Standard operating procedures (SOPs) map out how your company or team performs a specific procedure or work process. You can use SOPs to improve communication and consistency among team members and make training easier for new hires. Read on to learn how to write an SOP.
The most efficient teams have processes for everything, from best practices to naming company file folders. Teams perform these processes routinely and get better at them over time. But how can you be sure everyone is performing each process the same way? That’s where having a standard operating procedure (SOP) becomes useful.
SOPs document important company processes and guide team members as they learn or relearn tasks. You can write SOPs at either the team- or company-wide level. Read on to learn more about what SOPs are and how to create them.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are a set of written instructions that map out how your team will complete a specific process. They’re used for tasks that team members perform regularly because they streamline communication, reduce errors, and promote consistency.
SOPs are typically part of a larger workflow documentation process. A workflow is a set of repeatable, end-to-end processes that help teams meet their goals by connecting the right people to the right data at the right time. Within any given workflow, there are likely processes that your team does regularly—and these processes can benefit from an SOP. By creating SOPs for each process within a workflow, you can help your team accomplish end-to-end processes and deliver results faster.Free step-by-step SOP template
Categories that SOPs fall into include:
Step-by-step: A step-by-step SOP works best for straightforward processes, like receiving payments from clients. This SOP breaks down a process into a list of steps for the reader to follow and learn from.
Hierarchical: A hierarchical SOP works best for complex processes like team member onboarding because it breaks down every stage of a process, including policy, procedures, guidelines, and documentation.
Flowchart: A flowchart SOP gives your audience a visual way to learn. This SOP format is useful for processes that have conditional circumstances. For example, a submission and approval process may require different actions from the reader based on whether a document is approved or rejected.
You may have used company-wide SOPs before to learn common processes. But as a manager, you can also create SOPs to support your team and clarify common processes.
Some example processes an SOP is helpful for:
Onboarding new hires and clients
Offboarding team members and clients
Processing time off requests
Performing internal audits
Submitting project change requests
Your team probably has many business processes that can benefit from having an SOP. If you’re writing one for the first time, a good starting point is to brainstorm all the internal processes your team regularly completes. Also, consider the typical tasks you teach to new team members. Based on this information, you can decide which processes could benefit from an SOP and which might not need one—either because they’re simple enough or because they need more hands-on, live training.
The most common SOP docs include:
How to onboard a new client
A step-by-step guide to the first day of work
How to name files based on their type and location
Tips for scheduling meetings and tasks
Guidance on your team’s standard project workflow
How to navigate project management software
An overview of your team’s performance review process
You may not need an SOP in the following situations:
For one-off tasks
For unique processes that apply to only one individual
For events that rapidly change and are impractical to document
For complex, skill-based processes that require more in-depth training
By making a list of your team’s most common work processes, you can visualize which tasks need SOPs, which items are less urgent, and which can remain undocumented.
Regardless of which SOP format you use, they all have similar components. Your SOP should have a clear title so team members can easily access the document. You’ll also want to include a section explaining the SOP’s purpose and step-by-step instructions to guide the reader. Use the steps below to begin the SOP writing process.
Once you’ve chosen which process to write your first SOP for, you’ll need to get clear about who your end-user is. If you’re writing this SOP for your team, ask the following questions:
Which team members will use this SOP?
What is their role on the team in relation to others?
How often will they use this document?
Will this SOP serve as training material or a reference?
Will this SOP have multiple uses/end-users?
You’ll use SOPs internally, but you can apply similar strategies as you would in a GTM strategy. Create a buyer persona and decide on key messaging for your document. While you aren’t trying to make a sale, your reader should get the most value from the SOP you create.
Tip: You may have multiple end-users for one SOP. For example, team members with different job roles may read the general project workflow SOP to understand their different roles throughout that workflow. While you don’t need to make multiple SOPs in this situation, you need to consider these different perspectives and potentially break down your steps so that each user understands exactly what they need to do.
You ultimately want to help your end-user perform a procedure or process. But you may have bigger goals for your SOP depending on what the process is and whether you’ve experienced issues in the past.
For example, you might want to create an SOP for team member onboarding because your team has suffered from low retention rates. After reviewing exit interview data, you’ve noticed that people have left the team because of poor onboarding experiences. Your SMART goals for the onboarding SOP are to:
Improve the first day of work experience
Outline a 30-60-90 plan
Increase retention rates by 20% over the next year
Tip: Just like any other goal you have, you can set KPIs or OKRs for your SOP creation process. OKRs can help you set stretch goals for how many SOPs you want to create in the next year. KPIs can help you measure whether each SOP is improving team productivity.
You should now have the basic idea of your SOP, which means you’re almost ready to write it. You now need to determine how you want to display your information and how in depth your document will be. The following key can help you determine your scope and format:
Straightforward topics: Use a step-by-step SOP format, which works best for smaller scope topics. This SOP will likely have only a few sections, with one section explaining the “why” of the SOP and the others providing work instructions.
Complex topics: Use a hierarchical SOP format, which allows for a larger scope. You should include a table of contents with this SOP, as well as headings and multiple sections.
Conditional topics/approval process: Use a flowchart SOP format, which offers a flexible scope size. This SOP may include various decisions or conditional items, and you’ll need to ensure you draft it in a way that’s easy to follow. You can also include a short “why” section at the top.
Tip: Your topic should lead you to your SOP format, not the other way around. For example, if you have a complex topic like onboarding and try to put it in a flowchart format, your readers won’t have all the details they need and will struggle to complete their training.
Writing standard operating procedures requires you to break down your process or procedure into sections and steps. It’s important that you get detailed with your instructions so the SOP is clear for all readers. Even if you think a step is obvious, you should include it to avoid confusion and reduce the chance of errors.
For example, if you’re creating a new SOP on how to process a client payment, your SOP draft may have a title, a section explaining the purpose of the document, and a list of detailed instructions on things like:
How to ask for the payment
Security guidelines for storing client payment information
How to navigate the payment platform
Where to record the processed payment
What to do once the payment is processed
After drafting your SOP, you can show it to your end-users and ask for feedback on whether the document includes everything they need to complete the task. If your team has questions, improve the SOP as needed.
Tip: Once you finish writing your SOP, you’ll need to revisit it intermittently to ensure it’s still relevant. Processes require continuous improvement. By keeping your SOP up to date, you can feel confident that your team knows how to perform at a top-notch level.Read: 7 types of process improvement methodologies you should know about
Here’s an example of a flowchart SOP. This SOP outlines how to submit an expense report and receive reimbursement. Above the flowchart, there’s a blurb explaining the purpose of the SOP.
Below you’ll find a free step-by-step SOP template. Use this template for simple topics with smaller scopes.Free step-by-step SOP template
SOPs may be time consuming to create on the front end, but they provide many long-term benefits to team members in their daily workflow.They also improve overall company efficiency. Benefits of SOPs include:
Create uniformity: SOPs help team members perform processes in the same way.
Reduce training time: Having written guidelines makes it easier to train (and retrain) team members on tasks and tools.
Offer quick answers to common questions: Team members can use SOPs to find answers to procedural questions on their own.
Streamline communication: SOPs provide a common source of truth for how team members should accomplish internal tasks.
Save time: SOPs offer fast clarification for team members, saving time for everyone involved in the related workflow.
Reduce work errors: Team members can follow SOPs when performing tasks and know that they’re receiving accurate information. This prevents them from resorting to guesswork.
SOPs are an important part of documenting your team workflows. Workflows can streamline your operations and help your team meet their goals.Use work management software like Asana to build workflows that can pave the way to stronger processes and performance.Free step-by-step SOP template