Guide to Writing an Effective Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

A standard operating procedure is a document providing explicit directions for completing a certain task. Here, we talk about why SOPs are important, and how to create them.

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Written by: Josh Brown

Published: November 20 2019

As the tired old saying goes, there are tons of moving parts in a business or organization of any size.

Often, the difference between a productive, successful business and a not-so-successful one is whether or not these myriad “parts” are moving in concert with one another. This can be the difference between a finely-tuned machine and one that regularly breaks down—and eventually falls apart.

For your organization to run like such a finely-tuned machine (and to avoid falling apart at the seams), your team members need to be on the same page at all times—both literally and figuratively.

This is where standard operating procedures come into play.

What is a Standard Operating Procedure?

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a document that provides clear-cut directions and instructions as to how teams and members within an organization must go about completing certain processes.

Note that SOP documentation is much more involved than a simple procedural document. The main difference being that procedural documents are meant to provide a high-level overview of the process in question, while SOPs provide an “on-the-ground” explanation of what needs to happen to ensure a given process goes as planned.

(That is, a process-focused document typically explains that the organization will go from “Point A” to “Point B,” while an accompanying SOP will describe everything the organization will do in order to get to “Point B.”)

While companies are free to develop their internal SOP documents in a format that works best for their team, most organizations choose from one of the following:

Step-by-Step Format

In some cases, it may be sufficient to create a simple numbered or bulleted list of steps to take when completing a process.

This format should be used only when the process in question is straightforward and, in the vast majority of circumstances, can be completed without fail.

Processes in which a step-by-step format is likely sufficient include:

  • Setup and cleanup instructions
  • Digital login sequences
  • Instructions for proper and safe use of equipment

Hierarchical Format

The hierarchical format for SOPs borrows from the above format in that it involves listing the steps of the process to be completed.

However, hierarchical SOPs provide additional details within each step as deemed necessary. While a purely step-by-step SOP will list steps 1, 2, 3, and so forth, a hierarchical SOP may include Steps 1a and 1b; 2a, 2b, 2c; 3a, 3b.

The hierarchical format is used when more instruction may be needed in order to sufficiently complete a given task. As a simple example, if Step 1 tells team members to log into their account, Step 1a may direct individuals to input their username, with Step 1b directing them to input their password.

Flowchart Format

Flowcharts are best used to illustrate SOPs when multiple outcomes are possible at certain points throughout the process.

In such cases, the outcome of one step will impact the way in which the team will need to approach each subsequent step.

Take a look at the following workflow, for example:

(Source)

Note that, in this example, there are multiple times in which a decision must be made as to how to proceed. Basically, each subsequent step depends on the outcome of the previous step—and it simply wouldn’t be logical to follow certain paths if a contrasting outcome were to come about.

Why is a Standard Operating Procedure Important?

Though we’ve hinted at this from the beginning of our discussion here, let’s make clear:

Standard operating procedure documentation is important because it allows organizations to systematize their processes, keep all team members and other stakeholders on the same page at all times, and move forward in a singular, cohesive manner.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of developing SOP documentation is to consider the negative impact of not doing so. Basically, it leaves too much up to chance: There’s no guarantee that best practices will be followed at all times, that all team members will remain in alignment, or that the organization will continue to operate in a positive and effective manner.

Let’s take a moment to dig a bit deeper into what creating SOP documentation can do for your organization.

Ensures Adherence to Best Practices

With SOP in place, adherence to best practices regarding all organizational processes is not merely a suggestion, but a mandate.

(It’s worth noting that said “best practices” should be defined by the entire team of stakeholders involved in the processes in question. In involving team members from all departments and hierarchical tiers in the process of developing SOP, you can be sure that your team is always acting in the best interest of the company. More on this in a bit.)

The point is, creating SOP provides not only a “true north” for your team to strive toward, but also a clearly-drawn map to guide them along the way. This improves the chances of experiencing a positive outcome in a given situation, while also minimizing the chances of encountering any obstacles throughout the process.

It’s simple: Developing SOP ensures your team knows the most efficient and effective way to go about a certain task. This means you’ll be expending fewer resources to experience optimal results, regardless of the task at hand.

Ensures Consistency

As we’ve said, developing SOP better enables your organization to run like a finely-tuned machine.

A huge part of running “like a machine” is consistency. Following SOP ensures that your team will always know the right path to take—and will always take this path when necessary.

Simply put: SOP makes both decisions and processes more automatic for your team at all times.

Enables Proper Onboarding and Training

In clearly defining standard operating procedures within your organization, you’ll inherently make it easier to onboard and train your team members with regard to best practices in certain situations.

Since one of the goals of creating SOP is to leave no stone unturned in terms of contingent circumstances, you'll have a better idea of what these potential circumstances are—leaving you better prepared to train your employees as to how to navigate them.

(In contrast, in not having clearly-defined SOPs in place, you run the risk of leaving your team uninformed and unprepared to handle certain challenges as they come about.)

Maintains Organizational Knowledge

For the sake of argument, let’s say your team already knows exactly how to handle any situation that comes their way—and is always able to do so effectively and efficiently.

In this case, it may seem like documenting everything your team already knows would be a waste of time, money, and other resources. After all, everyone knows what to do, so why take the time to write down everything they already know?

The problem, though, is that your team isn’t going to remain intact as-is forever. Employees will retire, quit, be promoted, go on leave...the list goes on. When that happens, you need to know that the knowledge and expertise they’ve brought to the organization will stay within the organization.

In documenting your SOP, you’ll ensure this info stays within your company—allowing new team members to pick up right where the old ones leave off.

What are the Challenges of Developing a Standard Operating Procedure?

While there are many benefits to developing SOPs within your organization, doing so comes with its fair share of challenges, as well.

Compartmentalized Development

There’s a reason your development of SOPs should be an “all-hands-on-deck” affair:

Basically, if only certain stakeholders are involved, you’ll run the risk of your SOPs missing the mark in some way or another.

For example, if an SOP is created solely by C-level executives, it may focus more on the goal to be attained than the process required to attain it. This can cause the ground-level team to run into a variety of obstacles that the executives may not have anticipated—meaning the SOP in question actually isn’t in-line with what would be considered “best practices” for the given circumstances.

On the other hand, if created solely by managerial staff, the SOP may not take into consideration C-level goals, such as minimizing resource consumption and improving the bottom line. In this scenario, you may have on-the-ground teams completing tasks in a way that may seem efficient, but that isn’t really doing all that much for the business as a whole.

That said, the process of developing SOP needs to involve all stakeholders at all times. This will ensure that the processes being developed are made in the best interest of the company.

Problems with Accessibility, Visibility, and Centralization of Information

Even after standard operating procedures have been developed, you’ll need to ensure that all stakeholders are able to access and engage with said documentation whenever necessary.

Without this accessibility and visibility, it can be pretty easy for SOP to fall to the backburner—leading team members to go back to the “old way of doing things.” Obviously, this defeats the purpose of developing SOP in the first place.

Moreover, it’s essential that the SOP documentation your various team members have access to is the exact same documentation across the board. The most effective way to ensure this is to keep the document in a centralized database that all stakeholders have access to. That way, you can guarantee that all team members are following the right documentation at all times.

(Learn more about how a centralized internal database can better enable your organization by checking out our guide on knowledge management systems.)

Lack of Management and Maintenance

Regarding management and maintenance of SOP, there are two main challenges to consider:

First, your team will need to be properly trained and prepared as to how to actually implement the procedures in question. This means ensuring they have access to any equipment or other resources needed to complete the tasks defined within the SOP—and that they know how to efficiently and effectively use these resources. If this piece of the puzzle is missing, your team simply won’t be able to act in accordance with SOP—no matter how clear the document may be.

It’s also worth noting that what’s considered the best course of action for the time being may not always be so. Improvements in technology, personnel changes, and a variety of other factors may require your team to revisit previously-developed SOP as time goes on. If the SOP your team follows is outdated or obsolete in any way, continuing to follow it will end up doing more harm than good to your organization.

Guidelines for Developing a Standard Operating Procedure

Now that we understand what a standard operating procedure is, why it’s important, and the challenges involved in creating and implementing SOP, the next question to answer is how do you write a standard operating procedure document? 

Below are the general steps to take when writing a standard operating procedure.

  1. Determining Your Goals for Creating an SOP
  2. Determine the Stakeholders and Creators
  3. Define the End-User
  4. Determine the Scope and Format of the SOP
  5. Outline the SOP Document—and Begin Writing It
  6. Review the Written Document
  7. Train Your End-Users
  8. Test and Tweak the SOP in Practice
  9. Implement SOP—and Revisit Regularly


Now, let’s discuss in more detail what the process of developing SOP documentation should look like.

1. Determine Your Goals for Creating an SOP

Before you even begin writing an SOP, you need to have a clear-cut answer to the question of why you’re creating the document in the first place.

On the positive side, you’ll want to ask questions such as:

  • How will SOP allow employees and teams to work more efficiently?
  • How will following SOP allow the team to better serve our clientele?
  • How will following SOP impact the company’s bottom line?

You’ll also want to identify any pain points or obstacles that currently exist within your organization’s processes. This will allow you to be more specific in determining exactly how your team will be more productive with SOP in place.

In setting SMART goals for your SOP-related initiatives, you’ll:

  • Be better able to develop absolute best practices
  • Have a clearer idea of how implementing SOP will affect your organization
  • Know specifically what to look for when unrolling and assessing SOP over time

Here—and in each subsequent stage of this process—is where a robust internal knowledge base can enable your team to maximize productivity. 

For example, you may have already created informal documents regarding your various processes, which you can use as a springboard when developing a more formal SOP. Or, you may have a list of business- and/or team-related goals that you’ve been striving for—which, again, will make it easier to solidify your goals for the current SOP at hand.

2. Determine the Stakeholders and Creators

As we’ve noted, any and all personnel who will be engaging in or impacted by SOP should have some say in the creation of the document.

Generally speaking, your SOP development team should consist of:

  • C-level executives, who will be focusing on developing lean operations in an effort to achieve high-level business goals
  • Management leaders to develop best practices, define necessary use of resources and equipment, and determine a plan for implementing SOP
  • Ground-level employees to determine the validity and plausibility of the SOP in terms of logistics and resource consumption

You’ll also need to determine who, specifically, will be responsible for actually writing the document. Whether you rely on your current staff or a third-party entity on a freelance basis, it’s vital that the creator of your SOP specializes in technical writing and has in-depth knowledge and experience of your company’s processes and your industry as a whole.

Furthermore, while your customers won’t necessarily be involved in creating the document, you do want to keep their best interest in mind whenever necessary, as well. While SOP typically refers to internal, behind-the-scenes processes, said processes will likely impact the customer experience in some way or another—meaning you should never let your target audience slip to the back of your mind as you develop SOP within your organization.

3. Define the End-User

While a variety of individuals will be involved in the creation of SOP, the actual content of the document will invariably be used by a select target audience.

(For example, in defining SOP for handling of customer service requests, your customer service reps would be the key individuals the document was created for.)

That said, it’s important that you know who will actually be engaging in the procedures in question, as this will enable you to create the SOP document with these individuals in mind. The idea here is to be able to create the document in such a way as to be useful to those who will actually implement the procedures defined within said document.

This means:

  • Remaining laser-focused on the actual duties of the end-user
  • Using the correct language and terminology, as expected by the end-user
  • Explaining certain terminology as needed, while not over-explaining processes and terms that are second-nature to the end-user

But, before you can make any of this happen, you need to have a clear idea of who within your organization your SOP is being created for.

4. Determine the Scope and Format of the SOP

As we discussed earlier, an SOP document typically takes one of three forms:

  • Step-by-step list
  • Hierarchical list
  • Flowchart

Depending on the procedures being documented, you’ll want to determine which of these formats will be most effective in communicating the desired information.

The best course of action here is to go with the simplest format necessary for the circumstance at hand. If there’s no need to include additional explanation or potential contingencies, a step-by-step list may be sufficient; if each step in the process can potentially lead to multiple outcomes, a flowchart is likely necessary.

5. Outline the SOP Document—and Begin Writing It

Once you know what your goals are for creating SOP, who will be involved in creating it, and the best format to use, you can begin planning out the document as a whole.

Here, we’ll discuss the various parts of a complete SOP document, explaining what information should be included in each.

Title Page

The title page of your SOP should contain identifying information regarding the document, including:

  • The SOP being documented
  • The document’s unique identification number
  • The date of creation and/or editing of the document
  • The department or professional title of the entity who will implement the SOP
  • The names and titles of the individuals who created the document

Table of Contents

If necessary, you can include a table of contents after the title page of your SOP, as this will help those who use the document find the information they’re seeking with relative ease.

This may only be necessary if the SOP document is longer than a page or two. Basically, if the end-user is able to quickly and easily find the information they need without a table of contents, you likely don’t need to include it in the document.

Preparatory Information

As we’ve discussed, certain information will need to be laid out in full in order for your team to be able to adhere to the SOP to be described momentarily.

This preliminary information includes:

  • SOP Purpose: Here, you’ll explain your team’s rationale for creating the SOP document. This means explaining the high-level and “on-the-ground” impact you hope the SOP to have on your organization, as well as the actual standards to be met by implementing the SOP.
  • Roles and Responsibilities: In this section, you’ll identify the specific employees or stakeholders to be involved in a given process. Moreover, you’ll also define the capacity of these individuals within your organization, as well as the role they play in the SOP in question.
  • Resources and Materials: The individuals responsible for completing the procedure will likely need to use a variety of tools, technology, and other materials throughout the process. Here, you’ll define what these resources are, and any other necessary information about them (e.g., where to find them within your facilities, how to store them properly, and how and when to request maintenance if need be).
  • Cautions, Warnings, and Other Hazard-Related Info: If any safety precautions exist with regard to the aforementioned resources, or to the overall procedure in question, it’s imperative that you lay them out clearly, here. This information should also be present within the SOP documentation to follow, with clear indicators of how to find more information if needed.

Methodology and Procedures

This section is, of course, the most important part of the overall SOP document, as it’s where you’ll describe the actual operating procedures to be followed at all times when completing a certain task.

Using the chosen format, your task here will be to develop detailed, step-by-step instructions for the end-user to follow at every touchpoint. In more simplified cases, these steps will be sequential; in others, the process may involve sub-steps, recursive processes, decision trees, and the like.

As we’ve discussed, it’s essential to be as detailed and clear as necessary throughout this section of the SOP. The goal is to use as specific language as is needed to communicate instructions in full—and to minimize any ambiguity that may exist within said instructions.

(To that point, it’s worth noting that you only need to be specific enough for the intended audience to understand the instructions in question. In other words, there’s no need to be specific to the point of being pedantic; make your instructions clear, and then allow the end-user to get to work.)

Depending on the procedure in question, you’ll also want to include any diagrams, illustrations, or other imagery that may supplement your written documentation. In fact, it may be more effective and efficient to use such illustrations in certain circumstances where the written word simply doesn’t suffice.

Quality Control and Assurance

It’s essential that your team members are able to assess their performance with regard to SOP on a case-by-case basis, and at specifically-defined intervals over time.

In this section, then, you’ll want to include documentation that allows them to do so. This may include:

  • Anecdotes illustrating best practices with regard to a specific procedure
  • Rubrics or similar means of measuring performance
  • Samples (real or simulated) of past performance evaluations

While the “meat” of your SOP should be as detailed as possible, this section will ensure that your team members continue to adhere to SOP to the best of their abilities—and are also able to identify areas in which they may need to make improvements moving forward.

References and Glossary

You’ll likely refer to a variety of terms, resources, and other documents throughout a given SOP that may require further explanation.

In this section, you’ll be able to either provide this explanation in the necessary detail, or point your audience toward additional resources or documentation for further explanation. This will allow you to maintain a singular focus within the current SOP document, while also providing the opportunity for the end-user to dig deeper into a given topic should they need to do so.

6. Review the Written Document

Once you’ve written the document in full, you’ll want to provide all stakeholders the opportunity to review it for accuracy, cohesiveness, and comprehensiveness.

Throughout this stage of the process, all involved parties should take note of any questions, concerns, or other issues they uncovered while reading through the document. This will allow you to make specific and focused amendments to your SOP before “officially” unrolling it.

Now, you of course want the end-user’s advice and suggestions to play a heavy role here. After all, they’re the ones who will be engaging in the procedure at hand, so you’ll want to know with certainty that they understand everything presented within the document. Moreover, since they have first-hand experience with the processes in question, they’ll be able to identify areas that may have been overlooked when initially creating the document.

But, you also may want to have the document reviewed by those with less experience with the processes in question. This will help you account for any “blindspots” your more experienced team members may have specifically due to their experience and expertise. This, in turn, will enable new hires to quickly get “up to speed” with SOP once they come aboard.

7. Train Your End-Users

No matter how experienced or specialized your current team members are, they will need to be trained (and/or retrained) as to the new SOP to be implemented.

This, of course, can be a sensitive area—especially for long-time employees who are used to going about tasks in a certain manner, and who may not yet see the benefits of making the necessary improvements. 

For this reason, it’s vital that these training sessions occur in a relaxed, no-risk atmosphere. Your team needs to have full confidence that this isn’t a “gotcha”-type ordeal; rather, it’s to better enable them to put their best foot forward, and to be as productive as possible in their contractual duties.

As we’ll discuss in the following sections, you’ll also want to point out to your team that this training isn’t just a one-off thing—it’s an ongoing process. This will reinforce the idea that the new SOP is and will be the new way of doing things, and will not be put to the backburner after the novelty of the new process wears off.

That said, the idea of training your team with regard to new SOP deals only in part with the actual procedures in question, while focusing more on instilling in your team a growth mindset. 

8. Test and Tweak the SOP in Practice

Piggybacking off the last point, you want to gradually immerse your team in the new SOP (rather than forcing them to dive in).

This may, at first, involve having your team work through the new SOP in a simulated environment. Here, you might set up different scenarios in which certain team members play different roles, allowing each individual to get a feel for the new processes. Or, you might simply discuss hypothetical situations with your team in an open environment, allowing your team to verbally walk through the processes to be completed in said scenarios.

As your team becomes more acclimated to the new processes, you might then begin unrolling the new SOP to “real-world” scenarios. While there’s no “one way” to go about doing so, you might identify certain team members who are more prepared than others, and allow them to dive in first—then have them train other team members in the specific areas they need assistance with.

Again, though:

This gradual unrolling needs to be intentional, and it requires that all team members actively work to make progress toward the new way of doing things. While you’ll want to allow for some leniency during the initial rollout, being too lax can cause your team to revert back to the much-less-efficient processes from days past.

9. Implement SOP—and Revisit Regularly

The “final” stage of the process is, of course, to implement the new SOP in full.

We put the word “final” in quotation marks because, again, what’s considered “best practices” in a given scenario is constantly in flux. To be sure, what works best today may be a rather inefficient way to go about doing things mere months from now.

This is why it’s important to instil a growth mindset in your team: They need to understand that the new processes are not set in stone, and will evolve over time as the need arises.

Not only do they need to understand this—they also need to be a part of it. As your team continues to adhere to the new SOP, they should regularly take note of any positive or negative experiences they have along the way. Basically, this means noticing areas of improvement, as well as areas in which more improvements need to be made.

In addition to these “on-the-fly” noticings, your team should also meet regularly to discuss further plans for moving forward. Typically, this will mean amending the SOP in relatively minor ways—but could also involve rebuilding the entire document from scratch, if need be.

It’s also important to consider any external factors that may require your team to revisit the SOP. These factors include legislative changes, technological advancements, and/or shifts in consumer needs.

In solidifying effective and efficient SOP for the time being, you allow your team to be as productive as possible given your organization’s current overall circumstances—while keeping the door open to make improvements to your processes as these circumstances change.

Wrapping Up

Creating standard operating procedures is perhaps the best way to ensure your team puts their talents to maximum usage.

In contrast, even the most talented of professionals may not be able to be productive and effective in their position if not given proper and explicit guidance.

Moreover, even if your new SOP aligns with absolute best practices, it won’t do any good if your team isn’t able to access it. This is why a centralized internal knowledge base is vital to the implementation of new SOP.

With clear-cut, comprehensive standard operating procedures on-hand at all times, your team members will always know exactly what to do in any situation they face. In turn, your organization’s productivity will all but certainly skyrocket.

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