Have you ever wondered what are Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)? Or whether your business should be using them?
In this blog we will cover everything you need to know about SOPs, so that by the end you will know what they are, why you need them, how to create them and even how to get your team creating them for you. We’ll include examples, case studies and even a template for SOPs.
Want to fully understand what SOPs are, why they matter and how to use them? Read from the top.
Looking for something specific? Click the link in the Table of Contents on the left to skip ahead.
What are Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)?
SOPs are like flat pack furniture instructions for your business. The ones that make assembly a real breeze.
Imagine that someone joins your company tomorrow, and instead of you physically showing them how to perform their role, you simply hand them a set of instructions that explain everything they need to do. It may not be the most personal of introductions to a new role, but it could possibly be more effective at teaching them than you are.
Because SOPs are clear, well-thought-through, step-by-step instructions that explain how a team member should perform an activity or job within the business.
They should be specific to the job and define what to do in different circumstances, what authority the team member does and doesn’t have, and when and how to escalate a problem.
Why you need SOPs
To answer that question, let’s start with a story.
Frozen Daiquiris and angry customers
It’s the first holiday you’ve taken since you started your business.
You’ve finally made it to that resort you’ve been dreaming about, and you can feel yourself starting to unwind. You were up early this morning to get the perfect sun lounger, metres away from where the waves gently lap the shore.
“Another frozen Daiquiri?” the waiter enquires.
Why not? I’m on holiday, you think to yourself.
“Yes, thank you”, you reply, then you smile to your beloved on the next sun lounger.
This is what it’s all about, you think, as you lie back and contemplate opening that thriller you’ve been dying to read.
Then the phone rings.
You glance guiltily at your better half. Eyes roll. “I thought you were going to leave that in the room.”
“Sorry…” you respond sheepishly. “I’m sure it’s nothing…”
You answer and Janine from sales, sounding stressed, launches straight in.
“Look, sorry to bother you on your holiday, it’s just that I’ve got this potential customer, they sound keen, but they want a discount. What can I give them?”
“Janine, I don’t know any of the details. Have you asked John? He is head of sales, after all!”
“I did, but he said he wasn’t sure what you would want to do, so…?”
…and off you go.
Fifteen minutes later, you hang up, your zen-like state long gone.
Worst yet, your Daiquiri has melted in the sun.
As you start searching for the waiter to order another, the phone rings again.
Your loved one mutters something under their breath you’re glad you didn’t hear and gets up to leave.
It’s Dave from customer services…
“Hey boss, sorry to bother you on your holiday. It’s just I’ve got this customer and they aren’t happy. They say the product isn’t want they ordered, and they want their money back. What do I do?”
Off you go again. You can sense the other sun worshippers staring at the back of your head and decide you’d better take cover, so you give up and head back to your room.
So much for the holiday.
Now imagine a different scenario
Imagine, instead, that Janine from sales had a set of guidelines defining what discount she was able to give her prospect. If so, she’d have done the job quicker, saved John’s time, and wouldn’t have called you.
Perhaps you could have enjoyed that Daiquiri before it melted.
Imagine also there was a set of instructions for Dave to follow in the event of a customer dispute. You could have stayed on your sun lounger (and avoided the wrath of your beloved).
This is the fundamental reason why you need SOPs. When everyone has clarity over what is expected of them and how to perform their role, you save time and money and avoid stress.
And this brings many benefits.
Benefits of SOPs
Take a holiday and actually have a break, knowing your business is running itself in your absence – you can even have some SOPs for reporting so you can keep an eye on the key data from afar.
Less ambiguity allows for faster decision-making. And the right decision will be made more often. There will be no more need for your team to keep asking you the same questions over and over again (if they do, create an SOP). Leaving you more time to focus on building your business.
Clear SOPs reduce the likelihood of errors. Plus, continual improvement of systems over time will lead to greater effectiveness.
Standard Operating Procedures mean fewer mistakes and less wasted expense. They could also help reduce your wage bill, with each employee doing more in less time, and you may even be able to hire lower-cost staff.
A well-designed SOP leads to faster completion of tasks, as the process of writing SOPs can lead to identification of greater efficiencies.
A “turn-key” business, with everything needed to operate it and scale it documented, is very attractive to potential purchasers. SOPs streamline the handover process.
Reduce staff turnover exposure
When you have a clearly documented role for everyone in the team, it is far easier, quicker and cheaper to onboard new staff – even if their predecessor left in a hurry.
No one likes to be in the dark about what is expected of them – we all crave clarity. SOPs make crystal clear what is expected of each and every team member. And with less brain power (and time) taken up dealing with uncertainty in their regular tasks, team members have more time for creativity and focusing on what matters.
Oh, and there’s one more big one…
Want to start a second office or expand overseas? Here’s the blueprint: A well-known restaurant called McDonald’s.
When Ray Kroc first visited McDonald’s to sell them milkshake makers, they were little known. And he was blown away.
What he saw in McDonald’s was not an exceptional burger, but an exceptional business. An exceptionally well-run business.
Over the course of 17 years, the McDonald brothers had built a business that spanned 20 restaurants.
The magic was in the system they had created. It was an ultra-efficient operation, where every part of the business had a documented process. Everyone knew exactly what they were doing and what was expected of them. This system could be repeated again and again and again.
And the net result was a level of consistency of quality and delivery that no other burger joint could match at that time. And it laid the groundwork for McDonald’s to become the global behemoth that it is today.
How Standard Operating Procedures can be used
What if I don't own a burger restaurant?
You don’t have to own a burger chain for SOPs to be effective. They have a wide range of applications across almost any business.
Struggling to see how they apply to your business? Here are some high-level ideas to spark your creativity.
Limitations of SOPs
Do SOPs help or hinder the creative process?
If SOPs have a limitation, it is in the highly creative jobs or decision-making processes.
For example, how do you write a procedure for being “inspired”?
However, you can still use SOPs to put the framework around creative or decision-making processes. In fact, by using SOPs to ensure the repetitive tasks can be completed quickly, you can free up time and brainpower to focus on what matters.
Imagine, for example, you are struck by inspiration to create a new piece of content. Although you can’t write an SOP for “inspiration”, you can create SOPs so your team know what to do, when inspiration strikes. In this scenario, SOPs could include:
While on the face of it, “process” is at odds with creativity, SOPs such as these remove ambiguity for the creative, leaving them with full mental capacity to be creative.
At what point in the evolution of my business should I start creating SOPs?
Although you may not have documented all the processes in your business, you are no doubt creating and executing them daily.
So as soon as you see a process or system that you want to:
then you can start creating an SOP.
For example, if you’re a solopreneur looking to outsource one or more daily tasks to a virtual assistant, start by creating SOPs for those tasks. This will help you:
You may also find, that once it has been documented and the ambiguity is removed, the job/task can be performed in less time than you expected. Which gives you the option to potentially outsource more work without paying for more time.
How to create your SOPs.
If the idea of creating Standard Operating Procedures for your business seems a huge task, don’t worry – we’ll show you how to break it down into bite-sized pieces (and how to delegate much of the work to your team).
Case Study 1: Creating SOPs
After a period of good growth at my first company, PINK JUNK, I switched from working in the field, to managing the team from the office.
But several months in, I noticed our customer review scores dropping. A brief investigation revealed some key steps in the customer service journey were being missed by our team, not because of a lack of desire from them, but a lack of clarity on how they should perform their role.
Improve customer experience and restore net promoter score.
We decided to remove any ambiguity by creating SOPs. To do this we,
- Wrote down the list of jobs our ‘Truck Leaders’ completed each week – everything from checking the truck on a Monday, to planning the best route for the day, to making a courtesy call to the customer, to how to tip the rubbish.
- Picked just one to start with, and using a template for Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) like this one, and filled out the information required.
- I then shared that with the one of our truck leaders and asked them to test it out.
- I took their feedback and fed it into the SOP to make it better.
- We continued this process until we had SOPs for every job the truck leader completed each week.
Once this was complete, it was an easy task to compile all the SOPs into a single document handbook that the truck leaders could keep on hand a at all times.
The team was happy because it gave they clarity over what was expected of them, and the net result was that even though I was no longer out in the field, our net promoter score quickly bumped back up to previous levels.
A step by step to creating your first SOP
If you are new to SOPs, we recommend starting with a task that you currently perform so you can get a feel for the process and how it works before you consider delegating.
Follow these steps:
Step 1: Create a draft
Look through the list and pick out one task that is:
- Something you would like to delegate.
Print a copy of the “SOP template”, or copy and paste into an editable document format, like word or excel.
Name your SOP. Something relevant to the job it is for.
Identify who it is for (you, or a team member, or the team in general).
Add a “Goal” for the SOP i.e. the intended outcome.
Write down a list of all the steps included in that task/job and add them to the “Procedure” section of the SOP.
Add any detail required to explain what is involved in each step. (You can turn the Procedures section into a table like the one below, if it helps.)
List any tools and resources that should accompany the SOP or help the user perform the SOP.
Identify what someone should do in the event they can improve on the SOP – Who should they contact? What is the process?
*TIP: If you are struggling to remember what you do each week, start by going back through your calendar and inbox. Or, keep a notepad by your desk and spend a few days noting each task/job you are performing.
Step 2: Get it checked
Once you have completed your first draft, pass it to someone else – ideally someone unfamiliar with the job – and ask them to follow the SOP.
If they can complete the job flawlessly without asking you for any assistance, you have nailed it first time.
If not, ask for feedback or sit with them and take notes on what did and didn’t work. Add that into the SOP until it is perfected.
And that’s your first SOP completed!
Step 3: Rinse and repeat until it's perfected
Repeat the above two processes until someone can execute it flawlessly, and that’s your first SOP completed!
TOP TIP: The first time may take longer. The more familiar you become with the SOP creation process, the more quickly you will be able to create SOPs.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) example
Produce a cup of team to meet the exacting needs of our team members.
Who is it for
Whoever’s turn it is to make the tea or whoever drew the short straw.
1. Mug(s) – located in the cupboard above the sink*.
2. Teabag(s) – as above.
3. Spoon – in the draw next to the sink.
4. Kettle – the left-hand side of the sink.
5. Milk – fridge (opposite side of the kitchen to the sink).
*if there are not enough mugs above the sink, check the dishwasher (located below the sink).
1. Start by ask who wants tea, and note the results. Be sure to make note of anyone who wants sugar.
2. Fill the kettle with water from the tap, and put on to boil, by flicking down the lower switch. A blue light indicates the kettle is on.
3. Take the required number of cups (1 per team member who has requested tea) and place them on the kitchen surface.
4. Place one tea bag in each cup.
5. Once the kettle is boiled, pour water into the cups, until the water level is 1cm below the cup rim.
5. Using the spoon, give each cup 3 stir (1 stire equals a full rotation of hte cup).
6. Allow to “brew” for 3 minutes.
6. Remove tea bag(s)
7. Add a dash of milk. A dash can be measured as a 0.5cm increase in height of the liquid in the mug.
8. Add a spoonful of sugar for anyone who requested sugar in their tea.
9. Serve to your team members, and be sure to recommend they allow a minimum of 3 minutes for cooling before drinking.
Complex SOPs: Allowing for variations
This example, is a relatively simplistic SOP and some will be more complicated. Some may even diverge dependent on the outcome of steps within the SOP.
If this is the case, a simple solution is to send the user to a second SOP.
So, if for step “X” the potential next steps could be “a” or “b”, or even “c”, you then create sub-SOPs for “a”, “b” and “c”.
Getting your team involved
Creating SOPs for your business is a big task. But you can break it down into bite-sized steps and, even better, delegate much of the work to your team.
The following case study explains how I tackled this with a previous business:
Case Study 2: Creating SOP
As I explained in Case Study 1, I did most of the work in creating the SOPs for our Truck teams. However, when it came to expanding our Customer Service team, based in the Philippines, we took a different approach, because:
- I know understood how much time creating SOPs took.
- They had made the role their own, and we weren’t familiar with every job they were completing each week.
At that point we had just one team member, but we had plans to expand to a team of three, and needed the SOPs completed first.
At that point we had just one team member, but we had plans to expand to a team of three, and needed the SOPs completed first.
We used the following steps:
- I asked Kim to document every task she did each day in a simple list format.
- I asked her to create an SOP for one of the tasks – whichever she wanted to start on. This was the first practice run.
- Kim then passed that SOP to a colleague at her office who would test it, record any feedback, and pass it to Kim to update the SOP.
- This process was repeated until there was a tried and tested SOP for each job Kim performed.
- All SOPs were compiled into a single document.
When it came to onboarding new staff, Kim was able to train them using these SOPs. We created a checklist for each job they would perform, which both Kim and the trainee would sign off on once they had been satisfactorily trained to complete that task.
Keeping Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) relevant
As a teenager, I did a stint at McDonald’s, and my first day left a lasting impression on me. In the space of 4 hours, I was able to make cheeseburgers, hamburgers and Big Macs to the same standard as someone who had been working there for years.
Contrast this to when I started at a global corporate years later. On arrival, I really didn’t know what I was doing or what was expected of me. Yes, I had a job description, but there was very little detail of how to execute my role. I remember being handed an “Employee Handbook” several weeks after I’d joined. The branding wasn’t even up to date. It was next to useless.
The difference between the two scenarios was that McDonald’s kept their SOPs up to date. Theirs was an ever evolving and improving system.
You can almost think about SOPs like a house. You can invest in building a beautiful, modern home, but if you don’t maintain it, it will soon become tired, outdated, and lose its value.
Keep your SOPs relevant by making them,
Visible and accessible
SOPS that get printed and forgotten in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet are all but useless. All that time and energy creating them is effectively wasted. They must be visible and accessible.
Make sure they are easily reached by the relevant people. Stick them on walls. Print a hardcopy handbook. Store them online in an accessible place, such as on shared drives like SharePoint or Dropbox.
Fluid and dynamic
Effective SOPs should not be static, but fluid and incrementally improving over time.
Google “standard operating procedures software“ and you will find platforms that have been developed to facilitate this process (like this one).
However, while it can be helpful to have software for this, you don’t need it – especially if you make it…
Part of the culture
If you are serious about Standard Operating Procedures and all the benefits they bring, make them part of the culture of the organisation.
You might initially be met with some resistance from team members who don’t like the idea of documenting the role. But persist. Explain to them why they are important.
Once you have team buy-in, make SOPs part of the culture of your organisation.
Now you can answer the question “what are standard operating procedures?”, as well as why you need them, how to implement them in your business and how to keep them relevant.
SOPs are a powerful way to create structure, free up your time, scale your business, improve quality of delivery, and more.
If you are ready to get going, start by downloading your templates for Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) pack here and following these steps, to create your first SOP.
When you have a million and one things to do on a daily basis, competing priorities, and people looking to you for answers, all the time, then the thought of starting another project can seem a step too far – even if the benefits are incredibly appealing.
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