Standard operating procedures: A love/hate story

For a very long time, I have had a love/hate relationship with standard operating procedures (SOPs).

I love the idea that we can have a standardized way of doing something that minimizes risk, reduces waste, saves time and has a good quality result.

I hate the fact that most SOPs I have seen are extremely long, overly complex, and ones that no one can follow that end of being circumvented.

Not to mention the hassle of having to maintain and update them.

Even the visuals SOPs I have seem are lacking.

Moreover, the dogmatic few who insist that the SOP must be followed 100% as-is by everyone at every step rarely strike a cord. In such instances, don’t be surprised to see people taking short-cuts.

And, I don't think I have ever seen an SOP clearly define quality is plain language.

That said, a good SOP can help with training of new staff.

So, given this, what are we to do to take the hate to love?

I will provide my brief answer based on my experience.

SOPs can work well when the problem has already been solved by the people involved in the work.

In other words, the problem or opportunity was defined, the current state was drawn, a gap analysis was done, a future and better state was proposed and this in the new process.

The SOP can now be prepared.

The SOP is simple, short, stress-tested by the end-users before being circulated for implementation.

They are revised annually, again, by those doing the work.

They have some visual components or even consider a video with no words, just the process repeated 3 times in slow motion for users to see and review at their leisure.

If your process is not a physical labour one, you can still make guidance videos instead of documents with a lot of text.

Ensure the SOP identifies the critical essential pillar steps that can’t be deviated from due to serious and demonstratable consequences.

Otherwise, understand and be prepared to allow for some level of deviation based on human preference and don’t punish these deviations.

For example, someone who is left-handed might not be able to do the same process as someone who is right-handed if the process favours righties.

Some organizations might mandate documented SOPs for health and safety, legal and compliance reasons which is completely understandable.

In such cases, consider accompanying checklists or simple job aids to facilitate the work being done.

Make sure to define quality at the top of the SOP or alternatively define what bad quality is.

I often ask new staff to create their own checklists for major and important tasks or processes and I review them with the staff member to ensure learning.

This exercise also quickly shows me if an SOP is effective in achieving the desired result by cross-referencing the result of the staff prepared checklist.

Do the aforementioned and maybe the SOP hate will turn to love.