Creating the Standard Operating Procedures that your business needs to succeed sounds about as scintillating as watching paint dry.
Unfortunately, it really, really is.
But the trade-off comes when one of your team members is out sick, and you have a step-by-step guide to make sure that what needs to get done still gets done.
Those SOPS will also come in handy if you want to scale your business.
Or sell your business.
Or do anything that doesn’t include drowning in your business.
What is an SOP?
An SOP is a set of written instructions that describes the step-by-step process that must be followed to complete an activity or task according to your company’s internal standards and industry regulations.
They’re the policies and procedures that set your team and your company up for success by creating clear expectations and a “How To” guide to getting the job done.
Standard Operating Procedures create consistency, reduce mistakes, and misunderstandings, and create a safer work environment. They also offer an opportunity to evaluate the efficiency of your business, your team, and the results that are being produced.
With Standard Operating Procedures in place, your business will start running like a well-oiled machine, so you can take back your time and actually enjoy your life outside of work.
Sadly, I can’t make writing your SOPs exciting, or even interesting, but I can make it less overwhelming to implement the standard that will let you focus on working your magic and bringing your vision to life. Because even watching paint dry is more appealing than having to re-write your SOPs because they don’t actually work.
So, without further ado, here’s how to create effective SOPs for your business.
5 Criteria for Creating Successful SOPs
#1. Prep Work.
Creating effective SOPS is a lot like painting your house; the longer you spend taping, draping, and prepping your work, the easier you make the process, and the better the final product will be. The same goes for creating your Standard Operating Procedures. It starts with creating a clear picture of the work that needs to be done.
It starts with asking key questions about your business and who does what.
⇒ What are the roles that need to be performed in your business?
⇒ Who is responsible for each role?
⇒ What are the responsibilities of each role?
⇒ What are their goals?
⇒ What results are they responsible for?
Beyond individual roles and responsibilities, there may also be company tasks that don’t necessarily fall under one person’s purview. If you use software that is essential to your business, but you don’t have an IT department, tasks related to updating and maintaining that software would be a company task. These company tasks will also need SOPs to be created, which means that you will need to assign or delegate those to the most appropriate team members.
Once you’re clear on who is responsible for doing what, and before you start creating your SOPs, you need to decide on a format for your Standard Operating Procedures.
Make everyone’s lives easier by formatting every SOP, protocol, and system using the same method. Whether you decide to use checklists, workflows, or another approach altogether, create a template that all your SOPs will follow.
Every SOP should have a Table of Contents or an index. Including an index or Table of Contents for every SOP, even if the list is only two items long, ensures that if a team member needs to figure out how to do something, it’s easy to find the information they need to do it properly.
It’s important to remember that in a collaborative environment, there will be tasks and activities that fall under a given role, but are also dependent on tasks or roles that are fulfilled by other members of your team. To create effective SOPs, you need to identify these tasks, activities, and roles and decide how you will note or codify this overlap in your SOP format.
All standard operating procedures should be written by the person who is doing that particular task in that particular role. They’re the ones who know the job best because they’re already doing it. So have them create the SOP while they’re doing the task.
Whether they’re making notes in a document on a second screen or on a piece of paper beside them, every single time they push a key, log in to a site or software, or even send an email, they’re documenting exactly what they just did in their SOP.
Does it take more time to get the task done while they do this? Absolutely. But they’re doing it at the same time they’re getting their work done, and they’re creating the documentation you need to standardize efficiency, excellence, and the results you need.
Can you outsource your SOPs?
A few of my clients have hired consultants to write their SOPs for them because it feels easier. They don’t have to do the work, their team members aren’t responsible, and it seems like a timesaver.
But in reality, it takes longer because the consultants have to know and understand your business to write effective SOPs. The equation of time, energy, and money invested in creating your SOPs looks different when you hire a consultant, but there is still legwork involved for you and your team.
I’m always for hiring people whose expertise is useful and will make life easier in the long run. So if you can afford it, and it feels like a good investment for you, your team, and your business – go for it.
#3. Keep it Simple.
This is not the time or place for flowery language or insider acronyms.
When you’re writing an SOP, it is important to focus on how the work gets done, not just the outcome. Every single step from beginning the task to finishing the job needs to be included in simple, straightforward language.
Once an SOP is written, anybody should be able to follow the instructions, complete the particular task, and get the desired results. The process should be so clear, that a 12-year-old could follow along, step-by-step, and achieve the expected outcome. Probably with a lot less skill and without any extra oomph, but they should be able to do the job.
#4. Buddy Up.
I always tell my clients that when you’re writing SOPs, you want to put your team members in teams of two. Pick partners from different departments. The person who’s writing the SOP for their department should be teamed up with somebody from another department who never does that particular thing, and vice versa.
Here’s why: When we’re really good at something, or used to following a particular process or procedure, we skip steps because we’ve internalized the process. We don’t think about what we need to do, we just do it.
If you partner your SOP creators with somebody who has never done the job before, the other person will be able to readily identify any missing steps in the procedure. Once the SOP has been written, it’s time for the buddy to execute the SOP with the original creator sitting next to them. As they follow along, they’re inevitably going to get to a point where they can’t get from where they are to the next step because there’s a gap in the instructions. That’s how you discover the internalized steps that got missed along the way and ensure that your SOPs include every single step from the beginning of a task to proper completion.
Slow + Steady = Successful SOPs
Whatever you do, don’t try to sit down and write all your SOPs at once.
Don’t ask your employees to do this tedious work day after day until your SOP library is complete. And don’t ask that of yourself, either.
Trying to rush through the monotony will only create gaps that lead to confusion and you and your team endlessly writing and rewriting your SOPs. Instead, delegate the SOPs that need to be created and have your team tackle one a day, or two a week.
And on those SOP creating days, buy your employees lunch. Shower them in candy. Reward them for doing this mind-numbing, but essential, work.
Show your appreciation – after all, they’re the reason you don’t have to write every SOP yourself.
#5. Create SOPs that are Alive + Accessible
Your SOPs need to be living documents, but what does that even mean?!
I often think of a business as having a life of its own. If you look back to the very beginning of your business, everything has changed. Your vision has grown, the way that you do things has shifted, and your services and offers have morphed into something new and different.
Your SOPs are a snapshot in time, reflecting the processes and procedures that support this stage of your business. As time goes on, we learn, we grow, and we change the order of things, we take a shortcut, or we add an extra step to refine our processes and enhance the results we produce.
Your SOPs need to be updated to reflect the adjustments you make to improve your business. At least once a year, or ideally every six months, you need to revisit and rework your SOPs to ensure they reflect these changes to your procedures and what is happening in your business. (It may have all the appeal of stale brussel sprouts, but staying on top of updating your SOPs also saves you from having to rewrite them completely down the road. Just saying.)
And they need to be accessible, not collecting dust. I personally think your SOPs should be accessible in a variety of ways. Of course, there should be a manual in the HR department, your resource library, wherever you store your internal documentation. Each employee should have access to the full SOP manual from their computer. The point is to make your SOPs easy to find and easy to use. If a team member is out sick, you don’t want people scrambling to find the SOP they need to make sure that what needs to be done gets done.
Set Yourself, Your Team, and Your Business Up for Success
The entire purpose of your SOPs is to make processes and expectations crystal clear, to make life easier, work more efficient, and to keep you and your team all on the same page and working together towards the same goals.
Yes, creating your SOPs really is mind-numbingly boring, but they are the “How To” Handbook your company needs and the backbone of your business.
SOPS put you in a position to successfully grow your business, sell your business, or even just take a little more time away from your business to live your life.
So, to recap the 5 Criteria for Successful SOPs…
- Prepare. What needs to be done? By whom? How? When? What SOP format works best for you? Don’t forget the Table of Contents!
- Delegate. The person writing the SOP should be the person who is regularly responsible for that task.
- Keep it simple and straightforward. Your SOPs should be so crystal clear that a 12 year old could follow along and get the job done.
- Buddy up. Pair your SOP writers with team members from other departments who don’t do the same work. Have the buddy follow the SOP to identify any gaps in the process or language that isn’t clear. Check, adjust, and celebrate your team for all their hard work.
- Create SOPs that are Alive + Accessible. Review and refine your SOPs at least once a year, if not every six months to ensure that if your team needs to use them, they’re getting the guidance they need. Make sure your entire team can access your SOPs from their computer. Keep hard copies throughout the workplace so that they’re easily accessible and you don’t lose all that hard work if your system goes down or other technical issues arise.
And then enjoy the peace of mind, freedom, and opportunities to grow that come from having effective Standard Operating Procedures in place.