Imagine the following scenario.
You've been assigned to a new project at a high managerial level. To get it done, you hire five new members to your team and need to get them up to speed as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Would you rather sit down with each new member and give them a workshop on each and every company policy, technology and process? Probably not.
This is where Standard Operating Procedures come into play.
What are standard operating procedures?
To put it in simple terms, a standard operating procedure (SOP) is a step-by-step guideline of how a company's workers should complete complex tasks. The goal of SOPs is to achieve efficiency, quality output and uniformity of performance across the organization and reduce any possibility of miscommunication and errors. SOPs can be as simple as the process of issuing a purchase order to complex ones like processing qualified sales leads.
How to write clear and concise SOPs?
If you do not already have SOPs for your team/department/organization set in place, don't fret. While the process sounds tedious and a tad complicated, we're here to tell you it's not as challenging as you might think.
There is no universal template or format for SOPs, however, there are elements to consider if you want to build effective knowledge. Here are 8 tips (with examples) that will help you create a clear and concise document that will be easy for your employees to understand and follow.
1. Define the procedures and their purpose.
Before you start writing your SOPs, you need to take a step back and define the purpose of the document. What is the goal of this SOP? Whom is this intended for and what are you trying to achieve?
For example, you want to inform your team on how to use Headliner (a podcast editing software) to create sharable audiograms from your podcast episodes. You’ll start by giving your SOP a clear title. After that, state the desired outcome of the document. Here's what it might look like:
Title: How to use Headliner to create audiograms of podcast episodes.
Purpose: To create audiograms of our new podcast episodes using Headliner to be shared on social media. This SOP is intended for everyone on the marketing team to.
Once you have a clear understanding of the purpose of the SOP, you can begin to put together the document.
2. Write down every single step.
Always consider your audience and their level of knowledge in this particular area you’re writing for. Even if the majority has a good idea of what you're talking about, keep in mind that not everyone is familiar with the company's technology or processes. Therefore, don’t skimp on your steps. Make sure you lay down every part of the procedure from start to finish to avoid confusion.
Back to our Headliner example, we’ll start with very simple but important steps:
Step 1: Log into the Headliner.app.
Step 2: Scroll down to Create Audiograms.
Step 3: Select Automatic Audiograms.
Step 4: Type in the episode name in the search bar.
The above example illustrates a high-level version of how precise your document should be. Sometimes, your steps might require more detail to avoid confusion or vagueness.
3. Keep the procedures clear and concise.
It is essential to keep the procedures clear and concise when writing SOPs. This means your language should be free of any ambiguity or complex terminologies that not everyone at your company might be familiar with. Make sure your procedures are realistic and achievable for your target audience. You can’t, for instance, expect a marketer with no background in programming to write a few lines of code to accomplish a task.
To achieve the best clarity to your procedures, apply the following:
- Use bullet points and numbers.
- Write your steps in a logical order.
- Break up long chunks of text into smaller steps.
- Limit your procedure to one page.
- Avoid jargon, abbreviations and wordiness.
- Ensure tone and language is consistent throughout your SOPs.
An example of a poorly-written step:
Do not forget to save your progress to ensure no edits are lost before you exit the editor's page.
Here’s an improved version of the same step:
Click the save button and then exit the editor’s page.
Sweet and simple.
4. Use “you” statements.
A good practice you should adopt when documenting your procedures is using “you” statements or writing your instruction in the second person point of view. Using "you" statements ensures that the instructions are clear and easy to follow. It also helps to prevent confusion and misunderstanding, as the reader will always know to whom the instructions are addressed.
For instance, avoid writing sentences like:
The employee must have their password manager set up to access the company’s Headliner account.
You should have your password manager set up to access the company’s Headliner account.
Imagine your having a conversation with your team members as you’re writing these processes. This will make the writing process more manageable and less complicated.
5. Use action verbs.
As you write your processes, be mindful to use action verbs in your instructions. This will make your SOP precise and easier to understand. A lot of times, we use the passive voice without noticing, making our phrases unnecessarily wordy and complicated.
Some examples of action words include:
Here’s an example of how you can convert passive statements into actionable steps:
Instead of saying “These steps should be followed," you could say “Implement the following steps.”
It’s a minor change, yet the language offers direction and clarity to the reader.
6. Add visuals whenever possible.
When you’re setting up your knowledge base, your goal is to provide clarity to current and future members of your organization. To achieve this, adding visual aids to your procedures, no matter how simple, is essential.
There are a variety of ways to incorporate imagery into your SOPs. Flowcharts and swim lanes are great mediums to illustrate a clear overview of a certain workflow. You might want to use flowcharts when a certain process could lead to multiple outcomes.
Other visual aids such as images, screenshots, GIFs and even videos are effective communication tools you can use in your standard operating procedures. Attaching screenshots to steps of a process or recording a video walkthrough of a specific software feature are sure-fire ways that will minimize any possibility of errors, and lead to high-quality outcomes.
Our video platform of choice for process documentation is Loom. The easy-to-use tool features a screen-record option for quick video demonstrations, cloud storage for your media, and shareable links to embed into your SOPs, no matter where you keep them.
7. Test, get feedback and revise.
An important step that you cannot skip is to test and receive feedback from those who will be using the SOP. This is a good practice to ensure that the instructions provided are clear and concise and that it covers all of the relevant information.
We recommend that you test your SOP with multiple individuals of varying levels of knowledge of the process, especially with people who have never implemented it before. This way, you will receive a wide range of responses from diverse viewpoints and catch issues you would not have otherwise been able to detect on your own.
Once you have collected feedback, revise your writing and apply necessary amendments based on the edits your team suggested. Make it a point to revisit and update old SOPs regularly or whenever the need arises. Involve your team in this exercise as often as possible to cultivate a culture of accuracy and continuous improvement that will inevitably translate into the quality of the work your produce.
8. Store your SOPs in a centralized hub.
Finally, once you’ve written your SOPs, you need to store them in a centralized location. This helps streamline your operations and makes it easier for your employees to find the information they need. This could be in a shared cloud folder or work management tool such as Asana which most of your employees have access to.
There are a few things you should consider when building your knowledge base:
- Organize your processes by categories for easy search and navigation.
- Ensure all SOPs are up-to-date and accurate.
- Make sure that only authorized personnel have access to the knowledge base.
A well-maintained and easy-to-access knowledge base facilitates the process of onboarding new employees and provides clarity throughout your organization. It’s an investment of time and effort that yields high rewards in the long term.
We hope that this post has given you a clear idea of how to document your standard operating procedures, and perhaps even given you a little motivation to start building your company’s knowledge base.
If this task proves to be a great undertaking, our experts are here to help. Book a call today to get you started.