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How to Write a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

Some processes yield better results when everyone goes about them the same way. SOPs help achieve this consistency.

By Max Freedman  •   January 9, 2024  •   9 min read

Choose two of your team members randomly, and you’ll probably notice differences in how they do their work. That’s to be expected, and it’s mostly a good thing—but not entirely. Some processes yield better results when everyone goes about them the same way, and that’s why you should learn how to write an SOP. These documents ensure process consistency that benefits your team members, clients, and customers alike.

What is a standard operating procedure (SOP)? 

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a written step-by-step process for an everyday task. An SOP in business can cover just about any procedure, making it key to the strategic management process. Below are two examples of standard operating procedures to show you how they might come in handy.

  • Opening and closing the office. Someone on your team has to get the office ready for the team to work in and leave it secure afterward. SOPs can cover exactly how to do both.
  • Moving calls through customer service teams. When a customer calls with an issue that should go to someone higher on the chain, SOPs often come in handy. They can outline how to decide whether an issue is worth escalating and to whom, as well as how to make the hand-off, if needed.

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Major advantages of using standard operating procedures 

Great teams use SOPs to achieve all of the following.

Consistent work quality

You’ve probably noticed by now that, without firm guidance, your team members might go about the same task in different ways. That creativity is great, but you might need to reel it in with clearly delineated steps for best completing certain tasks. This way, you get similar-quality end products every time. 

Stronger safety and customer satisfaction

When your team repeatedly provides top-notch results, customers typically feel pleased with your products or services. This repeatable process, as determined by your SOP, also maximizes workplace safety. That’s because when your team takes the same proven course of action, personal safety is all but guaranteed. After all, process improvement isn’t just about maximizing productivity; it’s also about keeping your team free of harm.

Better time management

It’s the bane of any manager’s existence: There are only so many hours in a day and only so many people you can hire. That’s where time management comes into play, and SOPs are a major help. A repeatable, clearly outlined process leaves few questions for you to answer, and you’ll always know how long the process takes. Efficiency is all but guaranteed with a robust SOP.

Superior employee onboarding and performance

Training new hires is much easier when you go through written process documents with them. The clear steps in your SOPs expedite training and onboarding while setting performance standards for everyone on your team. SOPs introduce strategic process management to your team members on their first day and give you key context for performance review meetings thereafter.

What’s the difference between a process and an SOP? 

Writing standard operating procedures puts a process into words. If your process is the steps you take, your SOP is the written document that firmly outlines them.

Additionally, some processes are unique to one person, whereas SOPs cover processes that should be uniform across team members. For example, you can’t really tell a content writer how to write—no two people have the same creative process. You can, however, use an SOP to tell the writer how to name the file containing their copy and use subheadings to structure their writing. You can also detail where within your cloud storage the file should be stored and how to share it with clients once it’s ready for review.

How to write an effective standard operating procedure 

Take the below nine steps to create a clear, useful document outlining any workplace procedure.

1Decide why you’re writing the SOP

Before you so much as write “the,” you should know exactly how you expect your SOP to build team collaboration and bolster everyone’s efficiency. This starts with identifying the biggest roadblocks in your current process and figuring out how to eliminate them.

From there, use SMART goals to tie key performance indicators (KPIs) for customer service and team efficiency to your SOP. Consider how you expect your bottom line to grow with your SOP in place as well. With all these connections in place, your SOP will reflect your main objectives.

2Get everyone’s involvement and buy-in

Your team members and your product or service’s end users should all help build your SOP, and they should agree to its final form. Internally, this means involving the team members who will carry out the process, their managers, and your leadership team. Get these folks aligned while balancing their wants and needs with those of your clients or customers. Leverage your team members’ on-the-ground knowledge to figure out what’s realistic, but challenge them to aim for somewhat more to please your end users.

A great SOP makes your work easier for your team and more effective for the organizations and people you serve. It reinforces realistic expectations for your clients and pushes your team to work harder without burning out.

3Use language that suits your end users

Your team is probably in on all the workplace jargon, but that’s not always true of your end users. This distinction is especially worth keeping in mind if you’re selling to people instead of organizations. 

For example, let’s say you’re using a customer service survey to determine how to standardize your software team’s debugging process for your app. You might be inclined to use highly technical terms to get your team on the same page. Just about anyone, though, can download your app, and not all of these people will understand this jargon. Keep your language simple where possible instead. 

4Set a format (or more than one)

An SOP can be just a written document that puts a step-by-step process into sentences and paragraphs. You can certainly add more to that, though. Flowcharts, videos, and infographics all help, but they can be resource intensive to create. Figure out whether these extras make sense for the process you’re aiming to standardize and whether you have the budget and time to create them. If so, go for it, and include these nice-to-haves alongside your text. If not, focus on making your SOP’s copy as strong as can be.

5Get all the information right

Yes, you know your processes super well, but maybe you haven’t thought much about how to make them better. That’s super important to do before you commit your processes to writing. Researching industry guidelines and competitors’ processes can help with perfecting your process, as can getting subject matter experts’ insights into your current procedure.

Now is also a great time to newly observe the process you’re aiming to document. Watch your team members as they move through the process on an average workday. What is each of them doing the same that’s effective, and what differences could you get them to be consistent on for process improvement? The answers to these questions can shape your SOP’s final form.

6Format your information 

A great SOP includes all the above information in all the below sections.

  • Title page. Give your SOP a clear, relevant title and assign it a unique identifying number. Note when the SOP was created and when it was last modified. Be clear on which managers or leaders wrote the SOP and will oversee your team’s use of the document.
  • Table of contents. This section is optional but may be especially helpful for longer SOPs. Even for shorter SOPs, though, the ability to click on a chapter’s title and be directed to the relevant information is highly valuable. 
  • Scope. In this section, you’ll discuss the goals your team hopes to achieve through this SOP. You’ll also explain which roles on your team oversee which functions, as well as what resources these stakeholders will need. Detail how to find and maintain these resources while laying out any relevant warnings, risks, or hazards.
  • Procedural steps. Here lies the core of your SOP: how to actually carry out the process in question. A step-by-step guide is the most obvious format here, but flowcharts, decision trees, and other visuals may help. However you format this section, giving thorough, clear directions should be your highest priority.
  • Quality control and accountability measures. Lay out the KPIs that indicate success moving through the procedure. This makes it clear how you’ll measure team performance with your SOP. You can also provide a rubric that shows how well the process went or include your written records of relevant past performance reviews.
  • References and glossary. SOPs can get wordy and jargon heavy, so for some readers, a references section or glossary might be necessary. In this section, readers can get more clarity on unfamiliar terms or learn more about an interesting topic within your SOP. It’s probably only necessary, though, if you find yourself providing excessive background information for each procedural step. That context belongs in this section instead.

7Proofread your SOP

As you can see, you’ll be writing quite a lot in your SOP, and that makes typos and unclear sentences pretty likely. That’s not doing anyone any favors when the whole point is to make a process as straightforward and uniform as possible. 

Proofread your SOP before you share it with your team and stakeholders so you get as close as possible to saying exactly what you want to say. Ask a couple of other key players to proofread it too. Their perspectives will likely differ from yours and help you find more ways to make your SOP more approachable. The result is better outcomes every time you run the process.

8Train your team

With a well-edited and thoroughly proofread SOP, you’re ready to get everyone to work. First, email your team about the new process, then invite everyone to a training meeting. Use this shared time to guide everyone through the process all at once—this is more efficient than SOP-focused one-on-one meetings

Of course, some team members may feel less inclined to speak up in groups, so be clear that you welcome all questions and feedback outside of the meeting. Your goal is to get everyone on the same page, but you might also find there’s room for improvement.

With a tool like Fellow, you can enable your team to share real-time feedback on meetings, projects, and performance easily and immediately.

9Revise your SOP again

No work document is ever set in stone. If you or your team uncover ways to make your process even better, you can absolutely revise your SOP at any time. Ask the people who presented a suggestion whether your proposed changes reflect their ideas, then run them by your stakeholders and higher-ups. Get everyone’s buy-in, and you’re all set. Do this as many times as necessary to get your process as close to perfect as possible.

From planning to polishing 

Writing SOPs for your most important processes cuts down on planning time for new projects and leads to better results every time. Building your SOPs is easier when you set clear goals, and with Fellow, you can collaboratively create trackable objectives and key results (OKRs). Plus, Fellow’s agile meeting agenda templates get your team working effectively to meet SOP requirements and figure out when changes are necessary. Use Fellow to keep your processes standardized day in and day out!

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