A standard operating procedure (or an SOP) is a detailed, often step-by-step, instruction document on how to do something. Regardless of your business, you'll have many processes that help you run your everyday operations smoothly. You might even have already automated some of them. For most business processes, you need an accompanying SOP that guides the reader every step of the way.
For example, let's say you have a farm and want to hire five seasonal employees. Hiring involves advertising, analysing candidates, interviewing them, offering the job to the right ones, and onboarding them into your business activities. All of these are smaller parts of the larger hiring process. Based on your business's capacity and resources, you'll need a separate SOP for each of these processes. If you're the sole decision maker of the business, and you hire casual staff every three months, you likely don't need an SOP to determine your selection criteria—but you could do with an SOP that teaches your new hires how to set up the till every morning.
Why you need an SOP
Writing an SOP document for every critical process in your business is hard work. It takes a lot of effort, collaboration, and time—not only from your employees but also from your key decision makers. Is it even worth going to all that trouble?
We'd say yes.
Standard operating procedures are essential guidelines for you and your employees. They:
• Help you perform routine tasks accurately and safely. If you're in a high-risk industry like construction, or if you handle hazardous chemicals or equipment, SOP documents help your team stay safe and avoid costly mistakes.
• Ensure your team complies with regulations. An SOP is an excellent way to enforce the various rules and regulations your business has to adhere to. This is particularly helpful when you work with customer data, because you have to follow specific data and privacy guidelines based on where your customers live. An SOP will explain to your staff how exactly they should handle a piece of data, making it easier to stay on track and in compliance.
• Help train new hires. With comprehensive guidelines for every important activity, SOP documents will have clear instructions for training new recruits into the system. You don't have to spoon-feed them every step of the way, but can instead let them follow protocol and learn on the job. The closer they stick to the SOP, the fewer chances they have of making mistakes.
• Give you consistent outcomes every time. The best thing about following a rule book is that you won't run have any unwanted surprises. For example, if you create an SOP for your customer support team, about delivering great customer experiences, it'll soon become ingrained into your culture and branding.
• Serve as backup. It's great to have a couple of employees who know the most effective way to do things. However, when those employees are away on holiday or unavailable, an SOP is the next best thing. It allows anyone else on your team to step in and perform whatever task needs to be done. This doesn't mean that your star employees are replaceable, but having an SOP gives you a reliable backup without compromising on quality.
Do you need an SOP?
We'd say yes again.
Sure, not all businesses operate the same, and they don't all need the same SOPs. However, we'd recommend dissecting the many processes you go through on a daily basis and identifying which ones need well-defined documentation.
How simple or detailed your SOP is depends on your exact processes. For example, at Zoho, our welcome package to a new developer has more granular guidelines than the API documentation we share between product teams. Even though, in both cases, the reader is a software developer, a new employee needs more explanation about our business and how our teams function, while the API documentation can focus more on how the code operates, and best practices to use it.
In other words, the welcome pack introduces our culture to a new recruit, whereas the API document addresses a well-seasoned employee who already resonates with our internal culture and language.
Before you start writing your SOP documents, however, ask yourself who you're writing to and what you want to achieve with it. Knowing this can help you outline the information you need to include and the best way to do it. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
Start with templates
If your business has been around for a while, chances are you already have a few SOP documents. Use them as guidelines to help you frame the structure and content of your new SOP documents. If you don't have any yet, talk to the teams that go through that process every day and gather their feedback. Note how they operate and tweak the language to make it simple so that even someone outside the team can still use it if they need to. In Zoho's case, this means making sure our API documents across products use similar language, so that if someone changes teams, they can still pick it up without much of a learning curve.
Get the full picture
While you're gathering feedback from stakeholders, also talk to other teams that engage with the process you're writing your SOP for. If you're working on an SOP for handling customer support issues raised through social media, then apart from your support team, involve the marketing team, as well. Since your marketing team is more likely to handle social media, they'll have valuable feedback you can incorporate into your SOP. Usually, such a document will also include guidelines on when a support agent should involve the marketing team in a conversation and vice versa. This also means that your support team's SOP will overlap with your marketing team's, but that's fine. Good even.
Make it accessible
Usually, SOP documents are plain, lengthy, and boring. They aren't inviting enough for someone to just read through. If your SOP document is boring, it makes people less likely to follow it. That's why it's important to make it easily accessible. Have a clear structure with bullet points and numbers, use visual graphs and flow charts, make your document accessible on mobile devices, choose a file format that's compatible with most computers and devices, and most importantly, make sure that every word on your document can be interpreted though digital accessibility tools. Every step you take to make your document more approachable increases the chances of it being adopted in everyday business.
Review, evolve, and improve
Don't get too attached to your SOP documents. Even though it takes quite a lot of effort to put one together, it'll never be definitive. Standard operating procedures are effective only until you find a more effective procedure. When you do, update your SOP document to reflect the latest way of working. Know that it's a constantly evolving process, and by keeping it updated, you're only optimising your operations.
Getting started writing your SOP
Parts of an SOP document
The structure of an SOP document is fairly straightforward. You introduce the concept to your reader, inform them why it's important, and then dive into the steps. You then close out with a glossary to explain any key words or phrases you referred to in your procedure, and finally a set of references or further reading material for your reader. So you'll have:
• Title page, including the topic, writers, point of contact, logo, etc.
• Purpose of the SOP document, including a history of revisions made
• Ideal use cases or scenarios where the SOP should be used, including who the document is for
• Step-by-step procedure
• FAQs or glossary of terms
• Additional references, including contact information of writers and immediate superiors who can answer further questions
• Generic SOP template, by the Australian Department of Health
• SOP template for housekeeping staff in the hospitality industry, by SafetyCulture
• Editable SOP templates, by TemplateLab
• More editable SOP templates, by Template Archive
There's no right or wrong way to write an SOP—every procedure and every line of your document will be unique to your business. Even though we've provided downloadable templates, we'd recommend evaluating your current work process to identify your own style of SOP.
We hope this post answers some of your questions about standard operating procedures and their role in effectively running your operations. Have any specific questions? Let us know in the comments and we'll answer them as soon as we can!