Because Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are critical for smooth operations at scale, 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 tactic for increasing efficiency and output quality in critical repeating processes. Follow these best practices to make sure your company’s SOPs are clear and actionable winners.
1. Give your procedure a clear, concise, unique title
- Use gerund subjects: A gerund is a verb form ending with -ing that acts as a noun. Start your procedure name with the gerund form of the primary action that executing the procedure accomplishes, for example: “Generating Monthly Expense Reports”. Using a gerund subject makes the activity carried out clear.
- Use descriptive phrases: Using a phrase instead of a full sentence makes the name easily comprehensible and short enough to show up in content lists.
- Use title case: Capitalize each important word in the name to differentiate them as unique entities.
- 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 names short and easy to parse.
2. Set context with a clear procedure description
Procedure descriptions provide important context for those who carry out the work. Include whatever information makes the applicability of the procedure clear by answering all of the following basic interrogatives as applicable in separate sections within the description:
- is interested: Who should be aware of these work instructions and who should know when work is executed?
- is qualified: What knowledge, skills, abilities, training, or certification form prerequisites for executing this procedure?
- is permitted: What role, permission, or authorization must the assignees of this procedure have before executing it?
- What: What is the immediate objective or end result of carrying out these work instructions?
- Why: What is the higher-level goal that motivates executing this procedure?
- Occasion: What precondition or event triggers the execution of this procedure?
- Frequency: How often is this procedure carried out?
- Duration: How long should the procedure take to execute?
- Location: Where is the work to be carried out?
- Permitted: What statutory or safety restrictions, if any, control where work may be executed?
- With What…
- Materials: What consumable resources or parts are required to execute this procedure?
- Tools: What tools are required or useful to execute this procedure?
3. Present work instructions as a step-by-step outline
While SOPs can take many forms, from freeform narratives to checklists to flowcharts to process diagrams, 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 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.
Well-crafted outlines are workhorses, doing double- or triple-duty as step-by-step guides, progress trackers, completion checklists, and work records. Squeeze as much productivity as possible out of these simple, elegant tools by adhering to the following simple suggestions for writing outstanding outline-based standard operating procedures.
4. Define, order, and group steps logically
- Group related steps: When a series of steps are closely related and can be summarized by a higher-level objective or phase in the procedure, consider grouping them together as substeps to make the procedure easy to follow.
- Keep steps at the same logical level: 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.
- Consider the skill of the assignees: Those already familiar with the procedure’s work requirements 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.
- Keep subsections short: 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.
5. Name 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.
- Use phrases, not complete sentences: To make the procedure easy to execute, 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 names short and easy to parse.
- Start action steps with verb phrases: Lower-level steps that prescribe a concrete action should use the imperative mood to give the action prominence by starting with the appropriate action verb, for example: “Send e-mail to HR”, “Complete W-2 Form”, …
- Start subsections with noun or gerund phrases: 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, start the step name with a noun phrase, such as: “Project Planning”, Project Initiation”, “Project Execution”, “Project Completion”. Alternatively, use a gerund phrase, such as: “Initiating the Time Off Request”, “Completing the Pro Forma Submission Requirements”.
- Use decision verbs for branching logic: If a procedure has multiple possible completion paths based on a decision that must be taken at some step, use a decision verb (or equivalent gerund) like “decide/deciding” or “determine/determining” in the verb phrase (for action steps) or gerund phrase (for grouping steps).
- Indicate actors if important: If a procedure includes hand-offs between multiple actors, consider including the role in the step name parenthetically at the end: “Complete W2- Form [Employee]”, “Approve or deny leave request [Supervisor]”). Alternatively, this information may be included as additional detail within each step, as described below.
- 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.
6. Reference additional resources
While an outline has many advantages in presenting procedures, sometimes a written description is 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.
- Provide just-in-time training: A primary purpose of providing additional detail is to provide the detailed work instructions and training on how to perform the step’s action if it’s not obvious to everyone who may carry out the step solely from its name.
- Identify acceptance criteria: Detailing the feedback or end states that demonstrates that the step’s action has been performed properly or improperly can be helpful in quality assurance.
- Call out cautions: Always include appropriate notice of safety or other hazards that may arise while performing the step. Use the following language to consistently communicate the hazard level, in decreasing order of severity:
- Danger: Near certain likelihood of death or serious injury
- Warning: Possible injury or death OR serious damage to equipment
- Caution: Possible minor injury or damage to equipment
- Note: clarification
A Road Map to Organizational Documentation
In my last article, I described applying a simple What/Why/How framework to organizational activities in two different ways: First, I [...]
What? Why? How? — Answering Essential Questions in Your Organization
Organizational documentation takes many forms: mission statements, vision statements, strategic plans, policies, procedures, process maps, project plans. How do these [...]
Maximize the Benefits of Virtual Teams
Government regulations intended to curb the growth of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced companies around the world to send workers [...]