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What Are Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)? Definition + How to Guide


When you add a new employee to your company or a new member of your team, you can't expect them to know everything from day one. And although you should certainly take the time to train them, time is always in short supply for training. 

That's why companies of all sizes develop standard operating procedures, or SOPs. These crucial process documents contain necessary instructions on how to complete critical processes in a company. Writing standard operating procedures ensure that a business can keep running smoothly as employees come and go.

Standard operating procedures create continuity in business. Employees, customers, and the workplace will change. SOPs will ensure that a standard set of tasks can continue to be completed while those all shift.

In this article, we're going to talk about the importance of standard operating procedures and how to develop them. Let's dive in.

What Is an SOP?

So, what is an SOP? And why should you implement SOPs in your business?

An SOP, or Standard Operating Procedure, is merely a documentation of how a process works. SOPs work best as a step-by-step list of procedures that anyone can follow with a bit of training. 

Companies develop SOPs for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is that SOPs help reduce the training time for new team members. Hand them a well-built SOP, and they'll have a considerable head start on completing the task at hand.

Once all of the HR training and onboarding is complete, a well-written SOP can serve as the first point of introduction for new team members. 

One of the most important reasons for writing standard operating procedures is ensuring continuity. Have you ever worked with someone who was crucial to the team's success because of their knowledge and experience? I've seen this type of person leave companies many times, and the process breaks down and can't be completed.

There's certainly no replacing top talent easily, sure. But SOPs are a good hedge that helps ensure that crucial tasks will still be completed even if key members change roles or leave for new opportunities. Even as team members change, a well-created SOP will ensure that other employees can complete the task.

SOPs also act as important legal protection for a company. The fact of the matter is that we operate in a litigious environment that's fraught with lawsuits. Ensuring that critical processes are documented and reviewed by employees can provide a layer of protection for a company.

Creative Process image
SOPs ensure that a business can keep running smoothly. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

But, standard operating procedures aren't just for big Fortune 500 companies. In my freelance practice, I've developed SOPs that helped me outsource certain parts of my business. That includes tasks that I'd prefer not to do, like sending my clients invoices or even editing a document for publication.

Let's face it: if you don't have a process documented, you don't have a process. You've got some steps that you sometimes perform haphazardly. Standard operating procedures are just that - standardized. They can be handed off to others without the process breaking down.

Create SOPs to Grow

Above all, freelancers and small business owners should consider creating SOPs so that their practice can grow.

It's likely that you didn't start your small business for the sole purpose of creating invoices. You went out and began offering your services because of the passion you've got for your work, not all of the administrative stuff that comes along with it.

But you also know that you can't merely neglect these business processes. Invoicing, for example, is crucial to maintain your business and continue your creative work. This is the ideal task that should have an SOP built for it so that it can potentially be outsourced or handled by others.

Going from being a single person creative practice to a growing, thriving business requires implementing these scalable processes that you can outsource or hand off to other team members.

I'm sure that no one gets excited by the thought of writing SOPs. But growing your practice is all about putting scalable systems in place that can grow with your workload. Part of that is developing SOPs for these business-critical processes. Let's talk about how to build them.

SOP for Small Businesses

Writing standard operating procedures isn't just for huge corporations. Any business that's seeking to expand beyond its current level needs SOPs to scale up. 

Let's use the example that I mentioned earlier, how to invoice for my business, as an example of how to write an SOP.

How to Write a Standard Operating Procedure

Standard operating procedures can take some forms, but perhaps the most popular format is a text document that includes a step-by-step list to follow. Let's build an example of an SOP (standard operating procedure) for issuing invoices to clients at month-end.

1. State the "Why"

It's hard to get buy-in on making SOPs if the reader or preparer doesn't understand why the work matters. That's why I always start with why.

For my standard operating procedure example, I'll keep it simple. The purpose of creating invoices is simple: to get paid! Including that as the reasoning will help anyone know that this process matters and that it's vital to run each month.

SOP Invoicing
A simple text document like this one should open up with a brief description of the process and why it matters to the business.

Also, make sure to include some administrative details on who should maintain the SOP. That identifies who'll work on it.

2. Frame the Process

Where does the documented process fit into the overall business picture? When should it be performed, and what other steps are required before it can be completed? Many processes are dependent on other steps, so make sure that this is captured.

When to Complete
Make sure to document the "When to Complete" part of the process so that everyone understands when to put the SOP into motion.

When is the task performed, and how often is it performed? These are all details that have to be captured in an SOP so that anyone can be followed by others.

3. Create Detailed, Concrete Steps

Now, we've arrived at the most important part of the SOP building process: simple steps that anyone can follow.

Document the steps involved with the process. Make them as simple as possible. For me, I find it easiest to write an SOP step list while performing the task for myself so that nothing is forgotten.

SOP Steps
Create simple steps that anyone can follow so that the standard operating procedure is repeatable.

It's possible that you may need to include conditionals in your list. It's okay to start with a step with "if...", as long as you address the scenario.

4. Add Illustrations and Screenshots

Many SOPs will benefit from screenshots that illustrate the individual steps of a process. Particularly if you're asking the user to use a specific app or project management system, it helps

For me, I typically use Trello for my freelancing practice. Screenshots that I would include an SOP would include walkthroughs of how to perform a task in Trello, for example. Keep in mind that the user may have never used the system, so more detail is always helpful.

5. Test the SOPs

Here's the best way to test out the viability of your standard operating procedures: try handing them off, and see if they break.

I know that when I'm writing standard operating procedures, I'm guilty of forgetting the beginner's perspective. I've likely been doing the task for so long that I've forgotten what it's like to start with no knowledge of the process.

This is why testing is so important. You've got to put the SOPs into action to see if others understand them. Hand it off to a freelancer or another team member to see if it makes sense to someone new.

Most Importantly: Store and Review Periodically

After you've developed the SOPs, you've come to the most important part of the process: distributing and making them useful. Too many teams view creating SOPs as a one-time process that doesn't need regular maintenance. Well-created documentation isn't useful unless it's distributed and utilized.

First, it's crucial that you've got a place that you can store SOPs so that everyone who'll be impacted by them can access them. This could be a Dropbox share, a shared network drive, or even an intranet page. 

Above all, the SOPs should be accessible and stored in only one place. I've seen them become useless because everyone begins to maintain separate copies of the file and they soon become out-of-sync. Ensure that everyone is working from the same master copy so that SOP's maintain the usefulness that they were intended for.

Making SOPs "Living Documents"

I've worked in many situations where writing documentation and SOPs is a one-time process. A big push happens from upper management to document active processes, and the team spends many hours documenting standard operating procedures.

Six months later, processes are evolving and changing. And the SOPs lag behind, not updated to match the reality of the new process. Pretty soon, no one is using the SOPs because they aren't representative of how the process works.

To combat this, you need to periodically update the SOPs so that they don't get too far out of sync. It's critical that standard operating procedures are reviewed regularly by the maintainer. 

Every SOP should have a process owner who is accountable for updating and editing it periodically to make sure that it matches the current process. This is the only way that SOPs maintain their usefulness and are used by your team.

Use Screencasts for Standard Operating Procedures

Screencasts are one of my favorite formats for teaching, and they also work supremely well for documenting processes.

You may not have heard of screencasts, but I'm sure you've seen them in action. A screencast is just a recording of a digital screen, typically with annotations and voiceover narration to add additional details.

Screencasting Example
A screencast is the perfect way to illustrate a concept by watching an expert perform a task.

Try out a screencasting platform like Screenflow or Camtasia to record a process. Even if it just supplements a written SOP, it can add another angle that's more illustrative than written instructions alone.

Callouts, for example, can illustrate and highlight specific elements in the video. Check out the tutorial below for an example of how you can use an annotation in Screenflow to create very specific callouts for details.

One of the other reasons that screencasts work well is that you can add additional details that don't fit a written format. I like to create "conditional" instructions in screencasts. For example, you can illustrate options such as "if the situation is A, click on this option; if the situation is B, click on this option instead."

Screencasts can serve as SOPs of their own. I've found that they're one of the most effective ways to teach others. That makes them an ideal fit for creating standard operating procedures because they create instant understanding for the reviewer.

Recap & Keep Learning

If you've got growth aspirations for your small business or freelance practice, you need systems and steps that help you scale. We've just explored the question of what is an SOP. You've also learned the SOP definition. Plus, you've learned how to write an SOP. 

Putting efficient systems in place will ensure that you can add additional employees to your team or take on more work as you outsource. Check out these three excellent business process tutorials to learn more:

What systems have you got in place for documenting and growing your business? Make sure to let me know with a comment on this tutorial.

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