Because Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are critical for success, they’ve become ubiquitous in business. Almost every organization has an Employee Handbook, for example, outlining basic operational policies and administrative procedures. But not all SOPs are of equal value. High-performing organizations and workgroups develop thorough, concise, and well-organized SOPs as a key strategy for increasing efficiency and output quality in critical repeating processes. Follow these four best practices to make sure your company’s SOPs are clear and actionable winners.

1. Use an outline

While SOPs can take many forms, from freeform narrative to checklist to flowchart  to process diagram, the simplest to implement and most effective for most uses is likely to be the lowly  outline: easy to write, easy to read, and familiar to nearly everyone as a note-taking technique taught in school.

Since the overwhelming majority of procedures are a linear sequence of steps, outlines lend themselves naturally to their description; their list format mirrors the structure of task sequences. In addition, the outline form goes beyond just beyond a simple list, allowing the steps in any process to be grouped together into logical sections. Since human working memory is limited, such hierarchical organization allows the reader to understand the “big picture” of the procedure without getting lost in the individual steps.

Finally, well-crafted outlines are great workhorses, doing double- or triple-duty as step-by-step guides, progress trackers, completion checklists, and work records. Squeeze as much efficacy and productivity as possible out of these simple, elegant tools by reading some simple tips below for writing outstanding outline-based Standard Operating Procedures.

2. Group steps logically

Where do I start?

It’s probably easiest to start by writing your SOP as a simple flat list of all the steps that go into completing the work procedure. Then go back over your list and group related tasks.

How many levels should I use?

The number of levels in your outline and its overall length will vary depending on these considerations:

  • The nature of the work: To be easy to execute, the outline should mirror the sequence of actions in the underlying process being documented.
  • The logical level of work: For simplicity of understanding, the nature of tasks or activities should be consistent at each level of the outline. A “nit-picky” detail such as a specific action to take (“send an e-mail with the title “Time Off Request”) should not be at the same level in the outline as a general description of work (“Request time off”). Likewise, such general descriptions should not be at the same outline as even broader section/phase headings (“Request”, “Approval”, “Appeal” …) that may be appropriate to include for particularly long procedures.
  • The knowledge and skill of the reader: Those already familiar with what needs to be done need much less specific instructions than those who have never done the work before. Yet another advantage of the outline form! An employee very familiar with the work may need only to scan the top level steps in the outline, while someone unfamiliar can drill-down into as much detail as needed.
  • The limitations of human memory: The commonly quoted “magic number” of 7+/-2 maximum items in human working memory may not be empirically validated, but it’s still probably a reasonable rule of thumb for the number of steps in an outline level. If the number of steps in a logical grouping exceeds that range, consider breaking it down into several smaller groupings at a lower level in the outline.

3. Describe steps concisely and consistently

The effectiveness of an outline is dependent on its contents being well-written and easy to digest at each step. Since an outline allows additional details to be described at lower levels in the outline, each step should be kept short and consistent with its siblings.

Basic Recommendations

  • Use phrases, not complete sentences: To make the procedure easy to digest as an outline, each step should be understandable at-a-glance. A concise and clearly descriptive phrase quickly conveys intent: “Return completed W-2 to HR”, not “When completed, the employee should return the W-2 form to HR.”
  • Use symbols, acronyms, & typographic symbols: While you should be cautious about using unfamiliar acronyms or abbreviations that may be ambiguous or difficult to read, using well-understood or previously defined acronyms and abbreviations, as well as common typographic symbols to substitute for words (& for and, % for percent, / for or) can keep step descriptions short and easy to parse.

Advanced Tips

  • Start related logical sections with a noun phrase: Very long procedures may benefit from being grouped into logical sections that describe a phase of the process rather than particular actions. If an outline level does not prescribe any particular action but merely groups together steps that in turn describe actions to be taken, consider starting the step with a noun or noun phrase, such as: “Project Planning”, Project Initiation”, “Project Execution”, “Project Completion”, …
  • Start action steps with a verb or verb phrase: “Send e-mail to HR”, “Complete W-2 Form”, …
  • Indicate actors: If an SOP includes hand-offs between multiple actors, include the role as appropriate in the step description (for example parenthetically at the end: “Complete W2- Form [Employee]”, “Approve or deny leave request [Supervisor]”) or in additional detail within each step (see more in tip #4).
  • Number steps: A notation system such as legal numbering (1, 1.1, 1.1.1, 2, 2.1, 2.1.1, …) allows for easy cross-referencing of steps when tracking and communicating progress.

4. Reference additional resources

While an outline has many advantages in presenting procedures, there comes a point at which it’s just not enough. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words (or a video, a million). In these cases, linking to additional explanatory content or reference information in the form of narrative explanations, lists, screen-shots, tables, diagrams, or videos allows you to provide just-in-time training and materials for additional understanding to employees who need them without breaking the flow of the outline-based Standard Operating Procedure.

When choosing whether to include explanatory detail as a substep in the outline or whether to reference it as additional content, ask yourself if the information is for reference or training only. If so, it should probably be content within a step. If not—if it’s an activity that must be performed to complete the higher-level objective of the step in the outline level above it—it should probably be a substep. Always create substeps when the item required for the completion of a higher level objective must be tracked separately for reporting or when it is critical and also likely to be forgotten or skipped if not called out independently.

What guidelines do you find effective in writing standard operating procedures that actually get followed? Let us know in the Comments section below!