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Processes and Procedures

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.

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Developing Standard Operating Procedures from Scratch

Developing Standard Operating Procedures from Scratch

Anyone who has worked for the military or other regulated industry already knows what a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is. But many business leaders, to their disadvantage, do not apply SOPS to their business and may not know how to start developing standard operating procedures from scratch. As a result, business often run into issues like…

  • Quality control
  • Lack of process
  • Decreased productivity

If you’re anything like us, then you see dollars flying out of the bank. Today is the day to start taking control of your business by developing standard operating procedures.

Using Standard Operating Procedures In Your Business

Before we get started… What is an SOP? It’s a “set of written guidelines or instructions for the completion of a routine task, designed to increase performance, improve efficiency, and ensure quality through systemic homogenization” (Britannica). The original of standard operating procedures stems from one of the most organized organizations – the military. Everything they do is intentional and yields the results they want. 

How Business and Military Operations Compare

You may be thinking… “But I’m not the military”. That may be true. But if you want to yield the same results over and over again, then it may be time to implement SOPs in your business. As we evaluate how business and military operations compare, let’s look at 2 different businesses.

The first business is a successful thriving long-term business. They have a combination of highly motivated, dedicated people and a collection of procedures that they execute flawlessly.

Conversely, the second business is more focused on short term goals. It is often characterized as a combination of highly motivated and enthusiastic people who do the stuff the business needs to survive and (hopefully) grow.

For this example, pick one of the above business examples that you currently operate as. Be honest with yourself.

So how do these operations compare? There are several similarities and differences between these 2 businesses…

  1. They both depend on highly skilled/motivated/dedicated/enthusiastic people.
  2. The short-term business does ‘stuff’ – usually undocumented and therefore dependent on retention of key staff.
  3. The thriving long-term business thrives despite changes in staff over the years because it uses SOPs and is less dependent on, and in many cases completely independent of the know-how of certain staff. They can train staff with specialized knowledge – it’s already documented.

While it will depend on the business, most companies should be more long-term focuses – and thus use SOPs.

Becoming More Long-Term Focused

 By becoming more long-term focused, you are able to accomplish incredible things. Think about how the military can recruit an untrained civilian and train them to become a highly specialized weapons person, a navigator, an intelligence officer, a linguist, or even a mechanic (among many other roles). They start from a basic assumption that the recruit has no knowledge of what each of these operatives do. Even more important, when trained, each operative will perform their function exactly as expected.

The military can do this because their function is based on a set of guiding principles / policies and a set of Standard Operating Procedures that dictate how all parts of the military operate.

Ever heard the phrase hire for traits, not talent? SOPs help you hire for traits and train them on the job in an efficient manner. 

A Few Exceptions to the Rule

Now, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule that every company should operate their entire business with SOPs.

If your company relies on employees innovating and growing (much like an entrepreneur), then SOPs will most likely suffocate those employees (i.e. graphic designer, product engineer, etc.). It will be burdensome and may suck their creativity out of them. 

However, these roles should have their own lax SOP – what we like to call swipe files or best practices. They act as informal templates or guidelines for them as an individual or as a group.

BUT if your employees are doing repetitive work, then you need to implement a SOP (especially if you are wanting to grow the business / role). Product engineers have a process or procedure for coming up with a new product – ideation, sketching, producing a prototype, testing, feedback, etc. Graphic designers create style guides then use those guides to create deliverables for a specific client. Whatever the role is in an organization, there are processes and procedures that can be and should be documented.

Quality Management with SOPs

Another use for SOPs is to use them for quality management. This use is something we find critical when producing copy for our clients.The term quality is an often misused hyperbole when applied to businesses and their operations. Business often talk about quality customer (i.e. high spending customers) and quality products (i.e. customers love them, they result in few returns, and typically don’t have customer satisfaction issues). Businesses rarely talk about quality processes. Yet, if their operational processes or procedures are not solidly defined and followed, they are unlikely to result in quality products or operations… This will limit customer trust and reduce investor confidence.

Quality Operational Procedures

Quality operational procedures are SOPs because SOPs are designed to support business operations by precisely defining how something must be done under all circumstances with nothing left to chance or misinterpretation

In exactly the same way that you know your fridge is keeping your ice cream frozen because the fridge uses physical principles that never change and has been consistently manufactured to use these principles over many years of your ownership, you expect your business to operate in the same way over and over again.

SOPs define how this is done and will always be done, until your business decides to change the SOP. SOPs drive quality throughout your organization from first concept to delivery of customer products and services.

The Top 2 Problems That Most SOPs Run Into

Like most business practices, developing standard operating procedures have their own road bumps. Generally, SOPs suffer from two issues:

  1. They are time-consuming (and can seem difficult) to write.
  2. Some employees think they can perform a task more quickly, more efficiently, or better than they do when using the SOP, so they don’t use it. 

1. Time-Consuming To Write

This issue is easy to explain. Many businesses do not have staff onboard with enough attention to detail or desire to write SOPs. Some staff often consider development of SOPs as boring or unnecessary. In fact, the opposite is true. SOPs are essential for many business operations and the details they must contain to be truly usable can be intense.

If you need help creating your standard operating procedures from scratch, we are standing by to discuss your needs. Click here to learn more about what our process is.

2. Employees Bypass SOPs

Unfortunately, the net result of employees bypassing SOPs is that something else may not work as expected elsewhere in the organization. This issue is more difficult to explain because it is often the result of employee pride in what they do and not mistakes in what they do. 

When an employee performs a task in a different way to that defined in the SOP, it may result in a slightly different result that they do not notice. For example, it could result in a data point or something being reported differently than expected by a later procedure or procedures. Either or both results could lead to customer satisfaction issues and customer-perceived decline in deliverable quality by the business. Such issues affect the reputation and trustworthiness of the business and affects its sales, revenue, and profitability. 

Developing Standard Operating Procedures from Scratch

When you are developing standard operating procedures from scratch, it’s important to note what needs to be included.

The 6 Sections To Include When Developing Standard Operating Procedures

Anyone who has worked for the military or other regulated industry already knows what a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is. But many business leaders, to their disadvantage, do not apply SOPS to their business and may not know how to start developing standard operating procedures from scratch. As a result, business often run into issues like…

  • Quality control
  • Lack of process
  • Decreased productivity

There are 6 sections you need to include when developing standard operating procedure…

  1. Scope and purpose
  2. Compliance
  3. Process steps
  4. Success criteria
  5. Exit criteria
  6. Document history

1. Scope and Purpose

You must precisely define and document the Scope and Purpose. If they are not, then the SOP will be too large and wide ranging for any employee to follow.

2. Compliance

Compliance with the steps defined in the SOP must be mandatory unless compliance with a given step will result in injury or worse. Test and retest every step ensure such conditions do not happen.

3. Process Steps

Document process steps for every action needed. Additionally, document where errors could occur, detail what these errors are, and what should be done to recover from them.

4. Success Criteria

Provide Success Criteria definitions for each series of steps in the SOP. This enables continual quality checks are being made throughout execution of the SOP.

5. Exit Criteria

SOP Exit Criteria defines what conditions exist on completion of the SOP and what happens next.

6. Document History

Although often not visible to SOP users, this section maintains a detailed record about why the document was needed, who created/updated it, what changes were made, and who approved those changes.

SOP Content Creation and Management

Creating your SOPs and managing them after the initial development does not have to be difficult. It could be as easy as the following…

First, create a Standard Operating Document. This is like the brain to your processes and procedures. It will contain links to your other documents for specific SOPs. You need to include different sections in this document, including the following: 

  • Strategic Objective
  • General Operating Principles (what it takes to run the company)
  • Discussions (your important meetings to refer back to)
  • Important Docs (think style guides, customer avatars, privacy policy, and anything that needs to be accessible)
  • SOPs
Developing Standard Operating Procedures
Example of Standard Operating Document

Then create the 3 following folders:

  1. Important Documents
  2. Standard Operating Procedures
  3. Drafts

Each document in those folders should be on a specific topic and then linked back into the Standard Operating Document. 

When you set up the system, you’re half-way done. Now, you need to apply the 6 sections I previously listed in each SOP. If you want to access our process and templates for building your SOPs in Google Drive, then click here and we’ll send you our Easy-to-Implement Scalable SOP Framework.

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