicitly expresses no interest.
When to use: When the task/process involves decision-making
Steps to Write a SOP
There is no official set-in-stone method for drawing up a SOP, but we have come up with our own steps to make things easier for you. We call it Enumerate – Elaborate – Execute - Allocate.
Identify and list the core functions in your business. This could be Operations, Sales and Marketing, Finance, Admin or HR. Think about and map out the processes and main tasks involved within your business functions.
After mapping out the core functions and main tasks, you will need to break these down to their building blocks. Start from the highest level and work your way down to the most granular steps.
Sales and Marketing Example:
Once you have the building blocks, start zooming in and outlining the steps for each micro-process. Identify the tasks that have to be repeated to get the same results. These are the tasks that require SOPs.
Choose your format and structure for your SOP and outline all the processes and main tasks that need to be carried out. A helpful way to list out the tasks is to take note of them as the process/task is being carried out.
Don’t forget to consider if tasks need to take place in a certain order to achieve a desired outcome and note them down (hierarchical formats or flowcharts could serve you well in this area.)
Hot Tip: Don’t know where to begin? Go back and look through your email, calendar, to-do list, and project management software. Is there a task you do consistently or one that you delegate?
Here you will continue to work on gathering the preliminary information for the SOP and explaining how the tasks are to be completed. Think about what goes behind each micro-process and what you will need to provide your employee with for the process to be completed.
For example, for greeting a customer and handling queries you would require:
1. A cloud-based system/software for communicating with clients
2. A phone script for your team to follow every time
Focus on each process and its sub-goals.
It would help you to perform the micro-processes yourself, taking detailed notes as you go along.
Hot Tip: If you’re having some difficulty explaining how you did a specific step (which BTW is totally understandable) show it instead! Videos, screenshots, pictures – whatever conveys the message in the best way possible.
Designate the proportions of time for each task. It is important to compare the perceived value of the task VS how much time it takes to carry out. Here you can have the chance to pinpoint the inefficiencies of your processes. Are tasks taking longer to complete than expected? You can now find out why and revisit the process.
We recommend timing yourself carrying out the task and then timing a colleague or close friend carrying out the process to get an accurate timeframe for the task duration. Providing employees with an insufficient or inaccurate amount of time to carry out a process can throw off procedures.
Hot Tip: Look into useful software that can help automate your processes. While it may not be able to do everything, there is a lot of cloud-based software that can help automate processes.
This could be as simple as one that allows you to communicate instantly with team members or provides transparency to completed and uncompleted tasks to the whole team.
For example, Zapier offers automation tools that allow end-users to integrate the web applications they use.
This is where you test out whether your SOP achieves the desired result. You could test the SOP yourself to see if you reach the desired outcome. In the instance of our Sales example, you could select a number of members in your team to carry out the processes while making use of the SOP and compare the results with the team members that did not make use of it.
You could hand over the SOP to a team member who has not carried out the task before and record their results. Most of the time they will ask questions and for further elaboration at certain points of the process. This is natural and helps you identify gaps in your SOP. Make note of their questions and points of uncertainty and use it to add to your SOP and refine it.
Make space for team members and the relevant stakeholders using the SOP to provide suggestions and edits.
In this step, you evaluate the results of using the SOP and whether it aligns with your desired outcomes. This is important because if your SOP does not help your automated processes to consistently produce the most efficient results possible, it will need to be re-visited.
Here you also incorporate the relevant edits and suggestions made to improve the SOP.
5. Allocate Accordingly
Implement and delegate the SOPs to the relevant employees.
Don’t forget to make it easily accessible for all team members who need it to carry out their tasks.
Train your employees on how to carry out their tasks. Train your team members on how to use the SOP - including what a SOP is, why it is needed, its uses and how to efficiently make use of the SOP to achieve optimum results.
Hot Tip: A SOP should be an evolving document. If a task changes, the SOP should be updated and redistributed to anyone who uses it. This will help to efficiently communicate the change to everyone involved.
When writing out SOPs, it is important to ask yourself: “If I carry out these exact steps, will I achieve optimum results?” Remember, the more extensive and detailed the SOP is, the more likely the task will be done faster and properly.
In essence, standard operating procedures are documented processes that help you do things right without wasting time. They are vital to increasing productivity and efficiency and should be viewed as a valuable asset to your team and company.