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4 Ways To Improve Communication With Interactive SOPs

By: Ryan Zimmermann

June 20, 2020

4 Ways To Improve Communication With Interactive SOPs

Without the support of standard operating procedures, no modern day manufacturer would be able to effectively run their business. With a multitude of operations, complex tasks and people implicated, the manufacturing industry is a great testament as to why standard operating procedures exist. From setting up expensive machinery, to assembling complex products, SOPs are used across every manufacturing industry to help guide employees on how to perform their tasks.

Serving such a diverse audience, standard operating procedures can be created, managed, and structured in a variety of ways to help convey a particular message. Due to their universal nature, SOPs may help to address different challenges within different sectors, but one industry where SOPs may just be the most important piece in the puzzle, is the manufacturing sector.

Standard Operating Procedures, otherwise known as SOPs, are a set of instructions, or steps to follow when performing a specific task. Although some of us may be less familiar with the term, SOPs can be found within almost every industry sector to help guide people in their everyday tasks. From manufacturing to utilities management, healthcare to education, retail to the entertainment industry, SOPs are basically the world's pocketbook on how to get things done.

Depending on the specific industry, environment, and company, an SOP may focus on different elements. Let’s take a look at 4 ways companies can improve communication through interactive SOPs.

Challenge #1: Machine Setup & Changeover

Many manufacturing industries rely on automated equipment and machinery to produce their products. Depending on the specific industry and type of equipment, these machines go through frequent or periodic instances of being set up and changed over to output different products.

For demonstrative purposes, we’ll take a food & beverage company as an example, specifically a brewery because it's always nice to enjoy a nice cold one after a long shift!

Once underway, brewing beer is a fairly autonomous operation. Depending on the specific type of beer, a different setup is required for the machinery and equipment. In this example when kicking off production of the company's flagship beer, the shop floor operator uses detailed standard operating procedures on how to clean the equipment prior to usage, and set it up accordingly for the next batch of beer (temperature, time, ingredients, etc.).

Without the standard operating procedure to perform this task, the operator runs the risk of using the wrong ingredients, setting the machine to the wrong temperature, or producing the beer in unsanitary conditions. Any discrepancies in the process could lead to significant deviations in terms of taste and quality, thus affecting the companies reputation, and/or a bad batch that needs to be tossed away leading to a significant amount of lost profits.

Solution: Visual SOPs

Although the concept of SOPs has been around for a long time, there is a rebirth happening in terms of what an SOP can be and how it can be made. Historically, SOPs were created with tools such as Word or Excel and then distributed in a text-heavy paper format.

There are quite a few drawbacks to governing SOPs in this way:

Paper documentation can be lost, easily fall out of date, and can get dirty making it harder to read and understand.

Text-heavy SOPs are difficult to understand and remember. Many people prefer to learn new things through visuals such as pictures and video. Creating SOPs in word or excel can be time consuming and cumbersome

Due to advances in digital technologies, work instruction software is now allowing SOPs to be more visual, interactive, and communicate with their surroundings in ways never before possible. We can see new opportunities start to arise in how our shop floor operators interact with their SOPs when the software is deployed.

Challenge #2: Maintenance & Repair

Spinning off the beer brewery example, the reality of any machine or piece of equipment is that it requires ongoing maintenance and repair to keep it going. The small effort it takes to perform preventative maintenance is well worth it as it prevents breakdowns that could cost thousands to repair, and/or shut down your factory for days.

If we flip back to the previous example, let's assume that after 500 hrs of use, the tanks and full production line to brew our company's flagship beer require an inspection and some preventative maintenance. In this scenario once the company's monitoring system detects that 500 hrs of production has been done, a ticket or work order will be created to perform preventative maintenance.

Maintenance and RepairThis is the point where our technician becomes equipped with their standard operating procedure to perform their activity. Once flagged our maintenance personnel will follow detailed steps on how to shut down the equipment, clean it, troubleshoot, inspect parts, and turn it back on again to get it back to its key function of brewing beer. As you can imagine these steps are VERY critical. If any step is missed, you run the risk of causing a new issue, and/or defeating the purpose of the planned maintenance in the first place.

In this example, our SOPs are critical in ensuring the success of this company. Without SOPs we would be relying on our technicians memory to ensure this is done correctly. This is something known as tribal knowledge which although sought after, is not something you want your business to be relying on.

What happens when this employee retires, or is sick? What happens if you want to double up production and have to hire new employees, how can your ‘champion’ be in two places at once?

These are challenges that have one easy solution to them - document your standard operating procedures so that your team can ensure success on any given task.

Solution: Using SOPs for Preventative Maintenance & Repair

Our brewery can now make our SOP for machine setup visual with pictures and video, and can request the operators to confirm specific details prior to proceeding forward on a given step. This helps to increase process control, traceability and accountability.

In addition to this, Smart Forms can be made available within the SOP so that if an error occurs on the tank or production line, the operator can click on a form, identify what has happened, and automatically notify the necessary people in real time.

When performing our maintenance activities with our SOP 2.0 (VKS), the technician is now presented with visuals on how to perform their inspection and maintenance. While executing these tasks the operator can give inputs based on their findings, and the SOP will automatically react to these inputs and jump the operator to the specific steps to follow based on this new bit of information.

This capability allows our SOPs to bring a layer of intelligence to the process, while also removing risk and time lost searching for answers.

Challenge #3: Training

Similar to most manufacturing companies, when new employees are hired at our famous brewery, there is a certain amount of training our company looks to do before the new employee hits the shop floor. These training activities help to ensure the employee understands the companies values, business processes, and health & safety protocols prior to entering the workforce. New employee training helps to go a long way to facilitate a smooth introduction into the company's workforce.

As you may have guessed by now, the new employee training SOPs ensure communication is facilitated at the brewery.

Once out on the shop floor our new employee will encounter different types of SOPs to help in their day to day tasks, such as the machine setup & maintenance procedures mentioned previously. Although those SOPs will provide critical information and reminders in relation to the tasks they govern, there are certain intangibles that employees need to be introduced to upfront.

In this example when our new employee is hired, one of the training SOPs they encounter is health & safety guidelines for the shop floor. In this standard operating procedure our new employee learns that any time they enter the shop floor they need to be wearing safety glasses, steel toed boots, and when walking to their workstation should remain within the designated walking areas, identified by color coded tape on the shop floor. By having new employee training SOPs our brewery is taking a major step in helping to guarantee their new employees success within the company, as well as increasing all of their employees' safety.

A helpful tip for your training SOPs: Include a note in your new employee training SOPs that each operation on the shop floor will have its own set of SOPs to help guide the operator as they perform their day to day tasks. This will help to comfort your new employee as they begin learning the ins and outs of their new job, as well as help to ensure high levels of process compliance by educating them that there are key steps your organization expects employees to follow when performing work.

Manufacturing Training

Solution: The Power of Interactive Learning

Similarly to our two previous examples, deploying interactive SOPs for training will help to make them more visual, and effective. As we covered in 4 Ways to Tackle Manufacturing Training with VKS, you can add quizzes directly within standard operating procedures to ask the new employee questions to confirm their understanding of a given concept. This capability allows the author of the SOP to define different reactions based on the results of the questions.

As an example if the new employee gets all the questions right, they can move onto the next set of training. If they provide a wrong answer to a question, the SOP can be configured to bring the employee back to those steps to cover the information again and re-do the quiz.

This type of capability helps the Human Resources department to guarantee the new employee understands the necessary material prior to entering the shopfloor.

Challenge #4: Auditing/EHS

Another important element to any operation is the concept of auditing. In a nutshell the key function of any type of audit is to ensure that what you think is occurring, is actually occurring. This could range from auditing environmental, health & safety (EHS) standards, to process compliance, and even down to the infamous IRS on tax returns.

If we turn our attention back to manufacturing, and more specifically our brewing company, the same logic applies here that auditing is a critical activity to ensure the successful operation of the business. There are a variety of different types of audits the brewery may perform, but for the purposes of this article we’ll focus on one in particular: Process Audits.

Within our brewery, there are certain key steps every employee needs to follow. As we already discussed, our employees need to be trained on a number of fundamentals before entering the workplace. They have certain requirements to follow when setting up and maintaining equipment, and have to ensure that everything is cleaned according to the necessary standards. To ensure all of this is happening accordingly, audits are performed.

Manufacturing WorkerEnter SOPs for Audits. In this usage example our SOP will indicate key details on what to audit, where, and examples of what is acceptable or not. This information will be used to ensure that the person performing the audit validates all of the necessary items, and can note any discrepancies for follow up actions. This activity plays an important role in our brewery, as being a food & beverage company they have certain sanitary and regulatory protocols to follow to guarantee the safety of their end customers. If ever the company were found to not be following the ISO 22000 guidelines for food and beverage they could lose their license to operate within the industry, an event that would have devastating consequences on the business.

Solution: Bringing Audits Into Industry 4.0

In our final example detailing the benefits of using standard operating procedures for auditing, we can also see some valuable gains by making these SOPs interactive.

When using typical materials to perform audits, such as word docs and excel, in a paper or digital format, we are of course able to convey our message, but do run the risk of missing information, or incorrectly noting details.

With VKS we can take our same auditing procedure and deploy intelligence and rules so that if a detail being audited is OK, it allows the auditor to proceed forward, whereas if there is a non-conformity detected follow up actions could be triggered based on that event.

Stretching the boundaries even further, using the DataConnect module, the SOP can be configured to automatically query a monitoring system in real time (ex: the temperature of the tank, PH of wastewater, etc) and capture the results back with a go-no-go signal.

By having such controls embedded within our procedure we can help to ensure that all of the relevant data is collected, thereby increasing traceability and allowing the company to deploy continuous improvement initiatives in a more effective manner.

In a nutshell, standard operating procedures provide a lifeline manufacturing companies can rely upon. By standardizing on best practices, companies can increase productivity, reduce waste and increase employee satisfaction.

Coming Soon: In Part 2, we will focus on a few different applications to standard operating procedures within a different manufacturing environment to highlight the versatility and applicability of SOPs across the manufacturing industry sector.