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Standard operating procedures

Standard operating procedures definition

A standard operating procedure is a step-by-step set of instructions that communicate to employees the process for completing a key workplace operation.

How many standard operating procedures (SOPs) have you followed today? Probably more than you think. At work, in the world and at home, we’re using SOPs all the time to carry out all kinds of activities.

You’re following an SOP if you’re:

  • serving a customer
  • manufacturing a product
  • interviewing a prospective employee
  • driving on a public roadway
  • preparing your taxes
  • following a recipe
  • brushing your teeth

What is a standard operating procedure?

In its simplest terms, an SOP is a step-by-step series of instructions used to accomplish an action. The action is broken down into distinct parts in a specific sequence. An SOP explains what supplies you’ll need to complete the task and what to do with them, from start to finish, to get the desired outcome.

In a workplace, SOPs provide a reliable process that ensures the outcome is consistent no matter who is doing the task. An SOP could exist in a digital format or as a piece of paper. It can be a step-by-step written document or a series of images. Some SOPs are embedded in equipment, such as manufacturing machinery that has its instructions digitally displayed.

Consider a coffee shop: the employee wiping tables and sweeping the floor is following an SOP to keep the restaurant clean. The barista behind the counter is following a customer service SOP when greeting people and ringing in orders. When the coffee shop closes at the end of the day, the employees follow several SOPs to clean the equipment and shut down the establishment.

Companies that have a robust library of SOPs tend to produce higher-quality and more consistent products and services.

Why is it important to have standard operating procedures?

SOPs exist to support employees as they perform their duties. They provide purpose, direction and consistency.

“They’re a source of information that reinforces training that employees have received and helps them do their work safely and with autonomy and confidence,” says Patrick Choquette, Senior Business Advisor with BDC Advisory Services.

What does a standard operating procedure include?

While different workplaces and industries have different variations on an SOP, most include:

  • purpose: reason for the process
  • scope: workplace location where it’s applied
  • definitions: its terms and actions and what they mean
  • requirements: list of required supplies or equipment
  • responsibilities: outline of people’s roles
  • training requirements: what employees require prior to its undertaking
  • procedure: a step-by-step process for the task’s completion
  • time (optional): estimated length of time for completion

Standard operating procedure examples

SOPs can touch a variety of areas. Some examples include:

  • a PDF brochure that shows employees how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace
  • a posted sheet at the entry and exit with instructions on how farmers can minimize the transfer of disease when moving personnel into and out of their barns
  • a how-to national dental association web page on properly brushing and flossing teeth

That 150-page manual is not helpful if no one is reading it.

Standard operating procedure sample

Store closing procedure
Assistant manager routine
Author: M. Pilon
Effective date: 2023-01-01
Approved by: N. Brown

30 minutes before closing

  1. Perform an inspection of all aisles for any products on the floor. Ask the employees to clean up and, if necessary, redo the display.
  2. Start writing your shift notes in the logbook for the team that will be in the next day.

15 minutes before closing

  1. Using the phone’s paging feature (Code 7#80) and saying the following, announce the store’s closing:
    “Your attention, please. The store will be closing in 15 minutes.
  2. Proceed to the front entrance to manage customer inflow, letting them know that the store will soon be closed. Let them know what time the store will open tomorrow.

5 minutes before closing

  1. Using the phone’s paging feature (Code 7#80) and saying the following, announce the store’s closing:
    “Your attention, please. The store is now closing. Please proceed to the cash. We will be back tomorrow morning at 10 to help you find the product you want. Thank you and have a pleasant evening.”
  2. Proceed to the back of the store and turn to the off position the three breakers with the yellow tags. This will close only four specific light fixtures, giving clients another reminder of the store’s closing.
  3. Go to the front door and lock the entrance, which will stop any customer from coming in. Unlock the door for each exiting customer.

At closing until departure

  1. Stay at the front to unlock the door for exiting customers.
  2. Ensure the employees have begun their end-of-day clean-up (SOP GC04)
  3. Ensure the cashier completes his or her balance and deposits (SOP FI32) after the last client has made their purchase.
    • While the cashier cashes out, make a final go-around to ensure all clients have left.
  4. Proceed to the back of the store. Inside the breaker panel, turn to the off position:
    • the six breakers with red tags. This will turn off all store light fixtures, except those lighting the cashier’s area.
    • the breaker with an orange tag. This will turn off the store’s outdoor neon sign.
  5. Make sure the back door is locked.
  6. Proceed to the front and turn on the “Closed” neon sign.
  7. While the cashier and employees are finishing their tasks:
    • empty the trash bins
    • inspect the store for general cleanliness
    • complete your logbook notes
  8. When everyone is at the door and ready to leave (n.b. For the safety of everyone, you need to leave the store as a group, never alone.):
    • Look outside for any suspicious behaviour. If you feel threatened by anything taking place outside, stay in and call 911.
    • Turn on the alarm (SOP SE 760) and validate that the system is in the 30-second countdown.
    • Exit as a group and lock the door immediately.

How do you develop a standard operating procedure?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recommends that companies look at their business data and decide what needs to be documented.

Common areas that benefit from SOPs include:

  • high-risk tasks that, if done improperly, could compromise employee or environmental safety, cause harm to customers and/or their information, or damage the company’s reputation
  • complicated procedures that require several steps in a precise order to achieve a consistent result
  • tasks that require special employee training
  • areas of the workplace prone to producing errors

It’s important to consider both format and audience. In a manufacturing facility, visual reminders with images and no words may be the best format for low-literacy or non-native-speaking employees. In an office setting, a binder of printed SOPs or a library of pdfs available in a shared drive may be most appropriate. Think about your workplace, your employees and the contexts in which they need to refer to SOPs.

“When developing SOPs, it’s important to find the right balance between not enough and too much information," says Choquette. “That 150-page manual is not helpful if no one is reading it. Conversely, an SOP that says little beyond ‘Set up machine’ isn’t offering users enough meaningful information.”

How do you write a standard operating procedure?

The best way to start writing an SOP is by bringing together the person or team that developed the task or has most consistently been doing it, and ask them to explain it, step by step. Break down each component and its sequence, including tasks within tasks. Once the important steps are thoroughly covered, you can look at how you might consolidate some steps or eliminate the ones that don’t need explicit instructions.

Finally, test the SOP with employees who are unfamiliar with the task to determine how effective it is in helping them achieve consistent results.

What kind of employee training do standard operating procedures require?

It's important to note that SOPs are meant to complement employee training, not replace it. An SOP is a reference tool for employees who have already been trained for the task.

If a new SOP is being introduced to serve as a refresher for employees, you may consider having a training session to review each step. Start with the purpose for the SOP and work your way through areas such as scope, supplies and procedure, so employees are clear about any new direction.

When should you revise your standard operating procedures?

SOPs should be reviewed every year to ensure they’re still accurate and relevant. They may need to be updated or even removed.

If challenges in a particular area come up before the review process, don’t wait; revisit the SOP to ensure it’s clear and comprehensive. You may need to revise it and offer some retraining.

Another best practice is to encourage your employees and supervisors to let you know if they’re having difficulties carrying out instructions. Factors like location, materials or people might need to be tweaked to improve the SOP.

No matter your industry, standard operating procedures should be part of the way your organization ensures consistent, high-quality products and services. Your employees will appreciate the purposefulness and clarity that it brings to the work they do, and your customers will appreciate the results.

Next step

Uncover and eliminate inefficiencies in your business by downloading the free BDC guide, Optimize Your Business Processes.

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