Stages of SOP Development: A Guide from 40,000 Feet

Business owners: have you ever thought about what will happen if you unexpectedly passed away? 

What would happen to your business?

If you don’t have any assets, then all the value is in your business processes. 

Does your company have standard operating procedures in place? In previous blog posts, we’ve discussed why all businesses…

In short, SOPs facilitate quality control and productivity that will save your business time and money in the long run. 

As your business evolves overtime, its SOPs should too. Let’s walk through the different stages of SOP development, so you can continue to improve your operations as your business grows and changes.

Different Stages of SOP Development

To think about the different stages of SOP development, consider your company from a 40,000’ viewpoint. In other words, consider SOPs on both micro and macro scales of your company, ranging from hourly procedures to the big picture.

Let’s start from the ground up! 

10 Feet – Highly Detailed Processes (Daily, Hourly, Minute-by-Minute)

When your business is new or relatively small, you as the business owner typically know all of the operations and procedures – those performed daily, hourly, or even minute-by-minute. This means that you can probably write very detailed and precise SOPs. 

These SOPS do not involve any strategy. It’s simply a how to get this one task done the right way. 

100 Feet – Operation Processes

As the business grows, you’ll hire new staff and add new business areas. As a result, you’ll have to learn how to juggle a lot more than you were before. You’ll have to expand your view from 10’ to 100’ – working at an even higher altitude to oversee business operations across your business.  

So what does this change in altitude entail? 

It requires the development of operational processes. This is critical since at this level, some of the operational details you were formerly able to describe step-by-step start to become less precise. As a result, you’ll have to rely on your management team to drive development and compliance with SOPs pertinent to their areas of responsibility.

1,000 Feet – Business Management

As it grows further and leadership visibility escalates to even higher levels, you need to establish business management SOPs. These SOPs define how the different branches within the business operate, support each other, and drive business growth. Without them, silos can form between departments resulting in major inefficiencies and stunting of development. 

Visibility of business processes is key for you and all other business leaders – you should be able to have a complete and accurate view of all activity. Typically, not all employees of the company need this level of visibility. Rather, many businesses rely on their mid-level and senior managers to know how the business works and report to the leadership.

40,000 Feet – Vision and Leadership

Finally, a critical step in the stages of SOP development comes from the 40,000’ view – with vision and leadership. If leadership teams don’t all have the same business process visibility, this can lead to a broken organization if a key business leader leaves the company — especially when this leave is unexpected.

For example, suppose a business leader on your team has been the recipient of all management reports your mid-level and senior managers produced. This person knows…

  • What processes work
  • Where gaps exist that aren’t necessarily always explicitly reported on
  • What your team needs to do to correct business operations

This leader has knowledge of how the different parts of the business must interact to provide the results you and the rest of the leadership team are looking for. 

This is incredibly valuable information. As a result of their unique knowledge, this business leader is in the perfect and only position to define what SOPs are needed.

Now, this doesn’t mean this leader on your team must develop the SOPs themselves. It simply means that the leader should oversee the development and integration of SOPs, so that their knowledge isn’t suddenly lost if they leave the company. They can do this by creating and articulating the strategies that their management team must adopt.  

Ensure that key knowledge from individuals in leadership is regularly translated into development and integration of SOPs. This will support the wellbeing of the company in the long run.

If you’re the owner of the company, you need to download your brain and document your processes, vision, and strategy. What happens if something happened to you to incapacitate you from working? The company wouldn’t know where you were heading. 

An Example of SOP Stage Implementation

Now you have a handle on the different stages of SOP development. Let’s move onto an illustrative example of SOP stage implementation by thinking about a clock-making business.

Stage 1: Business Leaders Create Detailed SOPs

Stages of SOP

When the business owner of this clock-making company decided to create their business, they probably spent years learning clock-making skills, attending courses, going to workshops, etc. He or she knew how to make the style of clock they wanted to make. They controlled everything in the process…

  • Materials and parts procurement 
  • Manufacturing
  • Packaging the clock for the customer
  • Shipping and billing 

They could have written SOPs for all of these areas.

Stage 2: Managers Create SOPs For Their Respective Branches

Moving on a few years… Their business now sells several types of clocks and watches. Their initial business that made only one or two things now has a dozen or more products. They also need… 

  • Marketing to promote their products
  • HR to support their employees
  • Sales to sell to new customers 
  • Development to design new products 

At this stage, the business owner shouldn’t be responsible for developing all of the SOPs for each new branch of the company. This would be too complex, and it’s not an effective use of their time. Instead, leadership should direct unit managers to develop fine-grained SOPs for their respective branches.

Stage 3: Business Leaders Oversee SOP Creation & Integration

Finally, business leaders of this largely grown clock-making company must oversee the development and integration of SOPs. Importantly, they should approach it with an effective strategy.

What does an effective strategy for overseeing this process entail? 

Well, it should ensure that the SOPs support the business leader’s vision of how the business should operate now and how it will grow in the next 5+ years. 

This is the 40,000’ view of standard operating procedures. At this stage, SOPs drive how the business operates. Lower-altitude SOPs define in increasing detail how annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily, and perhaps even minute-by-minute operations are executed.

When the 40,000’ vision for SOPs is realized, the business leader can focus on what they need to… Future direction, strategy, and growth. 

When SOPs are in place, business leaders can spend less time worrying if standard business operations are working as expected. If anything is diverted off-track, they will get an early alert so they can drive the necessary changes to get it back on track.

How Much Time Does SOP Implementation & Development Take?

Many business leaders worry about how much time it will take to implement SOPs. Although they are beneficial for the company in the long-term, there are often pressing matters to attend to in the short-term. 

So how much time does SOP implementation and development really take? 

The truth is, it depends. No one can predict with 100% accuracy how much time it will take. It depends on many interrelated factors. 

But what I will say is that it will take you far less time to complete than just thinking about how long it will take to complete! And the time and money your company will save by having proper SOPs in place will be well worth it. 

If you’re looking for help expediting the process, FocusCopy can help.

What SOPs Do You Need?

We’ve talked about the stages of SOP development, but what SOPs does your company actually need? 

The key is to think about what kinds of SOPs are needed to run your business operations, how they should interact, and what is needed to better support your business. 

However, you shouldn’t spend time considering the contents of each SOP. Trying to consider all SOPs from the ground up to 40,000’ can be extremely timely and stressful for you to do from your current position. Not to mention… You could be spending your time envisioning and growing your business’ future instead of sorting through business operations minutiae. 

Instead, direct the responsibility to the unit management operating that specific part of your business. Or outsource your SOP documentation to professionals. Did you know that FocusCopy writes processes for small to medium sized businesses? You know the processes. We know how to write them. Learn more about how we work with businesses like you.

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How to Write Standard Operating Procedures

Even the title sounds scary, doesn’t it? “How to Write Standard Operating Procedures“.

For most organizations, thinking about it is scarier than doing it. 

Yes, there are libraries, lots of books, and web documents telling you how difficult it is, how complex business process development, and documentation is. 

But does it have to be?

If you are a large company or enterprise in a highly regulated industry (i.e. healthcare, nuclear energy, financial services), the answer is probably yes

But for the rest of the world, it’s a definitive NO. It isn’t that difficult.

Why Writing Standard Operating Procedures May Be Complex

Think about it. Your business is running fine today… Everybody knows what they should be doing, how, and when to do it. So, why do you need to document your business processes?

The answer is both simple and complicated.

Simple Answer

What would you do if Fred (the only guy who knows how to operate the vital-to-your-business thingamajig machine in the corner), suddenly, without warning, has a heart attack, or a severe car accident, or a stroke, and can’t talk or work for a while… 

Now what? 

How would your business survive?

Can you afford the downtime while someone else picks up his skills?

Complex Answer

Where on earth do you start? What process should we begin with?

So, you know the simple answer intuitively. You’ve got to write the processes down – right?

You probably know the complex answer too, you may not know you do, but you probably do. It’s really pretty simple.

How to Write Standard Operating Procedures 

Let’s look at how to write standard operating procedures (SOPS). Start by writing down all the operations your business depending on the following:

  • Manufacturing
  • Purchasing
  • Billing
  • HR

Order this list from most critical to your business to you needs-to-be-done. You could have a couple of categories in the middle (i.e. important, legal needs if appropriate).

1. List Critical Business Functions

How to Write Standard Operating Procedures

Now, starting with the critical business functions like manufacturing. Then think about what makes it critical… Is it the machinery you use, the skills of your employees, the materials, what is it? 

Write them down in a prioritized list from most important to least important. 

Take another look at this list… Is there anything that jumps out because it depends on ONE thing? That may be a particular employee, a required skill, or a technology.

Now focus in on what you need to document as a procedure first. It doesn’t matter whether it’s about an employee, required skills, or technology. Whatever it is, there is ALWAYS a process associated with it, and that needs to be documented.

But how do you do this? 

You may not think you know how to do it, but I guarantee that you do! 

How can I guarantee this? Because you and your business use it every day. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be critical to your business.

2. Find the Bones of the Procedure

Hold up a minute. How does this help me write my processes and procedures? Simple! Just use your mouth, eyes, and ears and watch how someone (your critical person) does their particular job. What they are doing…? Why they are doing it that way…? And how they are doing it…?

And then write it down, step-by step-by step. Maybe even video it so you have a frame by frame record. If something fails or doesn’t work as they wanted while you are watching, listening, and asking questions, then ask them why that happened and record everything they do as they get back on track. Ask them what can go wrong and why it sometimes goes wrong.

At the end of this, you’ll have lots and lots of notes. They probably won’t look much like a polished procedure, but they contain the “bones” of the procedure. Now, all you must do is assemble the “skeleton”.

3. Assemble the ‘Skeleton’ or ‘Framework’

This is where procedure documentation really starts. You need to take the notes you collected, and figure out which notes are really the big bones in the project.

What are the connectors that link these big bones together? And of course, what order they all fit together in to get from the start (point A) to the finished component (point B)?

Now you have the basis of a process. It’s probably still rough, perhaps even ugly. It may have a few minor steps missing or issues to fix, but in general, it could operate as a procedure.

Now for the fun: adding the skin, smoothing, and polishing your standard operating procedures so it works each and every time.

We’ve put together an Easy-To-Implement Scalable Framework that you can now access for free! Click here to access the exact system we use to develop SOPs.

4. Process Smoothing and Polishing

But before we get to this, you must smooth out the rough elements and add “skin” to cover the skeleton. If you have ever tried, or even thought about, running your hands over a human skeleton, you would find there are holes, gaps, or areas of nothing between the bones. It’s likely to be the same with your process skeleton.

Before you cover your skeleton with skin to make it look complete, you need to work on the process wording to eliminate any gaps.

Process Wording

Work with the critical-to-your-business person, and ask them to use your process exactly – unless the step will injure them or anyone else. 

For example, you’ve written a process to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They must recreate the end result (i.e. the sandwich) using your exact process and not deviating from it just because they created the sandwich.

This is how you find the minor and sometimes major issues in what you’ve documented. If there are issues, then work with your critical-to-your-business person to fix them.

Repeat this review and update the cycle at least ten times after you fixed the last issue. By the time this is complete, you’ll find your skeleton has acquired a skin, it looks good and the process runs smoothly, every time,  without flaw.

Next Steps In Writing SOPs

You just documented your first procedure…

Was it difficult? Probably nowhere near as bad as you thought!

Did it take time? Of course, possibly more time than you thought.

Ready to do this next one? Sure, no problem.

So, go back to your list of procedures you need and start knocking them out!

Outsourcing Writing SOPs

First… Have you thought about how much time that took? What couldn’t you do when writing these procedures? Was it an effective use of your time and skills? Is it something you want to keep doing?

If the answer to these questions is giving you concern, perhaps you should think about outsourcing development of these procedures. 

FocusCopy is well-experienced in developing processes and procedures in industry-specific language far more quickly and error-free than most people working in your industry. Writing is our skill and industry. That’s what we live for. Is it yours? If not, perhaps outsourcing this writing is the way to go.

Want to give writing SOPs a try? Click here to access our free Easy-To-Implement Scalable SOP Framework. We use this exact system to write company processes for ourselves and our clients.

Writing Tough SOPs

Yes, there are procedures that are really difficult to write. Usually, this is because they are associated or required to comply with a government or state regulation.

The difficulty is not in the language. It’s difficult because  you must dot all the i’s and cross the t’s to comply with every nuance of the regulation. Not doing this can be expensive for your organization.

Organizations typically have most difficulty with procedures involve the following:

  • HR
  • Health (HIPAA)
  • Information Security / Privacy
  • Finance

Organizations can develop SOPs in these areas, but many choose to use their internal skills to run their business and outsource development to specialists who have written similar procedures for other companies.

Implement Our Scalable SOP Framework & Scale Your Business Processes With Ease

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Business Processes and Business Longevity

Business Processes and Business Longevity

Businesses do one of three things…

  1. Grow
  2. Stay stagnant and eventually decline
  3. Fail

While there are many reasons that you could attribute failure, something that we have discovered is that businesses succeed or fail based on whether they are consistent in how they do things. In this blog, we highlighting how important standard operating procedures are and the relationship between business processes and business longevity.

Relationship Between Business Processes and Business Longevity

Oftentimes, small to medium sized businesses operate on what their owners and key employees know. These companies could have been around for decades or just a few months. But we have found when marketing a product or service or even consulting on cyber security, procedures are often in their heads. Even worse, business processes are often transferred to others via individual conversations and process walk throughs.

Such an approach has worked in small businesses and home businesses for years and in some cases decades.

But the approach doesn’t scale well as the organizations tries to grow rapidly.

How Business Lose Their Processes

Over time, training or onboarding gradually omits little details about the company’s processes and procedures. Eventually, the process that has been used “forever” suddenly fails, and no one can figure out why. After all, the standard technique has always worked. It worked for years! I’m sure we’ve all heard that phrase at sometime in our lives and careers.

As Michael E. Gerber (“The #1 Small Business Guru”) has argued for many years in his presentations and E-Myth books, most small businesses fail because their owners spend most of their time working ‘in the business’ as a technician and not ‘on the business’ as an entrepreneur. Because the owners are primarily working as a technician, their businesses growth is limited by their ability to physically work any additional hours. Why is this? 

Reasons Why Companies Fail To Not Write Their Business Processes

There are several reasons why business processes continue to not get written down…

#1 They Don’t Have More Time To Get Ahead Of Employees

Quite simply, business owners use the same 7-day week as everyone else. They have the same 24-hours in a day. Business owners typically put in more hours than their 40-hour a week counterparts. But those hours are usually allocated to other tasks.

#2 There Is Too Much Going On In Their Brain

Ever get brain fog? At FocusCopy, we often joke… “I lost my list!” That’s when there’s so much going on that their bodies just shut down and stop processing anything. They cannot produce anymore, develop new products, provide customer service improvements, significantly expands their customer base, and more, because all the knowledge and procedures needed to do this locked in their heads! 

#3 They Don’t Make It A Priority

We hear business owners say they don’t have time to train anyone else, to document what they do, to delegate required work, etc. But that’s really saying that they either aren’t making it or willing to make it a priority. This “busy-work” strongly limits the potential for their business to expand to the extent they wanted when they started their business.

How Business Owners Process The Need For Documentation

So, what can these business owners do?

They could document the procedures themselves… But wait! That would reduce the owners’ productivity and business revenue/income.

They could hire an inexpensive intern, high schooler looking for a part-time job, or even a recent college graduate. But wait! They would have to train them. And then… Could they even document the procedure?

After all, if you ask someone to develop a procedure for what you do when performing a task, what is their first response? Often, they say “I don’t know how to”, or “I can’t write”, or “I don’t have time”, or worse still “I don’t want to do that”. These responses are not surprising…

The Bigger Issue: No One Is Trained To Document What They Do

Writing down, or documenting, procedures is not something schools ever teach us (at least not where I went and where my kids went). It’s a skill you can acquire, but it requires training, practice, and commitment. Acquiring such skills is not a rapid process. It’s also not attractive to everyone in today’s “instant world”. We require that everything is accessible in very short timeframes.

Professional procedure developers, unlike a direct employee or contractor, do not need in-depth training on an organization’s operations to document one or more of its internal undocumented procedures. Yes, external contractors may initially appear more costly… BUT when their contract is complete, so are your payments.

Businesses, big or small, have decisions to make when considering how to document their processes and who will do it. When businesses use internal resources, they must consider available skills, training needed and on-going requirements for future process development. When business contract external resources to complete these tasks, most of the issues associated with internal resources terminate when the contract is completed. Additionally, because externally contracted process developers are professional process developers, they are likely to complete your documentation in less time than an internal process developer.

Owners and management of businesses that wish to expand and grow to their full potential should spend more time ‘working on their business’ and less time working ‘in their business’ by documenting key business procedures so others can complete them. 

Think about this… The CEO doesn’t necessarily have to lock up the office, but he or she is the key person to land the next big deal or expansion opportunity. By freeing up their time to do this, the business is far more likely to succeed and grow.

Where FocusCopy Comes In To Increase Business Longevity By Recording Business Processes

Business Processes and Business Longevity

FocusCopy helps businesses achieve procedure derived benefits by developing key business procedures with minimum operational impact.

In the end… We could write the business processes, but you have to create a culture that consistently goes back to the SOPs. You need to use them for them to be effective.

Click here to learn more about how FocusCopy can implement SOPs in your company and coach you on how to create a culture of process and procedure.

Implement Our Scalable SOP Framework & Scale Your Business Processes With Ease

become more process-oriented, productive, & focus on what moves the needle the furthest with this framework