Creating better Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Author: Dennis Crommentuijn-Marsh

‘When I say jump, you say ‘how high?’  It might be a tired old cliché but it’s a useful phrase to illustrate the problem with many Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). They focus on the ‘what’ rather than the why. The ‘jump’ command element of a SOP is, therefore, insufficient.

Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) are written instructions designed to document how to perform key processes to ensure consistent and quality output. They don’t necessarily offer step-by-step instructions for doing the job, rather they provide procedural guidance.

The problem with most SOPs is that they often only focus on what you must do (plus some alternative options based on the decisions made by their user), but there is very little else in terms of rationale and expected outputs. Is it any wonder then people don’t always consistently, rigorously, follow them?  We are naturally curious creatures and do like to understand the reason we are doing something. (See Susannah Clarke’s blog on Lost Learning being the 9th waste).

SOPs like this are, at best, not as useful as they might be, and at worst, dangerous.

Explain the ‘Why’ – the rationale

To make a SOP more ‘complete’ it’s helpful to add a ‘why’ element for each process step. In this way, the SOP becomes more meaningful and therefore is more likely to be followed.  Adding in this element is also a useful ‘check’ for the author of the SOP, to make sure they understand why a certain step must be taken. After all, if the author cannot explain ‘why’ then the SOP will be open for challenge and potential neglect.

Many organisations no longer operate a command and control structure. They rely more on collaboration and consensus where the ‘why’, or rationale, forms an essential element of building engagement and buy in. In this way, the original command ‘Jump’ becomes ‘jump so you don’t get your feet trapped by that skipping rope’. Now the process operator understands.

Explain the consequences – the learning from mistakes

Next question: what happens if I don’t jump? What are the consequences of not following the recommended procedural step? This is where you write down those experiences and stories where things went wrong, what the consequences of those events were, and what was done to recover the situation.

A Standard Operating Procedure as a learning document

As soon as a SOP includes stories of lessons learned, it becomes a highly useful document.


Standard Operating Procedure as a learning document

Standard Operating Procedure as a learning document

The inclusion of ‘when things go wrong’ stories are, for most people, sufficient incentive to stop them making the same mistakes, and, more crucially, helps them know what to do if things still go wrong.

The document now becomes closer to PDSA in Action and the continued appliance of this simple learning model helps us to grow, develop and improve the way we do the work.

Finally, consider alternative SOPs

Standard Operating Procedures can be highly visual tools and include lots of photos to describe an activity. But they don’t necessarily have to be paper based. YouTube, for example, is a frequently used ‘go to’ place to learn how to do something and acquire a new skill.

Why not consider video, animation, podcasts, or operator interviews as an alternative to the document version of an SOP? Many organisations have centralised systems, such as SharePoint or an intranet, where information can be readily accessed by all employees.

Whatever method you use, make sure they always include the ‘why’ and provide opportunities for PDSA in action.

FOR CONSIDERATION: What do you think makes a good SOP? What would you like to see in one?


About Dennis

20140522_PMI1318Dennis Crommentuijn-Marsh is a Director Consultant at PMI, a PMI Master Black Belt, certified Lateral Thinking instructor and runs the PMI Master Class Creative Thinking; Inspiring Ideas. As a consultant and trainer, Dennis works with clients around the world delivering a range of consultancy, coaching, training and leadership support. He also has an MSc in Mechatronics and Optical Engineering.

If you have any questions for Dennis, please do get in touch.

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