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man standing in front of a whiteboard during a planning session for SOP Documents-Essential Data Corporation

Today’s markets present businesses with extreme challenges and opportunities like never before. To be ready for what’s next, it’s more important than ever for your business to have clear, current standard operating procedures.

What Are SOPs and How Do They Help Businesses?

SOPs, also known as standard operating procedures, contain a wealth of information about an organization, its structure, and its operations. They list or summarize steps to procedures, the company’s objectives, staff rules and regulations, health and safety measures, key dates, and signatures of those who create and approve the document.

In other words, they are instructional business documents that serve as a blueprint for an organization’s growth and direction. They outline processes and benchmarks that allow businesses to set or change variables, and then measure results. They help businesses maximize time and resources and position themselves to scale.

Not surprisingly, SOPs are a vital business tool for any organization or business owner, especially if they include health, safety, or legal compliance requirements. Because these documents standardize processes, procedures, and outcomes, they’re also an important resource for teams that may not meet or communicate regularly.

SOPs hold the information employees, contractors, volunteers, or anyone associated with the organization’s processes need to perform tasks and get consistent, predictable results. They also allow businesses to implement test changes and evaluate their success. Essentially, they help businesses of all sizes run more smoothly, efficiently, and profitably.

SOPs vs User Manuals

two people at a desk, writing employee training manuals

SOPs are not formatted or written with as much detail as user manuals. They don’t spell out every step of every daily task, procedure, or process. However, they do provide information that allows businesses to manage staff and conduct operations with consistency, accuracy, and quality standards.

SOPs vs Work Instructions

SOPs are also different from work instructions. Work instructions are dedicated to breaking down specific tasks in isolation. Similarly to user manuals, work instructions explain specific tasks in meticulous detail. Meanwhile, SOPs summarize and delegate tasks and explain best practices, rather than walking readers step-by-step through procedures.

That said, different businesses classify documents in different ways. Sometimes an SOP includes work instructions in full detail. Sometimes policy and procedure can be incorporated, as well. The degree of separation between various reference documents depends on how large the business is and, thus, whether it makes sense to break up their reference material into more navigable chunks.

My Business Has Never Used an SOP — Why Start Now?

You may be wondering if SOPs are even necessary, especially if your company trains its employees well. After all, creating one requires an investment of time and resources, as well as regularly scheduled updates. Some feel they are a restrictive set of rules and regulations that could reduce productivity and employee morale. Others feel that if their training is thorough enough, employees won’t be inclined to sift through another potentially dense, boring reference text.

However, without this set of written guidelines, standardization, and consistency are difficult to achieve. Consequently, results metrics are not as reliable. After all, your metrics will vary based on controls, training, equipment, and other factors. If your business does not standardize these variables, your metrics may be too subjective to interpret usefully.

Not having an SOP will not only make it hard to measure your business’ successes and failures, but it will also affect your work environment. Without the baseline this document provides, the risk of workplace disputes increases due to misunderstandings of standard practices. When an employee is absent and another needs to temporarily fill in their role, it will be much harder for them to learn on the spot without the appropriate reference material. The framework that an SOP establishes allows your employees to flow between roles when necessary and reduces miscommunication.

10 Ways SOP Documents Help Scale Your Business

Concise, well-crafted SOPs offer both short and long-term benefits for businesses. Here are the top 10 ways that these documents provide value and a hedge against unpredictable market influences:

  1. They save time and money by reducing costs and risk from errors or irregularities.
  2. They provide consistency and standardization to maximize output and quality.
  3. They provide guidance, allowing employees to explore ways to improve their skills and performance and evaluate their career path.
  4. They improve employee communication, which helps them be more innovative, collaborative, and productive.
  5. They specify roles and responsibilities to set expectations for individual or team projects.
  6. They streamline onboarding and training for onsite and remote staff.
  7. They ensure employee safety through defined preventive and emergency plans.
  8. They enforce accountability over processes, procedures, and desired results.
  9. They ensure regulatory and industry compliance to prevent fines, audits, and penalties.
  10. They provide direction for knowledge transfer so that staff transitions are smooth and seamless.

How Do You Write an SOP Document?

Technical writer for API documentaion

Writing SOPs takes extensive time and input from employees at all levels. Furthermore, before signing off on the document, the content must be verified before. You will probably go through several iterations. Once completed, it becomes a living document accessible to everyone throughout the business as a reference guide. In other words, you never truly stop writing it.

During the writing process, it’s easy to use words that are familiar to you but not necessarily to the reader. Try to avoid that urge. A writer should keep their audience in mind: in this case, internal audiences — those within the organization such as employees and contractors, and external audiences — those that the organization interacts with such as customers and clients.

Your content should not only contain user-friendly vocabulary, but it should also be concise. Wordiness is hard to process, so bullets, numbered lists, short sentences, and short paragraphs are your friends. The document should be clear and easy to understand by anyone reading it to avoid misinterpretation and mishaps.

Forbes offers additional readability tips. First, they recommend embracing multimedia documents. Pictures, diagrams, color, and slick formatting make long, detailed documents easier on the eye and, as a result, easier to digest. They also stress that navigability is key. Nothing will deter an employee from using an SOP like poor navigability. It’s easier to consult a supervisor than it is to scour a long document for a specific detail. Our outline below includes a table of contents, but don’t limit yourself to just one navigability tool. Number your pages, use dividers, color-code, subcategorize appropriately, highlight commonly referenced information, etc. You can also take inspiration from online templates with navigability, readability, and organizational features already built in.

You can find online examples in two formats — technical and managerial. Technical SOPs are what you think of when you think of an SOP: they describe workplace tasks and procedures for employees. A managerial SOP covers the process of creating and maintaining effective SOPs. They give businesses opportunities to adapt to new regulations; update their processes according to changes in technology, staffing, resources, or strategy; and measure the effectiveness of SOPs already in place. Both formats can be organized by department, manager, function, or asset.

Ultimately, SOPs vary in length, detail, and appearance based on business needs. They can take several forms — hard copy, webpage, slide presentation, or anything else that conveys information quickly and easily. Regardless of format, style, or medium used, the content should be inclusive and sensitive to diverse populations as well as designed to meet ADA & WCAG accessibility requirements.

If you seek further guidance, the ISO offers quality management system guidelines designed for documents like these. The ISO can also certify your documents if you want to lend your business extra credibility. Their most popular model, the ISO 9000 model, for example, uses two cycles to build documents that encourage business improvement: the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle and the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle. ISO 9000 documents emphasize the principles of customer focus, leadership, engagement of people, process approach, improvement, evidence-based decision-making, and relationship management.

How Do You Organize the Body of an SOP?

It’s important to research different category options before organizing and writing business SOPs. Every business will need to incorporate different elements to capture its unique identity. Each element may subsequently need to be subcategorized, expanded, or condensed in different ways. Here is an overview of only the most common sections:

  • Title Page
  • Table of Contents
  • Purpose
  • Project Scope
  • Glossary
  • Roles and Responsibilities
  • Procedures
  • Additional Materials
  • Health and Safety Warnings
  • Revision History
  • Approval Signatures

Standardize for Growth

SOPs are much more than an evergreen business document that lists rules, steps, and guidelines. They have a surprising number of benefits for any business owner or organization. A clear, professionally written SOP will be one of your best investments and a key to long-term growth. Your business and your employees will reap its dividends for years.

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How EDC Can Help

Whether you need a single technical writer for a brief project or a team of consultants to produce a complete line of documentation, the quality of our work is guaranteed for you. Our clients work closely with an Engagement Manager from one of our 30 local offices for the entire length of your project at no additional cost. Contact us at (800) 221-0093 or to get started.