Recalling the Concept of SOP
Standard Operating Procedure or SOP is common parlance now. SOPs are relevant and applicable to all organisations with processes and operations. This makes it a subject of importance to all organisations – business or non-business and products or services. The soul of SOP is planning and defining the execution roadmap of any task. The task could be payment of salaries, manufacturing a product, order fulfilment in eCommerce, purchase of inventory, and the list goes on. The right word for such activities is process or operation.
The terms processes and operations are used synonymously in this blog for reading convenience unless the mention of a specific distinction between the two is necessary.
The ones mentioned above or other processes carried out by organisations are lengthy and complex. There could be multiple operations involved in each process. And every operation involves a series of activities that leads to its successful execution. Without planning, there is a high likelihood of processes going out of track or not yielding the intended output. And SOP (as a tool or technique) is one of the most effective solutions in mapping and defining processes.
Looking for customised SOPs for different departments? In this blog, we will see how to write SOPs for any department or process of any organisation. The fundamental principles and steps for writing SOPs do not significantly vary between departments or divisions.
Step-by-step SOP writing procedure
Departmentation and listing of processes
The foremost step in SOP development is adopting an organised view of your organisation. The instant remedy for this is implementing the principle of departmentation. Since departmentation is something almost all organisations already follow, it is easier to jump to the next step which is listing the processes executed by each department. For example, various processes executed by HR departments include recruitment and onboarding, payroll, PMS, exit procedure, audits, etc. Each process has unique requirements in terms of objectives, workflows, standards of input and output, constraints, resources, etc. The sum total of carrying out this step gives organisations the first picture of the areas of SOP implementation.
Take one process at a time
The difficulty levels involved in developing the SOPs for different processes are not the same. The best approach is to take one process from one department at a time. It is nothing but an effort to make SOP development and implementation projects simpler and more organised. If you take up multiple processes at once, you may miss out on the intricacies and details of processes. If you fail to correctly assess a process or its requirements, you are likely to end up developing ineffective SOPs. Take the instance of developing SOPs for food preparation in restaurants. Here, you need to focus on food preparation only and not mix it with inventory management or dishwashing. The food preparation processes may have connections to other processes and due provisions should be made accordingly in the SOPs but the focus should not deviate from the requirements of food preparation processes. Please note that in this step you are not defining any process. You are simply vowing to take one process at a time.
Reassess process significance and redefine process objectives
A clear and unambiguous understanding of the significance of a process helps carve out many important requirements in its execution. It basically deals with the ‘why’ of a process. This step seeks to establish how a process is important to an organisation and what its specific requirements are. We can use the example of purchase or procurement process. This process helps organisations maintain the required stock levels of the required inventory types at all times. This inventory could be meant for further distribution in supply chains, consumption purposes in manufacturing, packaging of materials, etc. If the process requirements are not identified, the same could remain left out of the SOPs. By the end of this step, we should know the significance and objectives of processes.
Map and define the as-is process
If processes are executed perfectly, the task of SOP development and implementation becomes much easier. But we cannot be assuming that. Therefore, we must study and define how the process in question is currently carried out. There may or may not be any previous SOPs in place. The task here is to map and define the existing workflows and practices being followed to execute that process. This input is invaluable to examine any potential loophole and scope of process improvisation. Please note that in this stage we also do not question why something is done like this or that. The goal is to simply understand and define the as-is processes in the backdrop of process requirements and objectives.
Process Gap Analysis
In process gap analysis, the focus shifts to finding the deviations in operational requirements and the scope of process improvisation. In this step, the as-is processes and related business practices are thoroughly scrutinised against the new/redefined process requirements and objectives. For instance, food delivery apps try to show the real-time status of order fulfilment. A vital implication of this feature is that it helps customers in rating the services for each order. If the flow of work in order fulfilment is not accurately shown, customers may not be able to provide fair feedback and ratings. Say, an app does not show a transit status – ‘food is ready for pickup’. In this scenario, customers would not know whether the delay is caused by restaurants or logistic partners. If this gap is not addressed in the SOPs, it would also not get addressed on the software platform. At the end of process gap analysis, all the necessary adjustments in processes and IT should be ready for incorporation. Again, no deviation or scope of improvisation should be left undefined once they are identified.
Map and define the new process
Start with a rough sketch first and then keep improvising on it. It will look like a flow of work with a beginning and an ending involving simple to complex interlinking with points of other processes. But most importantly, it leads to assurance and certainty of results and decision-making. Almost every expert SOP writing guide asks to find answers to the following questions for every process, every operation, and every activity to the extent relevant:
- Why (the desired outcome)
- What is to be achieved
- What is to be done
- Who will do it
- How it will be done
- When to do it
- Where it is to be done
Put the information into systematically designed SOP formats
SOP formats can be developed internally or via the services of any process consulting company. Bigger and medium-sized organisations usually go for highly customised SOP solutions. The same is true for vast and complex processes. It is advisable for startups and small organisations to go for professional SOP writing services early in their journey as it would make them process-oriented enterprises from the core when things are at more manageable levels.
Principles to be followed in SOP development
SOPs must be focused on achieving the operational objectives. And in this pursuit of making SOPs ‘focused’, SOPs must clearly define the standards of input, output, and performance concerning a process/operation/activity. The doers and checkers must be identified. Their duties, responsibilities, and accountabilities need to be explicitly laid out. The objective is also not to leave any operational detail unaccounted for and unplanned.
For example, if the daily sales report needs to be sent by franchisee stores to the franchisor’s head office, the concerned SOP must be designed that way. The SOP must specify the format, reporting authority, medium of communicating, and other requirements. SOPs must serve what they have been incorporated for: otherwise, what then is the point of having a planned working system!
Collaboration & Coordination
The successful performance of business processes involves entities from within and beyond an organisation. The entities could be employees, vendors, contractors, government divisions, consultants, logistic partners, and others. For instance, in executing a payroll process, various compulsory deductions are made and these sums must get deposited with the appropriate offices within the prescribed time limits. Even within an organisation, various departments and positions collaborate to complete business processes. Thus, it is important to formulate the SOPs covering the role of all the concerned process stakeholders. If the activity links or the points of operational coordination and collaboration are broken, achieving the intended process output gets challenging demanding ad-hoc corrective measures.
Automation or digitisation is the aspect that makes SOP development for modern-day organisations different from the traditional approach. While paper-based SOPs are still needed, organisations need to approach SOP development and implementation keeping in account IT capabilities to embrace process automation.
The use of software applications has become central to managing and operating the functions of modern-day organisations. And an important implication of this is that SOPs cannot contain requirements that the relevant software platforms cannot provide. The adopted process automation solution must have the capabilities to fulfil the requirements stated in SOPs. Otherwise, automation will fail to meet the process standards and achieve the intended process output.
The software environment should also allow the necessary coordination and collaboration among process stakeholders as outlined in the SOPs.
Product upgradation and customisation are also vital considerations because SOPs do change over time and the software must accommodate for such changes.
Lead to Action and Nothing Else
SOPs must lead to confirmed action or decision. There is no room for a middle-way workaround here. Employees using SOPs should be able to make a decision or execute a task. There cannot be scope for doubt or ambiguity about this in SOPs. For instance, Quality Inspection SOP must clearly state the acceptable limits. There should be no confusion about this limit. The SOP should also cite the action that is to be taken when the inspection score is below, at, or above the acceptable limit. If the conditions and actions are not established, employees will do what they believe is right which may or may not be the best for their company in a macro context.
SOP User Training
Just because SOPs are implemented in an organisation does not infer that employees could bring nutmeg with them. Employees also need time and training to cope with the new ways of working. Even the most routine and known practices can look different when presented in a different way. And the leap from non-SOP to SOP-based operations is a major one. Many veteran employees may be experts in their work without SOPs. But such confidence and dexterity could dent when SOPs and automation come into the picture. The same is true for people coming from other organisations where they must have followed or used different practices, procedures, and technology. Thus, relevant education and training are highly recommended to help employees and other process stakeholders get acquainted with the SOP-based working style.
With the use of automation technology, user training assumes even higher significance in SOP implementation projects. Employees must be comfortable with the interface and functioning of the installed automation tools and technologies. For example, even the routine work details look very different on a software interface as against paper-based documents.
Last but not least, SOPs should not be taken as final. They must be scrutinised at regular intervals, say quarterly or bi-annually. One way to do this is through periodical meetings and internal audits. External surveys are also helpful where processes involve outside entities. The insights and conclusions of these meetings, audits, and surveys must be further worked upon. It is the responsibility of the top executives and senior managers to finalise the adjustments and follow up for implementation.
To know more about our SOP consulting services or to speak to one of our process consultants, please drop us a message and we will reach out to you.
Chief Strategy Officer
Dr. Rupal’s “Everything is possible” attitude helps achieve the impossible. Dr. Rupal Agarwal has worked with 300+ companies from various sectors, since 2012, to custom-build SOPs, push their limits and improve performance efficiency. Rupal & her team have remarkable success stories of helping companies scale 10X with business process standardization.