How to Effectively Distribute Your Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

There’s no denying that Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are an integral part of maintaining business operations. After all, a good set of instructions goes a long way to promote efficiency, effectiveness, and success for any business. 

But a good set of instructions does no good if they aren’t being properly disseminated to the people who need to use them.

In this article, we explore the reasons why you not only need SOPs and a good distribution system for them, but also how you can find the system that’s right for your company. 

What is an SOP?

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According to the IBM Knowledge Center, “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 SOP is a document that is used to describe the nuts and bolts of a process. A step-by-step road map of how to get from point A to point B.

It is often more fluid than a policy or procedure and can be changed to accommodate any revisions to a process as they happen.  

For example, the SOP might spell out who would be responsible for a given task or set of tasks in a process. Should the person responsible for completing the task ever change, the SOP could easily be updated to reflect the change in delegation of responsibility or authority over a process. 

Having a set of easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions is vital to ensuring that business tasks are performed consistently and efficiently. SOPs expand upon the information contained in a job description to help employees better understand the steps needed to fulfill job requirements. 

Aside from helping to streamline internal processes, SOPs may also be a regulatory requirement, depending on the industry. This is especially true in cases where accreditation status is concerned, requiring SOPs be followed to the letter.

How do we get the word out and stress why it’s important?

While having clear and concise SOPs is essential for any company, having a way to disseminate those SOPs and ensure that they are understood and followed is just as important.

Without access to clear instructions, employees may not be able to complete tasks correctly or on time. Having an SOP to refer to is key to keeping systems moving effectively and efficiently.

SOPs can be distributed in a number of ways.

Whichever method you choose, it needs to be one that fits your business and the flow of work for your employees.

Paper Copy Distribution

Depending on the size of the company, one might be tempted to simply disseminate copies of SOPs on paper to the employees who need to be made aware of the steps for a given process. 

The benefit of paper distribution is that employees have a hard copy that they can keep handy for easy reference.

This option isn’t as environmentally friendly as digital copies, but, depending on how often the SOP needs to be accessed, it can be helpful to have a hard copy available.

While this method may sound enticing, it is not the most effective way to distribute SOPs.

Paper copies can easily get misplaced or thrown out, leaving employees scrambling to get their hands on another copy.

Additionally, paper copies quickly become outdated when any updates are done to the SOPs. This can lead to confusion if employees are not using the most up-to-date version of the SOP.

Email Distribution

If the document needs a broader audience, employers might send it out through an email distribution list in Microsoft Office or whatever email server the company uses. 

The advantages of sending SOPs via email include broad distribution and quick delivery as well as a digital history of document distribution. 

On the other hand, issues with email communications, such as employees not reading emails quickly or at all, problems with broken email address links, or other technical glitches could hinder the distribution process.

Email distribution also poses issues when it comes to storing the SOPs for easy access.

Unless employees are very organized and have a method for storing important documents in their email accounts, attempting to locate the email with the SOP attachment may be difficult.

And, as with paper copies, SOPs stored in employee emails can also cause issues with version control.

Workflow Portal Distribution

For companies that have multiple departments or more than one location, the use of a workflow portal or a document storage program should be considered.

Programs like Microsoft SharePoint allow for document assignments to move through a workflow from the draft stage to the distribution stage, often allowing for the process to be automated so that the information doesn’t fall through the cracks. 

The benefits of using systems like SharePoint to organize and disseminate SOPs are that you have a digital history of the document’s distribution as well as an easy, automated process for getting the documents out to employees.

Additionally, any time an SOP is updated, the most recent version can be found in the portal.

The downside to workflow portals is that you often need a dedicated staff member to administer the site. Or, at the very least, employees need to be trained on how to access files in the document portal. This can take time and resources that the company may not have.  

Despite the cost and training requirements, workflow portals are the most effective way to distribute SOPs. Not only do they allow for the SOPs to be automatically sent out to all of the users, they also act as a cloud-based file storage where the most up-to-date documents can live and be found quickly and easily.

Other Options to Consider

According to Workflow.com, there are a number of apps like SharePoint that can be used to drive the distribution process for SOPs. Some of these include: WorkZone, Box, Confluence, Wrike, Intranet Connections, Igloo, Liferay Social Office, Nuxio, and more. 

These programs include either workflow capabilities or a simple cloud storage system that can organize information and make it accessible to employees who have permissions to access them.

Cost is measured either by the number of users or the amount of bandwidth needed to run the program.

And some of these programs can even be accessed for free.

There are also a number of vendors who specialize in designing document management programs that are tailored to companies’ specific business needs.

You can often find these by doing a quick internet search for document management systems.

Companies may choose a vendor to work more closely with them to personalize their document management system rather than purchasing a program that offers cookie cutter features. 

How do I know the SOP was received and is being used?


Depending on the company culture, requirements, or regulatory commitments, it may be necessary for you to set up a document receipt process. This can be anything from having employees sign paper receipts or attaching a read receipt code to your email when you send out a new SOP. 

Paper receipts are best for smaller companies where the signed receipt can easily be placed into an employee’s personnel file.

If you prefer electronic acknowledgements, requesting a read receipt in your email app is usually fairly simple and provides a time-stamped record of when the document was received by each employee and opened.

The intricacy of this process is completely up to the company’s leadership. 

In addition to making sure employees receive the information, many employers may opt to have employees complete a quiz or assessment to show that they have read and understand the information provided. 

This can be done on paper or through an online training portal as well.

Best Practices

The main thing to remember when working with SOPs is that it does no good to create an SOP if no one is reading it or using it. 

Clear communication is always the key to successfully creating and implementing any business document. Be sure to research your options before selecting an SOP dissemination process so that you can choose the right program to fit both your company’s and your employees’ needs.

Using Content to Retain Knowledge Within Your Business

Given the aging workforce in the United States, an employee nearing retirement may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of losing knowledge within a business.

Truth is, knowledge can walk out the door at any time, leaving an organization scrambling to rebuild a key position to what it once was. Tweet this

Businesses that proactively plan the transfer of knowledge for key positions reap benefits beyond a faster recovery from an unexpected employee loss, including:

  • Better onboarding for new hires
  • Overall increase in productivity
  • Faster ramp-up during employee transfers or promotions
  • Time freed up for busy subject matter experts as knowledge is transferred down
  • Identification of skill gaps or redundancies as they look to replicate the best and brightest across the organization

There are a variety of ways to share business knowledge, from less-formal tactics such as mentoring and job shadowing, to using technology to capture employee knowledge, to more purposeful programs that identify and document certain practices.

Regardless of the chosen method for knowledge transfer, information gleaned can only be shared and useful for the future if it is recorded, and that is where content comes into play.

Turning Content Into Shareable Knowledge

As with most successful activities within a business, achieving effective knowledge transfer requires a plan. While the process will vary some for every business, it should include the basic steps of identifying what to capture, how to document it, how to gather it and where to share it.

1. Identify Knowledge to Capture

Some areas of greatest priority for knowledge transfer may be obvious, such as the case of planned retirements, while others may take more digging to determine.

To help identify knowledge to document and transfer, take a look at:

  • Key subject matter experts
  • Employees nearing retirement
  • Company goals and the generational “backlog” to achieve them
  • Profit-driving products and processes within the business
  • Fast-growing departments
  • Silos and one-person areas of expertise

The knowledge transfer consultants at The Steve Trautman Co. use a matrix that helps organizations analyze their available knowledge and understand which areas are most at risk of being lost.

“Our Knowledge Silo Matrix helps the organization ask its managers who does what best,” says Sonja Gustafson, director of marketing. “From the examination of these key experts will arise skillsets that may need to be transferred.”

Image courtesy of The Steve Trautman Co.

Businesses may also consider soliciting employee questions to identify key knowledge gaps. If you already have an employee Q&A, forum or blog mechanism in place, scouring it can offer a wealth of ideas for knowledge that may need to be more formally captured.

2. Determine Best Content Format

There is good news and bad news when it comes to content. On the bright side, the choices are plentiful, but on the other hand, that can make more difficult the job of choosing a medium.

Consider this list of some popular content types in today’s workforce:   

  • Blogs
  • Case Studies
  • Ebooks
  • FAQ Lists
  • Fliers
  • Online Forums or Q&As
  • Podcasts
  • Presentations
  • Training & Procedures Manuals
  • Videos

Further complicating the matter is that there is not necessarily one solution: A mix of content is often the most effective way of communicating with a diverse staff.

The key here is considering the type of information and with whom it is being shared. Think about factors such as:

  • How employees prefer to learn
  • Whether information is time-sensitive or quickly outdated
  • Generational differences of the workforce
  • How to make information digestible
  • Whether the workforce is off or onsite
  • How frequently and quickly information will need to be referenced
  • The technology available to employees
  • Whether the physical work environment is conducive to alternatives such as audio and video

Image by Pexels

3. Gather Knowledge

Once the “who” to include and “what” to do with it is determined, next comes the “how” to get knowledge out of the heads of subject matter experts and into a useful format.

Here are four content-driven methodologies to consider for documenting knowledge:

  • Use of employee-driven technology: There is no shortage of tools available to help capture information from employees, from social-based sites such as Facebook Workplace, to custom intranet solutions, to robust software applications like these. While this may seem like an obvious and straightforward option, relying on employees to adopt such practices in a consistent and meaningful way is no easy endeavor, so be prepared for an ongoing effort to encourage use and participation.
  • Conducting interviews: Businesses can look to writers inside or outside of the organization to conduct interviews that can be documented and turned into useful content. Placing the task with individuals who enjoy and have a knack for writing can give you more control over the process, providing for smoother task completion and better content quality.
  • Tasking experts and trainees: At The Steve Trautman Co., consultants have found pairing an expert with a trainee and tasking the trainee with documentation to be most effective, as this protocol places less burden on a busy subject matter expert while putting the responsibility of skill development into the hands of those who need it.
  • Curating from existing material: Many businesses have a plethora of data sitting on drives, in online forums or applications, and within employee manuals. While it may not be as comprehensive as needed, it could be a good place to start documentation.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

4. Store & Share Knowledge

Here is where the hard work to document knowledge pays off – the sharing of content and reaping of the benefits.

Where content resides will depend on the chosen format and the communications framework established within the organization. Online intranets and network drives are popular, but some content types and business environments may require printed materials.

Whatever your chosen content combination, knowledge transfer efforts are wasted if information is not accessible and properly communicated.

Some ideas for storing, sharing and repurposing content to get the most “bang for the buck” include:

  • Do not forget to tell (and remind!) employees the content is available, and where
  • Post it on an intranet or network drive
  • Consider multiple uses – i.e., can a video be transcribed into an online blog, can an ebook be broken apart into smaller pieces and used another way
  • Use it for in-house training and webinars
  • Feature popular subjects in employee newsletters and communications
  • Insert key pieces into the employee on-boarding process
  • Make it highly searchable with keywords and a table of contents, where applicable
  • Use employee forums and Q&As as a source for future content ideas, then repurpose the information into other usable formats such as ebooks, fliers and FAQs

Knowledge Transfer Best Practices

The practice of transferring knowledge within a business can be overwhelming. The Steve Trautman Co.’s Gustafson offers a few parting words on putting it to use effectively:

  1. Do not make it up as you go along – having a plan and a process is critical
  2. Aim to use verbs and action words in content, especially where goals are concerned
  3. Set deadlines within the plan so steps can be met without overwhelming content contributors

PART 2: THE SIX MUST-HAVE ELEMENTS IN STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES

Remember when your English teacher introduced the idea of an introductory paragraph? She said you need to include certain information to help the reader immediately identify what your essay or story is about. And what made that lesson so memorable was the inclusion of Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

All those W’s stuck in your brain. Well, those W’s are going to help you in writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as well. But this time, we’re also going to add an H with “How.”

“How” turns out to be the most important of the six, but we’ll get to that later. Here’s the list of key elements along with the questions they should answer.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

 “Front Matter”

Where?

Title Page and/or Header. The title page should clearly indicate where the operating procedures are performed. The “where” might simply refer to the department in which the procedure is followed.

Of course, some companies have multiple locations. Each location may have different functions within the larger company, so each location will develop its own SOPs.

Some companies may have multiple locations performing the same operations, but they would likely still need separate SOPs. For example, the machinery and hardware at one location might be older than the other locations’ hardware, and more aggressive inspections at more frequent intervals might be required.

Additional items on the Title Page and/or Header:

  • The name of the document
  • The approval date or date of revision and revision number
  • The document number

What?

a. Scope. The scope identifies the process to be addressed and which activities are included. An SOP focuses on a single repetitive process or routine procedure.

Your company should have multiple SOPs, but each should be limited to its own document.

Scope-Safety Culture suggests that, in addition to defining the process or procedure in the document at hand, you may need to define what is not addressed and refer the reader to another document.

For example, you have an SOP for required housekeeping procedures for the craftsmen in your shop. In 2020, you needed an SOP to capture housekeeping procedures during a global pandemic. If so, the Scope section of each document should state that the SOP does not include the requirements contained in the other document, and it should refer the reader to that document.

b. Quality Assurance. After identifying the exact procedure your SOP will cover, you should address the way in which the procedure will be monitored for quality.

Identify the method, actions, or inspections that will serve as quality control for your product, service, system, or process. Will your product undergo testing by an independent lab? Will your customer service calls be recorded and monitored by a supervisor? Will there be inspections or monthly audits? It is important for employees to be aware from the outset that the results of their efforts will be evaluated.

When?

Schedule. Are the steps in this SOP to be performed daily, weekly, monthly, or semiannually? Are there inspections to performed at less frequent intervals? If so, these intervals must be clearly defined.

Perhaps these steps occur when a certain situation arises. For instance, your SOP may be about certain situations in customer service, such as the steps in deescalating customer frustration about particular issues.

Your SOP might also outline the repair of machinery or equipment when there is a malfunction or damage. The situation in which the procedures are to be implemented must be clearly defined as well.

Why?

Purpose. We’ve talked about the importance of SOPs and the ramifications of not having them. So, this section is where you tell your employees why it’s important to the company and why it should be important to them. Is its purpose to make clear to everyone in a particular department or group what to do and what tasks are mandatory? Is it for the employee’s personal safety and the safety of their coworkers?

Is it for workers in the field whose actions impact smooth operations and the safety of personnel and equipment?

Who?

Responsible Parties. This section identifies the group of employees who will perform the actions, such as workers in a particular office, members of a particular trade, etc. This section also identifies and anyone who bears responsibility when those actions are not followed or when a situation arises that needs special attention. This includes foremen, supervisors, inspectors, and managers.

Optional, but Potentially Critical Elements of “Front Matter”

Acronym Lists.

For short documents and documents that use the same acronyms throughout the document, it suffices to define the acronym upon first use (spell out each word and follow them with the acronym in parentheses) and use the acronym thereafter.

In an SOP, it’s more likely that there are a significant number of pages between an acronym’s first use and subsequent usage. If that’s the case, the reader will probably forget what it means. That may spark a lengthy hunt for where it was first mentioned.

If the document has a more than a few acronyms, a new employee may have difficulty keeping up with them. So, it’s helpful to have a separate list of acronyms.

List of Definitions.

Some businesses place key importance on certain words. These words may take on meanings and nuances that are specific to the company or the industry. For example, in companies guided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety guidelines, there are “incidents” and “accidents.” To a new employee, these may sound interchangeable, but they are not.

A list of definitions will include the industry-specific meaning and what distinguishes the term from other words that seem to be synonymous. Senior Project Manager Michael McBride, who formerly managed SOP development at a major engineering technical professional services firm, provided his insight for this article. McBride says simply, “The List of Definitions should include any meanings beyond Webster.”

Not surprisingly, OSHA lists the following words as candidates for inclusion in SOPs: Risk, Personnel, Consequence, Summative assessment, and Work Control Plan (WCP).

Does your business have words that make a difference in your workplace?

The Meat: The Body of the Document

How?

Steps. Of the five sources consulted for this article, four used the word “unambiguous” to describe the language to use in the steps in an SOP. An example of “unambiguous” is the use of certain words, including shall, should, must, and may.

The FDA Group points out that using the word “may” gives personnel decision-making power and/or flexibility, and “must” is always mandatory.

Shall and should work the same way. While “shall” is mandatory, “should” is used when noncompliance is permissible under certain circumstances.

McBride emphasized that the explanation as to when deviations/noncompliance are permissible should be described within the steps themselves. He stressed that deviations must be addressed in detail:

  • When might it be ok to deviate from the procedure?
  • Exactly what are the circumstances?
  • What form or forms might be required?
  • Who approves the deviation?

Use “shall” and “should” to precede your steps.

You should:

1: Number your steps.

2: Start each step with a verb.

3: In instances where there is a phrase that helps qualify the actions in the step, begin the sentence with that phrase. For example: “If there is any obstruction in the line, clear the obstruction before you proceed.”

  • If there is an SOP for clearing the line, refer to that SOP.
  • If the method is simple, provide the steps beneath—indented in outline fashion.

4: Keep it simple. Use language that is easily understood.

5: Be consistent. If you mean the same thing, say it the same way.

Qualifications.

McBride suggests that the required qualifications for the individuals performing the tasks should be included after the steps that they are to perform. This is so that the employee understands the responsibilities they will have after earning the required designation. Perhaps, after reading what the foreman does, they may decide not to go that route. Alternately, Qualifications may be included in the section called Responsible Parties.

Often Included at the End

Checklists.

Checklists are often included at the end of an SOP. They may be for employees to use to ensure that they perform their tasks according to steps outlined in the SOP. Others may be used by supervisors, managers, or inspectors in their QA checks.

In its Guidance for Preparing SOPs, EPA.gov reminds readers that these checklists are NOT the SOP. They are included for reference. Often the checklists included are marked “For reference only” or with the watermark “SAMPLE.” Checklists are often modified more often than the SOP is updated. It’s critical that employees use the latest version of the checklist available from either their supervisor or an electronic storage system accessible to employees.

What’s the Key to Clarity, Synergy, and Compliance?

Accessibility.

The EPA says it best in its Guidance for Preparing Standard Operating Procedures:

“Current copies of the SOPs . . . need to be readily accessible for reference in the work areas of those individuals actually performing the activity, either in hardcopy or electronic format. Otherwise, SOPs serve little purpose.

This means you will need a system for document storage that ensures employees are operating according to the latest version of each procedure.

A Note about Hardcopies.

A document control system ensures that the most recent version of each document is available. However, once printed, there’s no control. The employee who prints the procedure, keeps it in their desk, and pulls it out for reference a month or two later runs the risk of operating from checklist or a set of procedures that has been revised. The sooner your company is able to provide a system that enables employees to view procedures in an electronic format in the work area the better.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends including “Uncontrolled when printed” in the footer.

So Much To Do!

You may be:

  • Starting a small business,
  • Or a new manager facing the challenge of getting a division of employees to adopt new processes,
  • Or someone whose company is coping with inventory shortages, product quality issues, or accidents in the shop.

You’ve got a LOT on your plate!

Words like “must-have,” “up-front effort,” “stakeholder team,” “document control system,” “written procedures” and the idea of having hardware or devices to provide employee access in every work area may be daunting—even overwhelming. You know that it makes perfect sense, and you know it must all be done, but you may simply be spread too thin.

Bringing in a team of professionals to interview key stakeholders and draft the SOPs can relieve you of a lot of the burden. You can leave the team meetings and the review and approval process to your key stakeholders and the writing professionals. Then you simply review the document for final approval.

What are the Benefits of Standard Operating Procedures?

It’s likely that if you’ve been in business for long, you understand the need for Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). You may have even discovered the need for them when faced with a problem that resulted from not having them. The problem may have been so severe that you’ve become a real cheerleader for SOPs.

But for the sake of a budding entrepreneur or someone in an existing business without them, let’s review why SOPs are so important.

SOPs are important in:

  • Avoiding confusion and chaos.
  • Ensuring that your customers are all treated in the same manner.
  • Ensuring the safety of your employees.
  • Ensuring efficiency and timeliness.

SOPs help avoid:

  • Production shutdowns.
  • Lack of materials.
  • Returns.
  • Injuries.
  • Loss of reputation, lawsuits, and fines.

Poor customer service can be the death knell for a company that sells its services or products directly to consumers. Employees must know just how to manage a variety of specific situations, so they aren’t caught flat-footed and react poorly. Negative experiences with your customer service representatives can directly affect your ability to garner repeat business.

Or, if you’re in a business that provides products for intermediary sellers, poor quality and production delays come at a tremendous cost to your reputation. If businesses that procure your products can find other sources with fewer delays or higher quality, you’re in for losses in income.

And no matter what kind of business you have, the potential for accidents exists. Even in an office, trips, slips, and falls can occur.

In fact, according to the National Safety Council, trips, slips, and falls account for 27.5 percent of all lost time injuries in the workplace. If your business has a warehouse or shop, your risks go up dramatically. The absence of procedures for how to deal with these kinds of situations, and the failure to reinforce existing procedures, can result in injuries leading to fines, lawsuits, and the loss of business.

How Can You Use SOPs to Your Advantage?

Senior Project Manager Michael McBride was consulted for his perspective on the importance of SOPs and the elements to include in them. Michael is a degreed engineer who works for an established Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) company. He focuses on procuring contracts in the 300-to-500-million-dollar range. His career experience includes time spent managing SOP development.

Michael enumerated the advantages of developing and re-evaluating SOPs.

  1. 1. Consistency of work. We’ve talked about the benefits of consistency in customer service, in manufacturing and production, and in terms of safety. Michael cautions, “Safety lapses occur when people are off on their own—not following standard procedures.” Then, he identified one more benefit to following a clearly defined procedure: Once you have an SOP in place, you can identify what needs to be changed.
  2. 2. Predictability. After consistency has been established, you have a record of how long it takes to complete your procedures. These metrics enable you to predict the work hours to use in bidding new projects or justifying price increases.
  3. 3. Efficiency. By following the same process over and over, you increase profitability. Efficiency in production is what made Henry Ford rich—and the countless other companies that followed his business model.
  4. 4. Quality control. Once you have established what processes yield quality results, you can build a Quality Assurance (QA) group to flesh out all the areas in and junctures at which to require QA checks. The group can also develop the qualifications your employees must have to perform their duties.
  5. 5. Interchangeability. If the processes within your company are consistent, certain individuals can step in when needed without disrupting efficiency in your operations.
  6. 6. Identifying core competencies. If your company’s operations depend on procuring contracts to use your services and you have succeeded in establishing repeatability, you can intelligently choose the work you want to pursue. You can identify work that is outside your core competencies. As Michael explained, “When you are considering whether to bid a job, you can easily decide when you are in ‘innovation territory.’” If you are, you must decide whether to add it to your core competencies or to pass on pursuing the contract.
  7. 7. Certifications. Michael pointed out that most entities that certify businesses (ISO, Lean Six Sigma, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), etc.) require that businesses have Standard Operating Procedures.

SOPs require up-front effort, but the payoff is enormous.

The SOP process itself helps you mine, gather, and utilize what’s in the minds of your experts. It also helps you vet the procedures you already have in place, enabling you to recognize things in your process that aren’t really valuable.

You may identify the reason a step was included in the first place. For example, you may have questioned why the process includes filling out a particular form. As it turns out, it’s needed by the Accounting Department in compiling a particular report.

When Should SOPs Be Developed?

Ideally, SOPs should be developed as soon as possible after you open your doors.

They can be, and will need to be, revised as work progresses and situations arise, but having them in place from the outset will reduce the lack of employee buy-in. (“This company doesn’t know what it’s doing.” Or “How can they expect me to do my job correctly if there’s nothing written down?”)

With all of the things you’re doing to accelerate growth in your new operations, you don’t need to contend with these attitudes.

A suggestion about sequence:

Our expert recommends that after your first successful project, you should document what made it successful and what, if anything, may have hindered progress.  

After two projects or production cycles, you should then develop a roadmap.

Developing Your Roadmap

As the entrepreneur of a burgeoning new business or the manager of a new division, you can identify the novel processes you’ve developed in your business process. Standard Operating Procedures that are not unique to your processes may be found online and adopted for your business. (This writer found that they’re plentiful–particularly on regulatory sites such as OSHA.)

This is where the roadmap comes into play.

A simple documentation roadmap is a strategic plan that outlines your vision for creating your suite of SOPs. Your roadmap can be a document, a graphic, or both. But with a simple documentation roadmap, you should identify:

  • Your novel processes.
  • The operating procedures your team should develop from scratch.
  • The procedures that can utilize and modify an existing SOP.
  • The order in which the SOPs should be developed.
  • A projected timeline for document delivery.
  • The Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who are best suited to each SOP/group of SOPs.
  • The standard parts (elements) you want to include in all of your SOPs.

ProductPlan, a planning tool that enables your team to create roadmaps in minutes, recommends that you not call your roadmap a “document,” as it will signal to you and to others in your organization that it is finished. It’s documented. It’s static.

But it’s not.

The roadmap should change as your processes and ideas for expansion mature. ProductPlan writes: “A roadmap is more of a process than a thing. You might even think of your roadmap as a strategic conversation.”

There are free graphic templates for roadmaps that are customizable to your needs available on the Office Timeline site.

“But wait, there’s more!”

There are more comprehensive roadmap systems that capture your plan for SOPs, other company documentation, and much more. These tools are called “product roadmap software” or “project management software.” These tools enable you to capture your:

  • Strategic plan.
  • Continuous Improvement Program (CIP).
  • Project development process.
  • Workflows.
  • Documentation development process.
  • Quotes, and invoices.

The roadmap can be shared with the entire workforce. Most are customizable to your specific needs, and you can choose a roadmap tool that is compatible with your company’s software suite. While there are a lot of software options out there, here are some of the top-rated roadmap tools that we found.

ProductPlan

ProductPlan helps teams plan, visualize, and share product strategy. It is designed to keep your team aligned with a flexible roadmap that can be accessed across the entire organization.

Aha!

The world’s No. 1 roadmap software was developed by Aha! Labs. Aha! helps you set strategy, prioritize features, and share visual plans.

Monday.com

Project Management software Monday.com allows you to choose from several pre-made, customizable templates to develop a high-level visual of your strategic initiatives. Multiple features enable you to know where things stand against your key milestones.


There are lots of online reviews of the leading roadmap and product management tools. Captera.com provides a list of products that can be filtered by features, pricing, deployment method, and number of users.

Whether you develop a separate roadmap for document development or utilize a tool to capture a roadmap for multiple company processes, just be sure to include your SOP development process in your company’s early strategic planning.

When you have a roadmap for developing SOPs for your novel processes, it’s time to move forward. Your SMEs develop the details and, in this way, they capture the hard work you’ve done in establishing the processes that set your business apart.

What’s the First Step in Developing an Individual SOP?

You’ve identified the SMEs that support and oversee the various processes within your company and included those experts in your roadmap. Now it’s time to assemble the team for the first SOP or, if multiple SOPs are to be produced at the outset, assemble your teams. Each team is made up of the experts who know how the process should work and the line manager of that process—your “stakeholder team.”

Then it’s time to chug through the writing process. An alternative is to employ the skills of a technical writer who can facilitate the process and start drafting the SOP as soon as the team meetings begin.

As the document process evolves, the team must agree on the scope, the methods of ensuring quality assurance (inspections, testing, reports), the purpose, the responsible parties and their required qualifications, the steps themselves, and the ramifications of non-compliance.

Sound daunting? Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, which will lead you and your team through the six elements your team should include in a comprehensive and effective SOP.

Document Management – How To Make Sure Employees Can Find Critical Business Info When They Need It

Let’s be honest…document management is probably not on the top of your priority list. You may even have an “old school” filing cabinet, where your company stores copies of personnel files and HR paperwork.

You have to admit, though, that digging through physical files (or even unorganized files on your computer desktop) is not exactly an efficient business practice. The good news is, you’re not alone.

Many companies have problems organizing their documents and making information easy to access.

Fixing this problem gives you a competitive advantage in terms of efficiency and the ability to promote synergy across the company.

Businesses of all sizes naturally end up with a ton of documents to manage, from job applications and employment forms to client data.

Just imagine being able to access all of the legal and marketing documents employees create, even after employees transition into new jobs with new companies. You wouldn’t have to waste time trying to find or recreate documents.

Implementing a document management system could be the solution for total organization and transparency within your company.

This guide is an overview of document management systems and some product recommendations for software that you can use.

What is a Document Management System?

A document management system is a software program that is used to store, manage, and provide access to digital files.

Sometimes referred to as DMS, versions of document management systems can be found in businesses, schools, and homes. Document management systems are designed to streamline the process of creating storing and accessing files.

Examples of Document Management Systems

Technically, you could have a document management system that exists without cloud-based software.

If you scan physical files into your office’s computer and label each digital file with identifying information so you can find it easily when you need it later, you created a rudimentary document management system without having to pay for a cloud-based system.

While this may work for some businesses, large companies, or companies the same files from separate locations, need a more interconnected system.

Cloud technologies make it easier to share files among computers, even if they are in separate locations. Many companies rely on cloud-based document management systems to store all company-related documents.

Some ways that document management systems can be used include storing:

  • Signed NDA agreements
  • Client files
  • Client contact information
  • Marketing files
  • Legal documents
  • Contracts

Advantages of Document Management Systems

There are many advantages to implementing a document management system. Depending on your company’s pain points, certain benefits might have more impact than others.

Here are some of the primary advantages of document management systems:

Paperless

Document management systems make it possible to have a paperless office where you don’t need to maintain filing cabinets of documents.

This can make your operations more sustainable and reduce your office-supply expenses for paper and ink.

Constant Access

Using a cloud-based document management system means that your team will have constant, real-time access to stored files.

This provides the ability to access files from personal computers at home, or mobile devices while on the go. In the event that a client asks for specific information during a meeting, you will have immediate access to the files.

Save Money

There are many surprising ways that using a document management system can save your company money.

First, employees won’t waste paid time looking for or re-creating files. If your team worked with a graphic designer to create a flyer or event logo, you will always have access to it.

More Secure

Document management systems are more secure than other alternatives.

Physical documents can easily get lost or destroyed. Files stored on individual computers, tablets, and smartphones can become compromised when employees leave or if the devices are lost.

Access to the document management system can be limited to only those that need it. This means that your executive team can have secured access to files that administrators and temps won’t have access to.

Scalability

Scaling your business is much easier when you have existing processes in place.

A document management system can provide the tools, documents, templates, and processes your growing team needs.

Less Wasted Time

As previously mentioned, your team will waste less time looking for or re-creating files after implementing a document management system.

However, there are other ways it will save you time. As more files are created within the document management system, no one will need to spend time printing or scanning physical papers.

Less Redundancy

A document management system can reduce the amount of redundancy within your organization by allowing for one file that everyone can access.

By contrast, emailing a document to several recipients creates multiple versions of the same file.

If you ask for feedback on a document, you will no longer need to compile several different files.

Steps to Creating a Document Management System

Creating a document management system doesn’t have to be complicated.

The process includes an assessment of what your company needs in terms of document management, who will be responsible for uploading printed documents, and file-naming conventions that you can rely on.

For most companies, the process of creating and managing a document management system is based on the following steps:

Determine Which Documents You Need

The first step in choosing a system is to simply figure out what documents you want to store.

This can include proposals, standard operating procedures, marketing materials, internal employee documents, and more.

You may decide that it isn’t practical or necessary to store every document your team interacts with.

Figure Out Who Needs Access

Next, you will need to think about who needs access to which documents.

Some programs enable you to partition off access, so employees only have access to the files that they need. Others allow everyone to have access to everything.

The ability to control access to specific files is important for company security, especially for larger, national, and international companies.

Companies generally limit access to files based on the management levels in the company, working areas, departments, and project participation.

For example, the executive management team of a company needs access to personnel files and business intelligence that many base-level employees do not need. The company gives the executive management team access but denies access to everyone else, effectively keeping the information secure.

This can also be helpful for keeping files secure while complying with government regulations. For example, the HR department must keep nearly all of its files secure.

By limiting access in the document management system to the HR department, the company can share a DMS across the company’s infrastructure while keeping the HR department compliant with regulations.

Scanning Paper Documents

If your company has a lot of paper documents, you will need to scan all of the paper documents into the system.

This can probably be done using the document management system you choose or your computer’s built-in scanning program.

You will need to think about who will be responsible for uploading the documents and when they should upload them. Does an administrator upload files each week? Or only as needed?

Labeling Files

The method that you use to label the files is probably the most important step in the entire process.

This method should be used by every member of your team so that it is easy for everyone to find the files that they need. When all of the files are labeled correctly, it is easy to find and sort everything.

The file name labeling process can include:

  • Business Name
  • Client Name
  • Client Number
  • Project Name
  • Version Number
  • Date
  • Department Name
  • User Name
  • Creator Name
  • Product Name
  • Types of Data
  • Location

In practice, this can look something like: “Client Name Document Location Date” or “Widgets Company Business Plan United States 2020.”

It is enough information to understand what the document is later. When the naming conventions are the same across all documents, it is much easier to find documents you need.

Deletion Policies

How long will you need to store the files? At what point do you need to delete the files?

Be prepared to think about what would serve as reasonable deletion policies for your organization. In most cases, there are files that you will not need access to forever.

Internet Security

Once you migrate company files into a cloud-based document management system, cybersecurity measures become even more important.

This includes antivirus programs and strong passwords.

Your company maintains responsibility for confidential customer information, private internal files, and financial data. If an unauthorized user gained access to this data and exploited it, your company could be held responsible. Customers could even lose confidence in your company.

Many document management systems have security features built-in to protect files from outside access and for limiting internal security risks as well.

How to Choose a Document Management System

When it comes to document management systems, you can either create your own system or you can use an existing software program that is commercially available.

For most teams, choosing a ready-to-use solution is the preferred choice, as you will be able to implement it without having your IT department spend the time and resources needed to develop a custom solution.

Some things to consider when deciding which document management system is best:

  • The size of your team
  • Need for restricting access
  • Type of access needed
  • Types of devices and platforms in use
  • Security and privacy needs
  • Types of files to be stored

Overview of DMS Software Options

There are dozens of different document management systems available on the internet, from free solutions to paid subscription-based tools.

Each program has its own pros and cons, from ease of access to the depth of their customization options.

The needs of each company are different, which makes investigating a wide range of DMS important. These DMS cover the needs of a majority of companies in different areas and with different focuses.

OnlyOffice

OnlyOffice makes it possible to work on documents at the same time, which is important for teams that like to collaborate.

In essence, it creates a small cloud-based within your company’s IT infrastructure, removing the need for access to an external cloud system. That way, you have full control over its security, redundancy, and disaster recovery systems since it is located on your company’s servers instead of in a third-party server system.

The biggest benefit that OnlyOffice provides is the integration with Microsoft Office tools.

If your company uses Microsoft Office, then OnlyOffice makes these tools available through the cloud system. You won’t need to invest in training for the editing tools in whichever DMS you use or to acquire a new system that makes document editing easier in a DMS.

With the ability to edit files using Microsoft Office through OnlyOffice, OnlyOffice makes Microsoft Office function more like online tools like Google Drive. There is no limit to the number of people working on a document at any time unlike using Microsoft Word on a single computer.

OnlyOffice integrates with other document management systems, too.

If you already have systems in place, like SharePoint, Nextcloud, or Confluence, your company can add OnlyOffice on to those programs. It gives other DMSs access to Microsoft Office’s document editing tools. OnlyOffice integrates with a range of other programs, making it possible to add cloud data management functionality to the systems and processes that you already have in place.

OnlyOffice is a cost-effective solution, even though it isn’t free. While it does have some compliance features, this may not be the best solution for companies that have to deal with a lot of regulatory compliance concerns.

SharePoint Online

SharePoint has long been used by corporations as a way to share and organize files.

For companies that are already heavily invested in Microsoft programs such as Microsoft Office 365, it is an intuitive program that is easy to integrate with other programs.

SharePoint gives your company more modularity in file sharing. You can create spaces within SharePoint for different business units, making it easy to share information among specific groups and reducing information exposure and overload for units in other parts of the company.

You can also share resources across all business units to speed up critical information sharing.

One of the most useful features that SharePoint offers is the SharePoint Mobile app. It extends SharePoint onto mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, so that your staff members can stay connected anywhere.

While SharePoint is one of the leading options, it also has its drawbacks.

One of the major disadvantages of SharePoint is that it is fairly expensive compared to other DMS available. The price can limit the extent to which your company can deploy SharePoint, making it a better option for large corporations with high technology and infrastructure budgets.

Rubex

If your company needs to continue to use physical documents, then you may need a system that works more effectively with physical documents.

If sharing physical documents is more important than editing documents online, eFileCabinet’s program called Rubex could be a good option.

One of the features that makes Rubex stand out is its optical character recognition function. It can scan physical documents with a high degree of clarity, ensuring that sharing your documents with other staff members will still produce high-quality documentation.

Once scanned into the system, staff members can share the online version of the document instantly, while maintaining the physical copies that they need.

The ability to scan files in high definition is also important for companies that need audit trails.

Companies in the legal, accounting, human resources, and insurance sectors are good examples of companies that can use Rubex to its fullest potential.

HR departments must keep physical copies of documents under lock and key to maintain compliance. However, Rubex makes it possible to securely share copies of documents within the department without compromising the security of the physical copies.

While Rubex is useful for document management, it is not particularly well-suited for mobile devices.

OpenDocMan

For a free option, OpenDocMan is an open-source web-based DMS that works on many different operating systems.

This is because OpenDocMan is built using PHP, the same programming software as other leading programs and web-based systems including WordPress. Because of this, it also works for any file type.

OpenDocMan is designed for security and efficiency, with a deep focus on privacy standards for web-based programs. It has detailed file access control to make sharing more secure.

The system uses the same type of cloud-server-based systems that websites use, so it has a built-in recovery infrastructure in case of disasters and emergencies.

OpenDocMan supports automatic system maintenance. The program will manage its own updates, including installing security updates and new features when they are available. This prevents the need to dedicate a lot of time and effort to system maintenance.

OpenDocMan is an effective way to share files to make information sharing more efficient, but it doesn’t have strong collaboration tools or one-on-one training options. In fact, its only training is through webinars and third-party tutorials.

If your team requires more support to learn a new program, this wouldn’t be a good fit.

Confluence

Confluence is a document management system that offers other resources to help companies stay organized and increase efficiency.

Confluence uses a template system to help staff members create documents. Then, they can be accessed by other users making it easier to share information with effectively designed documents.

While Confluence focuses on document creation and sharing, you can also create other forms of information sharing.

Most notably, it has a feature for creating knowledge bases, blogs, and social features. It essentially creates a database of company knowledge that can be used for daily operations, training, and communication enhancement

The biggest drawback to Confluence is that it doesn’t seem to support documentation outside of the program. If your company already has systems in place that Confluence won’t replace, this may present some challenges.

Optix

Optix is another option that focuses on replacing all of your company’s internal documentation systems. It is designed to make information management and document creation more efficient with online tools.

This reduces printing costs and physical systems overhead.

Another feature that Optix uses to reduce costs is automation. It has many automated functions that both collect data from documents and create documents.

Optix uses a drag-and-drop system to help staff members create templates that automatically collect data needed for different operations.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to Optix is that most of its efficiency gains comes from being the only system that your company needs to create and manage documents.

If your company continues to use systems outside of Optix, like Microsoft Office or Google Drive, then the gains that it promises may not materialize.

Employee Buy-In

Cultivating employee buy-in can be just as important as choosing the right software program.

Implementing a document management system will only be successful if you can get employees and contractors to follow the process and use the program.

Creating use cases and demonstrating how a new system can improve performance can help to position the document management system as a worthwhile solution. When employees can see how a new program will help them, they are more likely to be invested in implementing it.

In addition, having access to effective training can have an impact on employee buy-in.

This can be training provided by the company that sells the document management system or that you create for your staff.

If you are torn between two different software programs, choosing the option that has existing training videos, live help, and tutorials could be a good choice.

Getting a Handle on your Business Documents

Policies. Procedures. SOPs. Instructions. Standards. These aren’t just fancy buzzwords tossed around the office. These are documents that, when written well and used correctly, will save you mounds of time, money, and frustration.

Defining the differences

All of these documents are different and serve various functions.

If you are not familiar with their differences and use the terms interchangeably, you run the risk of confusing yourself, your leadership, and your team.

Below are simple definitions of each of these documents and their distinctions.

All of them should be written clearly, so everyone across your organization can read and comprehend them regardless of age, position in the company, education, knowledge, or skill level. 

Policies

Painting a picture of what is and what is not acceptable

Derived from the Old French term, “polici,” which means “civil administration,” policies serve as the overall guidelines to govern your business or organization.

Policies help leaders make decisions by defining what is and what is not acceptable in the workplace. 

A dress code, for example, is a type of policy.

It outlines what kinds of dress are and are not acceptable in the workplace and provides management and leadership guidelines, ensuring your workforce is presentable in front of customers and clients.

Most organizations also have policies that address drug and alcohol in the workplace, as well as ones for attendance and tardiness.

Having these policies helps management decide when — and to what degree — a manager should administer disciplinary action if an employee breaks them.

Simply stated, policies allow a manager to respond to a workplace problem consistently and confidently. And, at the end of the day, help employees be more productive. 

When it comes to writing a policy, there are some questions you should ask yourself:

1. Is it clear? Policy definitions need to be concise and comprehensive.

For example, if you are writing a policy about bullying in the workplace, using terms like “physical aggression, intimidation, or verbal abuse” helps paint a picture of what bullying at your company or organization looks like.

You also need to include to whom the policy applies. Is it only for staff? Or is it for volunteers and contractors? 

2. Are you communicating policies effectively? A policy serves you no good if you’re not reaching your intended audience.

There are many ways to communicate your policy, including an article on your company’s Intranet, reviewing it in a town hall or other type of staff meeting, and including a link in a learning management system.

Policies are not just for new employees, either. Tenured employees should review them often as well.

3. Do they reflect your company’s core values? When writing your policies, they should reflect the values you’ve established.

They should be specific to your culture and what you expect from your team members. 

Standard Operating Procedure 

Providing a roadmap to success

A standard operating procedure or “SOP” acts as a roadmap for teams to follow when carrying out specific processes or a flow of activity. It provides a basis to ensure that services and products are delivered consistently. 

In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, SOPs cover the proper way to carry out activities such as dispensing of medications and checking expiration dates. The SOPs help pharmacists avoid errors in getting medicines to patients, thus keeping them safe.

Without having this go-to guide, several different team members may approach the same task in several different ways.

However, if there’s a protocol in place for them to follow, the chances of them making a mistake decreases, saving you time and money.

When writing an SOP, you may want to consider including the following elements: 

  • A title of the procedure 
  • An SOP identification number
  • A publication or revision date
  • The name of the role, organization, division, or agency that the SOP applies to
  • Names and signatures of those who prepared and approved the procedures outlined in the SOP

Here is an example of an SOP from Iowa State University on food preparation and safety: 

A tool for outlining expectations related to quality control, an SOP also includes company standards, which are written with “musts” and “must-nevers.”  

A standard does not tell you how to carry out the process; instead, it tells you what you must — and must not — do.

Thriving Small Business provides a great example of how a call center may create a set of standards for its team members to provide exceptional customer service. These standards may include:

  • MUST answer the phone within two rings.
  • MUST identify themselves when they answer the phone.
  • MUST take down the customer’s name and phone number.
  • MUST NEVER hang up the phone first.  

These standards help ensure consistency when carrying out the work, and team members should be held accountable to them.

Work Instruction

Giving step-by-step instructions

Finally, work instructions specifically spell out the correct way to perform a task.

They are not the same as an SOP, even though you may reference them in your SOPs.  

For example, an SOP may instruct team members to maintain good personal hygiene, with a step stating they must wash their hands before starting each shift.

A work instruction, on the other hand, gives step-by-step instructions on HOW to wash them.

You can think of a work instruction like a recipe. They should be: 

  • Clear
  • Easily accessible to those performing the task
  • Consistent
  • Short
  • Explanatory, providing the “whys” behind each step 

Operational Excellence Consulting provides an excellent example of a work instruction here: 

“All of these documents serve an important purpose to streamline how you do business,” said Carolyn Olivarez, retired vice president of quality for LifeGift, the organ, eye, and tissue recovery agency in Houston. “Establishing and organizing these documents is particularly critical when you are managing multiple offices in various geographic locations.”

It is great to have all of these documents clearly written and organized, but they will not serve your business or organization if they are not communicated to your team and often.

SOPs, policies, instructions, and standards should not be left to collect dust.

Your business documents can quickly become obsolete as your business evolves.

Have a plan in place for a regular review of policies, make the appropriate updates, and, most of all, make sure they communicated to your employees. 

For more guidance on how to write and organize your critical business documents, here are links to some suggested reading:  

Best Practice for Distributing SOPs

So, your standard operating procedures (SOPs) are ready to go—you’ve written them, had them reviewed and tested, and incorporated feedback. Now all you have to do is distribute them. That should be the easy part, right?

Well, you’re probably dealing with a lot of SOP content, and it can be hard to know exactly who needs to receive what information or how to get it to them in an efficient manner.

Here are a few things to know and do to make your SOP distribution organized and efficient (and headache free).

Know When SOPs Need Distributing

First, it’s useful to know when SOPs need distributing. (Hint: it’s not just when something new has been written).

SOP distribution needs to happen for several situations, including newly written SOPs, changes/updates to existing SOPs, new hire training, and scheduled training. SOP access is also required for things like general employee reference, issue resolution, and updating training materials.

Also, people need to have consistent access to pertinent information. It shouldn’t take complex chains of communication and approval processes occurring over several days for employees to get the information they need.

Know Who Needs to Receive/Have Access to Which SOPs

Obviously, different employees will require access to different SOPs depending on the content. Remember, not everyone needs to see everything. (Accountants don’t need to read detailed SOPs about operating forklifts.)

Updated or newly written SOPs may need to go to every employee or only to particular departments and/or specific employees.

New hires need company-wide SOPs that apply to all employees, like human resources SOPs on time keeping and safety procedures, as well as any SOPs specific to their departments and/or positions.

Scheduled training can require a range of different SOPs depending on the type of training. For example, company-wide review sessions will likely require more than quarterly internal department trainings.

Having different SOP requirements for different people requires you to keep track of information, such as:

  • Every department within the company
  • Every position within each department
  • Every SOP cross-referenced with its recipient departments and/or positions/titles
  • Every individual employee cross-referenced with his/her position/title
  • Every individual’s contact information

Yeah, that’s a lot of data to keep organized and current, let alone put to use in order to distribute all SOPs to the correct people in a timely and efficient manner.

While it may be tempting to just send everything to everyone and be done with it, completing heavy admin/data input early on can significantly improve employees’ information retention and compliance, and reduce your workload in the long run.

Thinking about sorting through and organizing so many details can easily cause overwhelm (and nausea at the thought of the required admin). But never fear—where there’s a will to work smarter, there’s a way.

Utilize Technology to Organize This Information and Distribute SOPs

What’s the best solution for distributing SOPs in an efficient, reliable manner? Put technology, particularly data organization and automation, to work for you.

There are different options available to suit your needs and limitations, all of which depend on factors such as the size of your company, the amount and speed of company growth, budget/financial resources, the amount of SOP content, and the level of prioritization placed on SOP content management by the top decision makers.

Humble Beginnings – Necessity Is the Mother of Spreadsheets (and Tagging Systems)

Many SOPs contain an overall list of recipients at the beginning of the document— the typical “this policy applies to” section—but you need more specific information to make sure the SOPs get exactly where they need to go.

While it’s not an ideal or long-term solution, using a spreadsheet can be a useful place to start if you’re just starting to organize information and build a formal process. You can use a spreadsheet to store, sort, and export department, position/title, employee name, and contact information.

You can also include information about what SOPs each department and position/employee needs in your spreadsheet. A document tagging system can help with this part.

You can create and use a tagging system to label the SOP documents themselves with the recipient departments and employees/positions.

By adding metadata tags to your documents, you can quickly find the documents you’re looking for and easily cross-reference them with others documents and information. You can read more about creating and using a tagging system in our previous blog post.

To distribute the SOPs using this information, you can export contact information from the spreadsheet or, even better, create and use group email accounts like [email protected] and [email protected] so that a single message will go out to everyone added to that group.

Overall, this is a relatively crude system that should only be used as a starting point and upgraded to keep up with demand.

Moving on Up – Shared File Systems and Intranet

A step up from using email distribution is using a shared file system or an intranet (perhaps along with a tagging system). Shared file systems and intranets give all employees constant access to what they need.

You can create specific folders or pages with different access permissions in shared file systems and intranets. This way, you’ll know where the information for each department and/or employee goes, and distribution is as simple as placing the content in the system and, if necessary, granting access. In other words, this eliminates some of the cross-referencing work.

The Whole Enchilada – Specialized Systems/Software

Using a specialized kind of system/software can make storing, organizing, and using your employee and cross-referencing information and distributing your documents easier, faster, more user friendly, and more automated.

There are many different kinds of systems available, and each company’s needs determine which kind will work best for that company.

If you’re looking for a new system to start using, worry less about the names of the system (system name terminology is often used interchangeably and can quickly become confusing) and focus on functionality. DocuPhase’s 7 Features to Look for in an SOP Management System can give you an idea of what functionality features to pay attention to during your research.

In general, document management systems and SOP systems focus more on the creation and management of the documents themselves and help with things like document storage, editing, change tracking, version control, and user access.

Project management systems, on the other hand, are more process oriented while offering document management features.

An example of a document management system is Templafy. Templafy helps streamline and standardize document creation by storing documents and assets/content in one place.

According to their website, Templafy provides you with “full control of your document management ecosystem” and allows you to “distribute to employees in real-time from the cloud without the need for IT resources.”

To get an overview of some of the most popular document management systems available, check out articles like TechRadar’s Best document management software of 2019: DMS systems for managing files and more.

An example of an SOP system is Process Street. Process Street stores documents and assets and offers detailed task, workflow, and data capture functions. According to their website, you can use their system to “manage multiple organizations and teams,” “control who can edit documents,” and “make sure your employees only see what they’re supposed to.”

To find out more about popular SOP systems, you can read Predictive Analytics Today’s Top 13 Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) Software and other similar articles.

An example of a project management system is Wrike. Wrike offers many features including detailed task and workflow functions, document and asset storage, and version control. Some of its main focuses include communication and collaboration, both of which are important for efficient SOP distribution.

To find out more about popular project management systems, check out articles like Project-Management.com’s Top 10 Best Project Management Software & Tools in 2019.

These systems share many common features, and any of them used effectively can make distributing SOPs much easier and more automated, sustainable, and streamlined. You can store recipient information and documents in the same place, automate distribution and set up recipient alerts, and utilize workflow features and functions.

Success!

Distributing SOPs can be difficult task. However, with a little understanding of who needs what, organization of content and recipient information, implementation of set processes, and assistance from technology, getting the right SOPs to the right people can be less of a stressor and more of an SOP logistics win.

Updating Training Materials Quickly and Efficiently

If you have ever managed a company, you know that training materials are a necessity. However, ensuring that those training materials are up-to-date can be an overwhelming task.

Medium- and large-size organizations face content consistency challenges all the time. We know that overcoming these challenges may feel like an uphill battle or a backburner project constantly overshadowed by more urgent needs, but it does not have to be so difficult.  With the right strategies, updating, and more importantly, maintaining your training content can become easier, faster, and more efficient.

But, how do you get started?

Cross-Referencing

First things first, you have to take stock of all the training materials and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) you have. Once you have located all of your SOPs and training materials, you need to figure out which SOPs are referenced by which training materials and record this information in a clear, usable way. Knowing exactly which SOPs are referenced where can make the updating process significantly faster and easier. There are a couple of ways to do this, and it can be useful to incorporate both methods.

Reference Language and Inline Citations

It’s a best practice across all fields and types of content to keep references to outside documents relatively high-level and exclude specific information that’s likely to change often. This elimination of specific content will reduce the number and frequency of required updates in your training materials. Reference language and inline citations are extremely useful because they can provide specific yet brief cross-reference information.

For example, if a certain department has training materials that talk about travel policies and expenses, those training materials should exclude specific information that’s included in the SOP, such as rates, and just refer the trainees to the travel SOP. The training content can contain simple reference language such as “See SOP 2.1.4 Travel and Expenses for further details including rates.”

Inline citations serve the same purpose but use an even shorter format. Training material covering travel policies and expenses can contain specific policy information in parentheses or brackets that usually appear at the end of sentences or paragraphs. For example, a bullet point or paragraph about travel reimbursement could be followed with a citation like this: [SOP 2.1.4 Travel and Expenses]. This citation tells the reader where more information can be found and the content manager(s) exactly which SOP is associated with this content.

Tagging

While references and inline citations are useful when you’re looking at each document individually, you also need an easy way to find all training materials that reference a particular SOP. If SOP 2.1.4 is updated, you don’t want to have to read through every training document searching for references and citations to see which of the documents need changing as a result. You want to glance at a file and know which SOPs it references and be able to search and find all documents that reference a particular SOP.

A great solution that allows you to search for particular content across numerous documents is a tagging system. You can create meaningful tags, or labels, that can be searched and sorted and attach these tags to your documents. Tagging is a relatively simple yet extremely useful bit of technology that can save many a headache and hassle. As Zapier.com puts it, “With a couple of tags, you can instantly categorize and label files for hassle-free searches down the road, and then find all of those files again easily no matter where you save them.”

Let’s say that the sales department’s Business Travel Training Handbook is 30 pages long and contains multiple references to SOP 2.1.4 Travel and Expenses. It could even contain references to other SOPs. You don’t look forward to reading through a 30-page document (or your other 10 training materials) just to find out if you need to make changes to them. And you won’t have to if you add a reference tag to the Business Travel Training Handbook.

In Microsoft Word, for example, you can create these tags by editing the metadata (information associated with the document that isn’t part of the document’s actual content or filename).

Adding a Tag to an Open Word Document:

Click on the “File” tab in the top left (blue in the screenshot below). Then click on “Info” (in the left column under “File,” also blue in the screenshot below). In the far right column, look under “Properties” and find “Tags.” Click on the field beside “Tags” (it will say “Add a tag” before you click) and type in your tag name (in the orange circle in screenshot below).

You can also add a tag while you’re saving a document. After you click on “File” and “Save As,” you can click on “Add a tag” in the pop-up box (in orange circle in screenshot below) and add your tag before you save the document.

Adding a Tag to a Closed Word Document:

Right-click on the file you want to add the tag to and click on “Properties.”

Then click on the “Details” tab (in orange circle), click beside “Tags” (in blue), and type in your tag name.

You can also use any of these methods to remove a tag—just delete the tag name.

How to Search for a Tag:

Now that your training documents are tagged with all of the SOPs they reference, how do you use the tags to find what you need? When SOP 2.1.4 is updated, how do you find all of the training documents that reference it and may need updating?

Quickly and easily, that’s how!

First, make sure that the “Tags” column is displaying in File Explorer. Right-click at the top where the other column names appear and make sure there’s a checkmark beside “Tags” (or click to add the checkmark).

Now you can search for files you need. Click on the down arrow/carrot beside “Tags,” and a list containing all of the tags in use appears.

Now check the box beside the SOP tag(s) you want to search for. If SOP 2.4.1 has just been updated, then you’ll want to find everything tagged with “SOP 2.4.1.” When you select this tag, every document with the tag shows up.

Useful Note: If you select more than one tag in your search, any document with at least one of the tags will show up. Say you selected “SOP 2.4.1” and “SOP.1.3.4.” The documents that show up could contain either tag or both tags. In other words, this search wouldn’t exclude documents that only have one of the tags.

Tag System:

You’ll need to establish some rules/follow some best practices for your tag system, or things could quickly get out of control and super disorganized (not to mention confusing).

For example, you’ll want to establish a standard for creating tag names (similar to your file name standard). If there isn’t a standard way to name a tag, you could end up with several different tags that mean the same thing. “SOP 2.4.1,” “2.4.1,” “SOP 2.1.4 Travel and Expenses,” “Travel and Expenses,” “Travel and Expenses SOP,” and “2.4.1 Travel” are just a few examples of that tags that people might create without instructions.

You may also want to think about limiting what tags can be created for (SOP references only, all external document references, etc.), creating a running list of tags being used, and assigning one person or a select few to create tags or allowing the entire department to create tags. The more people involved, the clearer and stricter the rules need to be in order to maintain organization and clarity and avoid repetition.

Check out Zapier.com’s full article, Forget Folders: The Best Ways to Organize Your Files with Tags and Labels, for more details about establishing a tagging system and creating tags in different software programs.

ESTABLISH PROCESSES

Now that you’ve gathered and organized all of your training materials in one place and cross-referenced them with any relevant SOPs (and other external documents), it’s time to establish your processes.

Review of Organization Processes

You begin establishing processes and conventions/best practices during the organization phase by establishing cross-referencing and tagging systems.

These organization-based processes lay the foundation for successful content management. The next processes that need creating and implementing will determine how this newly organized content is managed—immediate updating, regular review cycles, etc.

Immediate Update and Review Cycle Processes

Now that you have established processes, it’s time to decide who has which role(s), what will happen and in what order, and when it will happen.

Immediate updates should be triggered by SOP updates. As soon as you know that an SOP has been updated, newly added, or removed, you need to see if any of your training documents may be affected and make any necessary updates.

You have to decide who is responsible for checking the training documents when an SOP is updated, who will read through the document(s) to find what needs changing, who will make the changes, and if someone else will review the document to ensure that the changes made are accurate and well-written.

Will tracking changes in a document and saving a new version of the document be sufficient record keeping?

When it comes to establishing a regular review process, you have to ask and answer many more questions, such as:

Who will be in charge of reviewing the training material? Will all of the documents be reviewed together by one person and passed along to another person for a second review? Is there a technical writer in the company who is available to lend assistance?

Will there be a regular review? Do certain training materials need reviewing more often than others?

Who will kick off this process at the beginning of each review cycle, and what will the process entail? Will reviewers and editors follow a checklist?

And how is all of this going to happen? Back and forth in a hundred emails or by using a project management system like Wrike or Trello (or the many others out there)?

A Quick Note About Technical Writers

All of this can sound (and become) overwhelming even if you don’t have a ton of training content. This is where a technical writer can make a huge impact.

Many larger companies have a technical writer on staff, and those who don’t could definitely benefit from hiring one. Technical writers can be a central resource within the company for all kinds of content and documentation. They can help departments and/or entire companies develop efficient processes, assist with reviews and writing/editing, create templates to help everyone get organized and relatively consistent (or just started in the first place), and help maintain consistency and improve quality across the company.

Maintain Communication

Establishing processes is essential, but all of that hard work will amount to little or nothing without implementation. And the key to implementation is effective communication. This is another area in which technology, including project management software, can be helpful.

SOP Owners

It’s a good idea to maintain communication with the people in charge of the SOPs. If changes in SOPs don’t trigger department or company-wide training, an email should at least be sent out to inform people about the update. After all, if you don’t know when an SOP is updated, you won’t know to check and update your training materials.

Between Departments

Departments can share useful information about SOP updates they’ve heard about, their training updating processes, their file organization systems and departmental roles, and ideas for collaboration and establishing consistency with other departments. Establishing productive relationships with as many departments and colleagues as possible can help many things run more smoothly, and adult peers tend to learn well when they learn from each other.

Within Departments

This is probably the most important aspect of communication because the processes are likely taking place entirely within the department. For that reason, it’s a good idea to provide one or more training sessions on the new processes and rules/standards. When everyone understands the responsibilities, steps, expectations, and smaller details involved, training materials will get updated more quickly and can be maintained more easily. It’s also important to consistently provide updates on process and responsibility changes to keep things running smoothly and obtain feedback in order to continuously improve processes and standards.

Technical Writer

Finally, if there’s a technical writer in the mix, maintaining communication with him/her can be extremely helpful. A technical writer can help with writing, editing, consistency, and creating and improving processes. They are also skilled at involving others in the process, keeping people on-task, and trying to hold people accountable to deadlines.

Ready, Set, …Oh, It’s Already Done?

Updating and maintaining current training materials is a big task that often gets pushed to the wayside, but by getting and staying organized, establishing and consistently following processes, and maintaining effective communication, you can update your training materials quickly and efficiently anytime an SOP is updated. Now that you can do it like a pro, you can use that extra time to do something else productive, like savoring your training content management victory.

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

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.

How to Test an SOP Before Rolling It Out

If you’ve recently completed a Standard Operating Procedures document (SOP), you may be tempted to roll it out without testing it. After all, you put a lot of hard work into it, right? And there’s no way you made a mistake by failing to recognize a skipped step or issuing unclear instructions.

But the truth is, it happens all the time. You see, when we get too close to something, we oftentimes see what we want to see instead of what’s actually there.

Before you release your new SOP, take a look at why and how you should test it. It just may be the difference between having a project that is a complete success and one that was just almost right.

Why Test an SOP?

No matter how much work goes into the creation of an SOP, it’s a sure bet that it contains errors. And if you created a large document, it probably has a few. But even if you somehow managed to pull off the miraculous and produced an SOP with no errors, you can still benefit from SOP testing.

Here are some great reasons why you should always test an SOP.

Catch Those Errors

Chances are, the SOP contains errors, and testing it is a great way to catch them. And that’s important. Just think, if the SOP contains an error in the customer service processes, and it’s not recognized before rollout, how many customers will be affected by it?

Ensure the Instructions are Clear

People can’t follow a new process unless the instructions are crystal clear.

For example, imagine that the instructions tell the user to enter a customer name and then their address. New employees may not realize that you have to hit “proceed to next screen” before entering the address if the button is located too far down the page. In that instance, you should spell it out, even if the current employees already understand it.

Eliminate Waste and Duplication

Even if the SOP is error-free, you can still benefit from testing it. That’s because the end user who already has experience with the processes may provide some insight you hadn’t thought of. And that could save the company money by reducing things like waste and duplication.

For example, imagine that the SOP called for a customer service representative to print out a copy of the order. But when the SOP was tested, the representative pointed out that the order is printed in the step immediately following theirs.

How to Test an SOP

Before we get into the process of testing an SOP, let’s get something out of the way: no software can do this job for you.

I know, it’s not fair, is it?

But testing an SOP is a hands-on, unique operation that you will need to oversee.

However, once your SOP is up and running, you can use software like Tallyfy and Process Street to monitor things like issue tracking and task consolidation to improve your SOP even more.

But for now, you need humans to tell you if you got it right.

Now that you understand the importance of testing an SOP let’s talk about the process of doing it. Here is a four-step plan you can follow to test your SOP.

Step One: Identify the Testing Parties

Your first step is to identify the testing parties — but that may not be as simple as it sounds. Here are some guidelines for who you should use to test the SOP.

Don’t Allow the SOP Developers to Test It

Do you remember at the beginning of this article when I talked about how being too close to the SOP makes you see things that aren’t there? That’s why you should never allow the developers to test the SOP.

For instance, imagine that the SOP states that the user should assign a customer to a category and then move on to the next step. The developer knows that the user must hit the “save” button, or the information will be lost. But will a new employee know that?

In this instance, the developer was just too close to the process to test the SOP. But, these two people are perfect for the job:

  • Departmental Testers: Identify testers in each department who are affected by the SOP. For example, if the SOP contains new guidelines for the customer service department, you should get people from that department to test the processes that affect them. The people who work the processes every day know them, and they will easily be able to spot an error or an incomplete action.
  • Unfamiliar Testers: In addition to departmental testers, you should assign testers who don’t understand the departmental processes. These people will rely only on the information listed in the SOP, and you will quickly be able to identify any flaws or weaknesses in the instructions. New employees or people from a different department are ideal candidates for this role.


Step Two: Test Each Process

Now that you know who will be testing the SOP, it’s time to run the tests. To get the best results, when possible, you should do it a couple of ways.

Test it Live

The best way to ensure the SOP instructions are clear is to test it in a live environment. For example, if there are new SOP guidelines for sales representatives, have them test their processes while they’re with the customer and submitting an order or inquiry.

Test it As a Whole

After you’ve run through the SOP department-by-department, it’s time to test the entire SOP as a whole. Assign one group of testers to use the old SOP and perform the processes that way. Then have another group use the new SOP. Keep careful records and after the testing is complete, compare the results. If the new guidelines don’t improve the functionality of the department or make the process easier, you’re not finished. If they do, you’re ready for the next step.

Step Three: Ask for Feedback

At this point, you probably feel ready to roll out the SOP, but doing so will cause you to miss out on a valuable opportunity.

Just because the testers completed the processes without any problems, that doesn’t mean the procedures were perfect. Now is the time to ask the testers for their feedback. Doing so may give you insight into how you can improve the SOP even more.

If you use Sharepoint, make use of DocSurvey to send surveys to each tester and ask them if there is anything you can do to improve the instructions or processes.

Step Four: Make Adjustments and Test Again

Now that you’ve received feedback from the testers, you will need to analyze it to determine whether it can truly improve the processes. And here’s where it gets tricky: you probably don’t want to make any more adjustments to the SOP. You just want to release it so you can move on to the next project.

But you also want it to be as good as it can be — the first time.

So analyze the data, but be sure to give more weight to the recommendations than you do to your desire to move on.

Testing the SOP wasn’t so bad, was it? This extra step could save you a lot of pain in the future, and that’s why it’s so important.

Now, celebrate your accomplishment by releasing and implementing the SOP!