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.
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…
How would your business survive?
Can you afford the downtime while someone else picks up his skills?
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:
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
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.
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:
- Health (HIPAA)
- Information Security / Privacy
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.