Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): What are They and Why Do We Need Them?

05 Jul 2019


Just about any business that relies on procedures being done the same way, by different employees, can benefit from having well written SOPs.

Companies or organizations that must ensure customer safety are fairly obvious examples of the need for standard operating procedures. Health care organizations, automobile manufacturers, and government entities like the FDA and FAA could not safely function without precise procedures in place.

But, what about a company whose mission is a little less life-or-death than the examples above? Those companies can benefit, too.

Have you ever been in line at a retail store when the cashier does not know how to process a return and issue a refund? Think about the inefficiency and potential for chaos that might exist without a consistent method for product returns.

This is where an SOP can save the day. The employees were likely trained on how to process returns, but without standard operating procedures to remove ambiguity, you are at the mercy of the cashier’s memory of that particular training session.

What Are Standard Operating Procedures?

Basically, SOPs are step-by-step directions that guide employees through a specific process. By adhering to the procedure, employees’ work products are reliably consistent.

The IBM Knowledge Center identifies an SOP this way:

“A standard operating procedure is a set of instructions that describes all the relevant steps and activities of a process or procedure. Standard operating procedures are essential to an organization to deliver consistent, measured, high-quality responses to complex and unpredictable events.”

The National Institutes of Health’s US National Library of Medicine references the “Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle” for effective SOPs. This flowchart demonstrates the steps you can take when creating your own procedures.

Leave Nothing to Chance

SOPs spell it out without ambiguity, and take out the guesswork to reduce the risk of human error. And, if they are written with input from people who actually perform that particular task, they become a practical guide for everyone to follow.

The Penn State Extension, part of the College of Agricultural Sciences, gives this example of SOPs for a dairy farm. The step-by-step instructions, shown in a graphical format, clearly explain how to correctly feed the cows.

This is the level of detail you need to be effective.

Types of SOPs

Different industries need different types of procedures. What works for the retail store is probably irrelevant to what a pharmacy needs to keep things running safely and efficiently.

Here are some of the various types of SOPs that may benefit your company:

How Your Company Can Benefit from SOPs

1. Save time and money

It’s simple: SOPs create efficiency because employees don’t have to re-do mistakes. Established procedures take the questions out of the situation, and spell it out, plainly and clearly. The result is a much higher likelihood of employees doing it right the first time.

2. Create Consistency/Quality Control

In any sort of mass-production operation, consistency and quality control can mean the difference in producing products that work, and producing products that don’t work. Products can’t be a little different each time; they each need to be the same, every time.

3. Create a safer workplace

Employees need to know that their daily work will not put their health or life in danger.  Safety SOPs should include a discussion of the risks of a particular task, what measures employees should take to minimize those risks, and what to do if an injury occurs.

A scientific laboratory is a great example of a workplace where safety is paramount.  The Stanford University Office of Environmental Health and Safety offers guidance for protecting workers in a lab environment. Check out their General Use SOP for Carcinogens to see an actual document that works.

4. Simplify training for employees

New-employee training will run much more smoothly if each manager refers to the same source. Rather than managers simply telling new hires how to do something, they can refer to the written SOP for that task. Not only will that ensure managers teach the task the same way, each time, but it gives the employee confidence in their job by having something to refer back to, after training is complete.

5. Protect company standards into the future

Every office has an employee who is known as the expert on how things work. Certain people just know the way things are done, and have the experience to help others who may be learning the task for the first time.

Resist the temptation to rely on that employee to keep everyone on the same page. That reliance may keep things running efficiently for a while, but what happens if that employee leaves the company? Without written SOPs, all of that knowledge exits the building with them.

6. Help with employee performance assessment

When it’s time for performance reviews, a clearly defined SOP can be a valuable assessment tool. Written standards give employees something to work toward, and give managers a way to fairly conduct evaluations. Without something concrete, evaluations become less quantifiable and rely more on the manager’s opinion, which is likely biased.

In the Houston Chronicle’s article “Standardization for Increased Productivity & Efficiency,” journalist Morgan Rush discusses how SOPs can assist with this process:

“Once standards have been set for low, average and high performance, employees can be evaluated for their adherence to these standards. Identifying a consistent low performer may not necessarily be cause for penalties, but you may direct additional training and resources the employee to help boost productivity.”

7. Provide a basis for company expansion

If your company is looking to expand to an additional location, open a new branch, etc., SOPs are critical to making sure that each location does things the same way. Whatever your operational procedures are, each employee should have a written standard that is the same across the entire company. Creating procedures also allows you to compare productivity between locations.

Let’s Debunk a Common Myth:

SOPs will NOT eliminate creativity in the workplace

Consultant Brad Power, in an article for Harvard Business Review , says “Most people think standard operating procedures are a strait jacket that limits their flexibility. Yet in our increasingly complex world of work, with so many possible decisions and steps, clever use of standards can liberate.”

He gives an example from the Cleveland Clinic marketing department.  Because the hospital has a single marketing communications team that works across all medical service lines, they needed to create an overarching brand identity. Employees within the various departments feared that would restrict their ability to creatively market their individual service.

What they found was that it actually gave them more freedom. Chief Marketing Officer for the Cleveland Clinic, Paul Matsen, said “it actually creates freedom within a structure. For example, we are building a development platform for the iPad, and defining how it will interact with our electronic medical record system. When we resolve that for this first application, then our people will be able to create content for other applications using the same standard platform. Once you set up the standards and platforms, you can do more, and you can do it well.”

By creating a procedure to ensure operational consistency, Cleveland Clinic knew that everyone would start from the same platform, and that it was one that worked. From there, employees were given freedom to come up with creative solutions that met their particular customer needs. Management had the assurance that the iPad platform would stay consistent across applications, and employees had some autonomy and creative license. It was a win for all involved.

Get Started…But Do it Right

When you determine your company can benefit from uniform procedures, how do you write them? It’s critically important to understand that if the SOPs are not well written, they may be more harmful than not having them at all.

Just like making any sort of corporate change, using new SOPs will take time to learn and to put into practice. If done correctly, it will be well worth it down the road.

There Will Be Growing Pains

While the benefits will ultimately outweigh the costs, companies will likely experience some initial setbacks when implementing new SOPs. The expenses of dedicating employee time to create the procedures, and the potential for a decline in productivity as employees re-learn how to do things are common challenges. Don’t let them deter you.

And, remember that even the best procedures need to evolve and grow with the company. Don’t be afraid of re-visiting the documents periodically to determine if they are still working. If you identify problems, it’s time to revise your SOPs.

Angie Frederickson 

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