The 5 Step Guide to Writing a Standard Operating Procedure

by Nicholas Morpus | Published on May 18, 2022

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Organization is one of the key pillars of project success. If your projects and teams are lacking structure, a standard operating procedure is exactly what you’re looking for.

You likely don’t know this, but I have ADHD. Contrary to popular belief, ADHD is not something you grow out of, and it’s not simply “too much youthful energy” or just hyperactivity. It’s a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects attention and impulse control, which leads to other issues such as daydreaming, forgetfulness, fidgeting, making careless mistakes, or even missing social cues (my girlfriend loves that last one). The perfect combination for any professional writer, right?

Luckily, I’ve found ways to combat these issues without the help of medication by structuring my life around routines. I’ve built a step-by-step routine in order to fit in exercise, work, and quality time with my family all with little time buffers to account for temporary distractions.

Understanding the need for structure and routine gives me unique insight into the pitfalls project managers face without these frameworks. That’s why I’ve written this beginner’s guide for creating operational standards that you can apply to your work and teams today.

Overview: What is a standard operating procedure?

Standard operating procedures (or SOPs) are step-by-step guides that describe how to complete a routine activity in full detail. A SOP will help you create a baseline for how your employees ought to complete their day-to-day tasks with maximized efficiency.

A SOP is also great for setting average task completion times, which are useful for planning a project. These SOP documents are also used for training new employees on performing their responsibilities and are written in such a way so as to ensure retention. When applied correctly, standard operating procedures are the perfect solution for streamlining the work of any profession, including business development or business intelligence.

A standard operating procedure is different from a statement of work (or SOW), which is a contractual document shared between a stakeholder and project team that covers all of the work to be completed, project terms, and schedule. While this may be obvious to some, these terms should not be used interchangeably.

What is the purpose of standard operating procedures?

I briefly described the purpose of a standard operating procedure in the previous section, but for the sake of clarity, here are the three most important reasons for adopting SOPs for all of your tasks.

Ensuring consistency

Rather than explaining procedures over and over, standard operating guidelines provide a framework so that anyone, even new employees and team members, can pick up and work within the established process. This leads to an increase in the consistency of results and deliverable quality.

Improving accountability

Setting up a regimented system for executing tasks gives you an objective standard by which to measure your team’s performance, leading to increased accountability. These standards can be applied across all of the relevant teams with their own individual goals and metrics to meet.

Improving communication

The clear understanding of responsibilities provided by a standard operating procedure also promotes healthy communication between teams. No more fighting or guessing about who’s responsible for what, or when and where a task ought to be completed.

How to write a standard operating procedure

Now that you understand the importance of a SOP, I’ve laid out a five-step guide for creating a standard operating procedure you can use for any given task or project.

Step 1: Gather your entire business process and eliminate redundancies

Off the bat, you want to find out exactly what your current processes are from all of your teams. You have to reach out to your managers to figure out how they go about completing their daily, weekly, and monthly processes and list out these procedures. This gives you an overview of where you are now and a general idea of where to trim the fat.

Once you see everything that is done to complete your business processes, you’re almost guaranteed to come across redundancies from team to team that affect the efficiency of your operation. You’ll want to eliminate these redundancies in order to streamline the way your managers and teams complete tasks.

Tips for gathering your business processes:

This step requires coordination with multiple parties, which is, of course, the specialty of any project manager. I’ve put together a couple of tips you can use to help expedite this process.

  • Create a shared platform for gathering this information: Rather than go around from team to team asking your managers to describe their process, why not save some time and create a centralized database for all of this information. You can achieve this through something even as simple as a shared document stored on your project management software with sectioned-off areas for specific teams.
  • Create a blueprint for recording this information: Further simplify this information-gathering procedure by standardizing how you want these processes written out (sections, bullet points, etc.) by writing out an example. Creating this template will save you plenty of time you’d otherwise spend scanning page after page of different team processes.

Step 2: Seek input from your employees

It’s not enough just to reach out to your managers. Once you’ve gathered all of your processes and eliminated all obvious redundancies, it’s time to look to your employees for additional feedback. Ask them their thoughts about the procedures for completing project tasks and whether or not they have any improvements they’d like to see.

Tips for seeking input from your employees:

Seeking feedback from your employees is a somewhat delicate process that requires you to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Here are a few tips for accomplishing this:

  • Create an open space for dialogue: The employee/employer relationship is an interesting dynamic between those who have lots of power and those who do not. When seeking out honest feedback from your employees you have to create an open space where all opinions and views are welcomed without any fear of judgment or retribution. It’s up to you to communicate this to your employees.
  • Develop an anonymous format for submitting feedback: As an extension of the first tip, a great way to take a step toward an open space is by creating anonymity for your employees to submit feedback. After all, questioning processes and procedures may include criticizing the way managers handle those systems. Creating an anonymous feedback system will help encourage honest feedback.

Step 3: Choose a SOP format and define your scope

Now that you’ve gathered all of your processes and corrections for your new standard operating procedure, make sure you focus the scope of your SOP only to include the necessary teams and people.

Ensure that your SOP will designate specific steps to certain teams so that your sales, marketing, and development teams aren’t confused about who’s responsible for what. If steps 1-3 only require the attention of your development team, then marketing doesn’t need to focus on those steps. Make sure your SOP reflects this.

After you’ve focused your SOP, you’ll want to decide which format you’ll choose when writing it out. There are a few options:

  • Basic steps format: This is your standard numbered list of steps for completing a task. This format is very easy to write, understand, and follow. However, it doesn’t work well for more complex projects.
  • Hierarchical steps format: This is the next step up from a basic steps format. The hierarchical steps format utilizes the same idea as the previous format but includes additional bulleted details and substeps that require decision-making.
  • Flowchart format: This is my favorite format for a standard operating procedure, and it works best when dealing with several possible outcomes and multiple actors at play. I’ve linked to a standard operating procedure template in the title of this example that’ll help guide you.

Tips for narrowing your scope and choosing a SOP format:

You’re almost ready to write the first draft of your SOP document. These two tips will help you effectively plan out your procedure before you put pen to paper:

  • Base your choice on the size of your operation: You should use a basic steps format only for small teams that won’t require any additional detailed instructions, whereas the other two formats are better suited for larger teams with many moving parts. Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to decide which format is best for your process.
  • Be as concise as possible: As I mentioned before, teams only need to understand their place in the SOP. Being precise and direct with your language and SOP format will help prevent the likelihood of two teams working on a step at the same time. No need to create new redundancies after you’ve spent so much eliminating old ones.

Step 4: Write out your SOP

You’ve gone through all of the information gathering and preparation, so now it’s time to write out your standard operating procedure. Depending on which format you choose, this will be as easy as writing out a basic checklist, or a little more complicated if you’re developing a SOP flowchart.

However, if your information gathering and redundancy elimination was successful, this process will only consist of taking all of your notes and entering them into your SOP document.

Tips for using writing out your SOP:

While it’s up to you to decide how your SOP will look and sound, here are a couple of tips that’ll help make it a tidier document for your team to read and use.

  • Use action-oriented language: Using verbs at the beginning of task statements will give you the clarity and drive you’re looking for in your SOP.
  • Make sure your SOP document is scannable: When your teams read the SOP, they ought to be able to collect all of the major points with a quick scan of the document. This means making all of the major actionable ideas bigger and bolder on the page, while leaving the detailed explanations in a standard-size font. Similar to how this article is laid out.

Step 5: Test and revise

Your standard operating procedure is a living, breathing document that is subject to plenty of testing and necessary revisions. While running your SOP through the wringer, be sure to take any business metrics you measure or additional team feedback into account in order to perfect the procedure.

Tips for testing and revising your SOP:

Introducing anything new to your teams and projects will always be a process of trial and error. Here are a couple of tips that’ll help smooth out the wrinkles in your SOP document.

  • Define your metrics for success: Any form of improvement requires standards you can measure, whether that’s time spent completing a task or the amount of resources spent on those tasks. Make sure you define your measurements for success before you begin testing your new SOP.
  • Don’t be afraid to alter your SOP format: Just because you chose one format earlier in this process doesn’t mean you’re married to it forever. If your procedures require a more robust format, such as a flowchart, don’t be afraid to make that transition during the revision process.

The Ascent has so much more to offer you

Our project management expertise doesn’t end at standard operating procedures. We’re your No. 1 resource for everything from guides on change management and the project management triangle to our in-depth software reviews. If you and your team found this guide on SOPs helpful, be sure to check out the rest of the useful content The Ascent has to offer.

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