How To Write An Effective Standard Operating Procedure

As businesses scale, they often struggle with delivering their product or service consistently. Oftentimes, this is because the knowledge or process is literally stuck in someone’s head. The moment another person needs to perform that function, the business stumbles. This is exacerbated further when the business reaches such a scale that it’s impossible for the person to remember all the intricate details of a given process. 

Formal, written standard operating procedures (SOPs) are critical to the success of any business that wishes to scale effectively. But, aside from Googling SOP templates online, many people struggle with how to write and manage effective SOPs. Let us discuss how to get started with SOPs and how to turn them into powerful tools for your business. 

Don’t Overthink Writing a Standard Operating Procedure 

First and foremost, don’t overthink the “how.” You don’t need a complex document management system, knowledge base platform, or any special software to deliver and manage effective standard operating procedures. A simple word processor (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.) and a central place to save them for your team (Microsoft SharePoint, Google Team Drive, a file server, etc.) are all you need to get started. Once you build a large library of SOPs over time, then you can consider implementing additional tools to help you manage it all. But until then, these simple tools will do the trick. 

Write For an Untrained Audience 

When people begin writing their first standard operating procedures, they often assume that the person reading their SOP later will already be trained or have a certain degree of understanding. Don’t make this assumption. If you wish to scale your business efficiently, standard operating procedures that allow brand-new employees to immediately step into a role and be effective are crucial. If a step in the procedure requires the person to perform an action in another system, don’t assume that they’re already logged into that system and know where to go. Be sure to include steps that remind them where to log in and buttons to press to reach the correct area for the next steps. 

Many People Are Visual Learners 

While every effective standard operating procedure will primarily be composed of text, some people will tend to skim over it if the entire SOP is nothing but text. Screenshots and other visual elements are incredibly effective at breaking up the monotony of plain text, and they help visual learners connect with your procedure in a way that text alone cannot. Also, consider that everyone has a different style of learning. Screenshots and images should not be used in lieu of text; only in support of it. If you’re writing a step that asks the person to click a specific button on the screen, use arrows or other markup tools to draw their eye to the button in the screenshot. 

Stick To a Structure 

While every business and every process may require different types of content to be included in a standard operating procedure, it is important that the SOP layout and sections are consistent for every SOP the organization produces. Even if a section of the SOP has no relevant content, it gives you the opportunity to make that statement instead of leaving it up to the reader’s interpretation. 

Let us describe the structure and seven sections of an effective standard operating procedure: 

Structure and Elements 

Your standard operating procedure does not need to be fancy. In fact, the simpler you structure it, the more likely it will be for someone to follow. However, the SOP does need to include a few specific elements: 

  1. Published Date: This is the date the procedure was originally produced and published to your team. It never changes once the document has been introduced. 
  1. Last Updated Date: This is the date of the last time the procedure was modified in any way. Many skilled Microsoft Word or Google Docs users will utilize an automatic date field for this, so it automatically refreshes any time someone updates the procedure. 
  1. Author: This is the name of the person who wrote the procedure. 
  1. Procedure Number: Each procedure should have a unique number. This allows you to direct others to specific procedures with a simple search rather than having them scour a long list. (Ex: SOP12345) 
  1. Title: This is a very brief summary of what the procedure accomplishes. (Ex: How To Create A New Customer File) 
Section 1: Purpose 

The purpose section of a standard operating procedure is designed to set expectations for the reader. It very briefly explains what the primary goals and expected outcomes are. The reason this section is so important is that you want the reader to quickly understand if they’re looking at the correct procedure for what they wish to accomplish. 

Example: “This article details the steps necessary to create a file for a brand-new customer. Once complete, the customer file will be prepared with all our standard folders and onboarding documents.” 

Section 2: Introduction 

For some people to connect with a procedure and trust it, they first must understand why the procedure exists in the first place. This introduction section is intended to provide background information, so the reader understands how following the procedure is important to the business’s success. 

Example: “We create a standard set of folders and documents for every customer so everyone within the organization knows where they can find important information pertaining to the customer. These standards help our team stay organized and help our customers quickly and efficiently.” 

Section 3: Prerequisites 

Oftentimes, the ability to begin one process is contingent upon another process already being completed first. This section is intended to identify any tasks that must be performed or completed prior to beginning this procedure. Whenever possible, it’s best to simply refer to the other standard operating procedure that must be completed first. 

Example: “All steps in SOP12345 How To Collect New Customer Information must be completed prior to beginning this procedure.” 

Section 4: Responsibilities 

While some procedures can be completed by everyone within an organization, many require specific roles within the business to perform the procedure. This section is intended to detail who is specifically responsible so that others don’t waste their time trying to follow a procedure they can’t complete due to limited access or other restrictions. 

Example: “The Controller, or any other member of the accounting team, is responsible for completing this procedure.” 

Section 5: Procedure 

Now, you’re finally at the heart of the standard operating procedure. In this section, you will create a number list of steps and actions the reader must follow. When building out the steps, consider that it’s better to break complex tasks up into multiple steps, rather than trying to group them all under one. Your aim is to have quick, easy-to-follow steps that don’t leave room for interpretation or confusion. As we mentioned earlier, it’s also helpful to include images in the steps (where applicable). You can also use sub-bullets to group larger tasks together while keeping them simple to follow. Finally, use text formatting options, such as bold, to highlight specific items the reader needs to look for. 

Example:  

  1. On your computer, open File Explorer. 
  1. Double-click the Z: drive and navigate to Accounting\Templates. 
  1. Right-click the Customer Template folder and select Copy. 
  1.  
Section 6: More Information 

Occasionally, there may exist other reference materials that are helpful to know for this procedure but aren’t necessarily required or called out in the procedure already. This section is intended to link or direct readers to that other information. If there isn’t anything to include in this section, simply add a comment such as “There is no additional information at this time.” This prevents the reader from scouring your knowledge base for information that doesn’t exist. 

Example:SOP12345 How To Save Work Orders In A Customer File 

Section 7: Tags 

When your team is searching for standard operating procedures, they won’t always know the exact title or procedure number. Most all modern file storage systems support indexed searching, which means that your team will be able to search for keywords or terms that exist within the procedure and find it quickly. Sometimes, there may be keywords a team member will search for that don’t exist within your procedure. If your organization changes line of business applications, for example, people might still be in the habit of referring to a system by that old name. This section allows you to include those keywords so people can still find your procedure even if they search using the wrong terms. Remember: You only need to include additional tags if those words don’t already exist elsewhere in your procedure. 

Example: “Sage; CRM” 

Conclusion 

While producing standard operating procedures takes time, the time investment is minuscule compared to the resulting time savings. SOPs allow businesses to onboard and train new employees faster, drive consistency by helping team members perform tasks the same way every time, and provide a higher-quality deliverable to the business’s customers. Among countless other benefits, these results help businesses outpace their competition and scale with a high degree of efficiency.