A Standard Operating Procedure, more commonly known as an SOP, is a set of instructions for a frequently performed action. An optimal SOP needs to be straightforward enough to be understood by most people, seeing as it is created to standardize tasks and improve the quality control of administrational details. It is known by many other common names, including protocol, code of conduct, checklist, or procedure.
SOP = standardized sets of instructions for a frequently performed, commonly shared task
Examples are step-by-step instructions, flowcharts, rules list, checklists, etc.
SOPs are absolutely critical for safety, smooth workflow, and efficiency
Need them? Not to alarm you, but you’re already using them!
Even if you’re not aware of it, the whole world operates based on assumed standards of procedure. For example, most people, upon entering a store and selecting an item, will know to proceed to the checkout counter and, if there are other customers, wait at the back of the line. This is a mutual understanding of “proper” sequential actions in order to produce an optimally organized outcome, which in this case would be, “buying a snack from the corner store.”
Not all SOPs are unwritten understandings, however, or need to be taught precisely in a specific manner to be effective workplace instruments.
Because let’s be honest: not all tasks need to be done perfectly according to protocol. If someone cuts in front of you in the store checkout line, it’s a rude move but it doesn’t disrupt the entire functioning of the store. It may not even have any impact, if you don’t mind waiting a few more minutes and would prefer not to call someone out for bad behavior.
On the other hand, some SOPs are very strict.
Let’s take the personal fire safety protocol, “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” If you were to mix up the order of these actions, it could have disastrous, even fatal, results; the order of operations is critically important and must be followed exactly.
Now, moving to a relevant business example, most companies have SOPs in place for how to process payroll. Businesses know that paying their employees is of utmost importance, and so they need to execute as close to 100% accuracy and timing as possible. This ensures that everyone will receive their allotted pay in expected time, and that in case of any banking or personal complications, any errors or deviations in performance can be found immediately and rectified.
SOPs can be so complicated and detailed, and oftentimes cutting steps has no impact on the result compared to diligently following procedure. Paradoxically, this is exactly why SOPs are needed – SOPs are not just “implementing proper actions,” they are simultaneously “eliminating errors through emphasizing process” instead of results. In other words, just by nature of having to cross-reference and outline your work with company-wide SOPs, you do a more thorough job of reporting because you are prompted for more information and reminded of the collective significance of the performed action.
There are so many examples of SOPs across the board, from safety protocol, to operation of heavy machinery, to cleanliness and sanitization of shared workplaces, or to entering information into a software system, for example.
Take the broad category of safety protocol, for starters. Here is a list of safety SOPs, which will help demonstrate the broad range of templates available.
Safety protocol can be boring. But have you heard of Internet Protocol? I bet you’ve at least heard of an “IP address”. Internet Protocol is the name for the communication SOP within the network layer of the OSI Model, which organizes standards of telecommunication and computation. To remember the different layers of the OSI Model (which are the electrical components that build upon each other to create internet networks), some use the mnemonic “Please Do Not Teach Students Pointless Acronyms” – referring to the order of protocol layers: Physical, Data link, Network, Transport, Session, Presentation, and Application.
But there are so many different types of SOPs, so how can I recognize which ones are mandatory procedures and which ones are just helpful guidelines?
It really is often a matter of judgment, but there are a few things that can help you categorize the type of SOP you’re dealing with:
If the procedure in question requires inputting or marking precise measurements, then it’s an SOP and not a guideline.
If the procedure requires a quick reaction rather than a strategic assessment, it’s an SOP and not a guideline.
If the procedure requires 0% variability in performed actions, then it’s an SOP rather than a guideline.
Also, it very much matters which type of template you choose for an SOP. Imagine if “Stop, Drop, and Roll” were a visual flowchart that you had to see to understand. Or what would happen if those instructions were standardized like this?
Using this example, it’s easy to see how the format or template of an SOP can make it or break it in actual practice. In this case, the first SOP is useless because by the time you read and respond to every step (while under intense stress, no less), you’ve probably crumbled into dust. In the conventionally known SOP, the direction is quick, comprehensible, and with less possibility of miscommunication than in the former SOP.
There are so many different types of SOPs, but there are definitely a few commonly used templates that work due to their visual appeal and easy-to-understand format.
These SOPs are probably the most reading-intensive, because they can sometimes be whole textbook chapters! Certain in-depth, multi-step SOPs are optimized for a highly skilled, expert crew in a specific area. For example, an SOP could be made for dating and filing various documents so they can be easily retrievable by any department. Lengthy SOPs like operating heavy machinery may require training or certification because the stakes for error are incredibly high.
Step-by-step instructions are the most thorough of all SOPs, but they can also potentially be the most difficult to implement because there are many more points of error where the user can become confused by the next step or boxed out because of incomplete parameters.
Yes/No (or if/then) flowcharts are particularly good for performing tasks with specific orders of operation. This is because you don’t necessarily need to understand the entirety of the process before taking the first few steps. These types of SOPs are common in routine mechanical tasks, quality control assessments, and coding and programming (specifically when it comes to system architecture).
If it doesn’t particularly matter in what order steps are completed, a final checklist might be a good SOP to implement. An example of a checklist would be, for example, a mandatory itemization of products loaded onto a shipping container or cargo truck, for example. Aside from any safety and handling SOPs about how to go about loading the items, a final checklist SOP can be implemented at the end to double-check that all necessary products have been addressed in the shipping process.
Final checklists can also be used to prompt subjective conclusions, to remind the operator of all the side details that are easily forgotten but don’t require inputting data.
Usually these are limited to one-liners (or one word). Examples include “KISS,” which stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid” – a common refrain meant to combat overthinking and rumination in decision-making. Another would be the mnemonic “ROY G BIV,” which is a memory aid for recalling the order of colors in the rainbow (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet). Acronyms and mnemonic devices are types of SOP that are closely related to best practices, because they are short reminders for details like orders of operation (e.g. “I before E, except after C”) or overall safety practices (e.g. “Lift with your knees, not with your back”).
Did you know that even the ABC’s is a mnemonic device? Acronyms and mnemonics are best used for nuggets of critical information that need to be recalled quickly but otherwise need little cognitive understanding.
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