Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
As organizations grow and develop, the number and size of its operations, projects, and programs increases. Thereby becoming more difficult to ensure the quality of the organization's operations and processes, as well as measure and improve them in an efficient way. It requires a lot of resources and many years for employees to find efficient ways to complete a given operation. In large companies, it is not certain that the entire organization has the opportunity to utilize the skills of specific employees. A Standard Operating Procedure, also called a SOP, is a document that clearly describe the purpose of a given operation with a well-defined and clear sets of instructions for performing it. It is an efficient way to share knowledge as well as unify and standardize an organization's internal processes and procedures. SOPs can be used to train employees, further provide knowledge from experienced employees to new ones, increase employee independence, minimizing the time and resources spent on unnecessary work in an organization. This article will explain the purpose of using SOPs in projects and how they are developed, used, and maintained. Next, which formats to use to write SOPs that suit the purpose and scope of the given operation and finally the article will examine the benefits and limitation of implementing SOPs from the perspective of a project and program manager.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in projects
An SOP is an open tool that can be used in many different situations by many different disciplines. The main focus of this article is to use SOPs to minimize uncertainty in projects. However, the article will first examine an SOP from four key factors, purpose, people, complexity, uncertainty.
Purpose: A Standard Operating Procedure is a set of instructions on how an organization want employees to perform a procedure. SOPs can be used in all possible scenarios and are frequently used for routine work, such as in production. It is an effective way to ensure consistent results and reduce miscommunication. An SOP should clearly explain the situation it is used for and the purpose for it. Additionally, what steps the employee must perform and be aware of. There are no specific requirements for how organizations should use SOPs, but there are some industry standard or best practices that this article will focus on.
SOPs are increasingly used in projects, as similar work is often repeated from project to project. It is interesting to investigate how valuable SOPs can be in a project, as these procedures tend to be more dynamic and generally little less predictable than other types of procedures. Especially in a project process, there are procedures that must be performed but are not performed often enough that the employees are confident enough performing them without some sort of guidance. Furthermore, some uncertainty is expected in a project process and here SOPs can be used to find the most efficient way forward.
People: Routine work and set produces are a big part of organizations' day-to-day operations. New employees usually go through a training process. However, this does not mean that new employees altogether understand the organization or that training can replace years of experience in a field. It can take several years of experience, the right skills or knowledge of the organization to find the optimal way to perform a given task. In situation with high uncertainty, it is not easy to know what the best course of action is. This is why SOP is a great tool for minimizing time and resources spent on unnecessary work.
The abovementioned situations are relevant management challenges. How can new inexperienced employees or teams benefit from the skills and know-how of their more experienced colleagues? How do organizations ensure that the knowledge and experience that has been invested over several years remains in the organization even after these valuable employees leave the organization? Many resources are spent on these challenges, resulting in a demand for effective ways to minimize waste. That is to reduce the time spent on unnecessary tasks without the need to have several years of experience. SOPs is designed to ensure that employees who can benefit from each other's experience, as it do not require years of experience to find the optimal way to perform a task.
Uncertainty: Another benefit of SOPs is that they create unity and transparency in organizations. They can be used to create coherence between projects, programs and portfolios from a management perspective. A good example is Apple, a case study into Apple’s product development process by John Carter concluded that one problem they had was that teams were interdependent and that decisions made at team level affected others teams thus the program.1 This makes teams inefficient and so it can be reasoned that Apple's development department could use program management tools such as SOPs to manage uncertainty between projects.
However, it is assumed that they use some kind of SOPs that are adapted to their company's culture and product needs. Companies are constantly releasing new models and new versions of their previous models. The new model typically has many of the same design features, software, and components. With only a few parts that differentiate a company's models from each other. Companies do not create entirely new procedures to develop their new models, but use procedures developed in their previous projects. Which results in fewer surprises and challenges during development. It is easier to estimate the time and money spent in the new phone as well as estimate the value added to the company. In addition, it is a conscious choice that different products in a company like Apple have many similarities and that the products have a coherent design, packaging and software. SOPs can help clarify where there are similarities between the products and where there are differences.
Complexity: Common for all SOPs is that its purpose is to determine the fastest and most effective way to perform a procedure. Industries can adopt SOPs in their organization and depending on the field in which they work, different requirements and specifications are seen for these SOPs. The format of the SOPs may look different depending on the industry or organizational cultures in which they are developed for. The medical world has stricter and more requirements for their products than, for example, the fashion industry has, and as a result, the format of the two industries' SOPs will look different. Internally in projects, the format of SOPs can also vary depending on the importance and requirement of the specific operation, for example legal processes may look different from design processes. The specific organizational culture may influence how much SOPs are used in projects and its degree of detail. Some organizations may require their employees to follow the organization's SOPs closely, while other companies use SOPs more as a training tool for new employees or if the employee is in doubt. There are SOPs with many different purposes. SOPs for routine work are frequently used in productions. SOPs for procedure with stricter regulations and laws, which are frequently used in the medicine industry. SOPs can also be used for planning the right procedure in case of emergencies such as natural disasters by governments with high risk for this.
This article focuses on two types of SOPs. The first being SOPs that are not part of the daily work but are part of the project and it is important to perform them in a specific way. The second being SOPs about somewhat known situations that is not expected to happen in the project but can present itself unexpectedly. An SOP can help teams figure out how to act most effectively based on experience. If there is enough knowledge of the project processes, SOPs can be developed for atypical scenarios in projects.
Key components of a SOP
An important prerequisite for the success of SOPs in an organization is that they are easily accessible to employees. It is especially important that they are located in a place where everyone in the organization has access to them, and that the employee can easily identify which SOP they need. In addition, well-written good SOPs alone do not automatically provide value, there must be a culture in an organization to create, maintain and use SOPs. Most important, it should take fewer resources for employees to follow SOPs than not without compromising on quality. The format of an SOP is not universal, but there are some best practices that should be appled when developing an SOP, they are presented below.
- Table of Contents
- Practical information:
- The date of preparation
- And for ongoing changes or updates
- Who it is prepared by and updated
- Success criteria
Practical information: It is important to include the points mentioned below.
- The date of preparation
- And for ongoing changes or updates
- Who it is prepared by and updated
The title ensures that the employee can easily find the right document in a given database and must therefore be chosen with care. Dates make it easy for the employee to assess how current the document is. Staten who prepared and updated the SOP, makes it easy for employees to find these people when they are unsure about parts of the content, or something related to it.
Purpose: This section explains the SOPs purpose, goal, policy etc. It is no coincidence that it is one of the first things the user reads, it is so that the employee quickly can clarify whether they have the right SOP or not.
Applicability: This section aims to set the framework for the use of the SOP. Meaning, when and how it should be used and by whom. If there are any prerequisites before, during or after the procedure, it can be included here.
Procedure: This part of the document most often serves as a tool the user can pull out through the execution. The procedure can be described in different ways and may depend on the situation or the organizational culture or the author. It is important to consider the level of detail as too many details can complicate the process as it makes it difficult and complicated to perform the process efficiently. Too few details make the procedure superficial and promote uncertainty and errors in execution. It's important to find the right balance as well as have the appropriate employee skills and organizational culture influence the procedure. The procedure is described in one or another from as step by step guide. It can be illustrated as a step-by-step guide, flow chart or anything else, most importantly it is easy to follow and understand for the relevant people.
Success criteria: It is important to set criteria for the success of the procedure, it makes the value given measurable and easy to assess whether the goal has been achieved. This can be illustrated as a checklist, specifications, or anything else that the origination find relevant.
Revisions: Reviewing the SOP is an important part of that success over time. It is important that the document represents the current process and remains relevant in the project. If the document does not evolve as the knowledge of employees and the industry develops, the SOP will not live up to its purpose.
Time management: It is important that a project manager can efficiently and precisely estimate the time it takes to finish tasks and meet deadlines. Tasks often depend on each other and delays in one place can lead to delays in several places throughout the project. A project manager works to prevent delays as well as deal with them if they occur. SOPs can help the project manager to estimate time and resources spent on tasks as well as outline a clear process in uncertain times.
Independent employees: Project managers typically have several different areas of responsibility to manage at once and it is important that they focus on things that create the most value for the project. SOPs can support the project manager as they provide employees with clear specific frameworks for their work. It gives the project manager the freedom to spend their time on other valuable tasks without worrying about the quality of the employees' work.
Measurable quality: Without clear requirements and specifications, quality is relatively subjective and difficult to judge. One of the most valuable benefits of using an SOP is that they have a clear purpose and clear success criteria. When reading an SOP, there should be no doubt about whether the purpose has been achieved and that the presented success criteria lead to the described purpose. If the SOP is performed correctly, it makes it easy to document and communicate value added to the project.
A program manager's projects relate to each other, and they typically have identical parts even though they are different projects performed by different teams. The task of the program manager is to create unity where it provides value, and individuality where necessary. SOPs can help with the first. It can support programs to become a stronger entity by allocating resources across projects. SOPs can also create a solid foundation for new projects in a program as well as make it easier to achieve unity through projects in a program.
From a program manager's perspective, SOPs create transparency by making it easy to understand individual procedures and processes. They make it easier to communicate and measure value throughout the project process across projects. SOPs can also communicate changes in the project process and introduce new procedures in the program in an efficient manner. In addition, a great result in one place can lead to great result in several other places in the program and thereby creating more value with fewer resources.
The SOP are not without its limitations. They are limited by the employees who use them and how resource heavy they are to implement and maintain. In addition, SOP can hinder innovation and it is difficult for organizations to decide how much resources it takes to maintain them after they are developed.
As with all tools, an SOP is only as useful as the people who use it. An SOP does not guarantee high quality if the employees who use them independently of the SOP do not strive for high quality. It is a good tool for good employees and can help them achieve high quality in a faster and more efficient way.
One fact is that an SOP helps to perform a task of the same quality as without an SOP just with fewer resources. This makes it a great tool for the project manager to implement in his projects.
It is important that the SOPs are easily accessible to employees who need them. To the point that they know they are there and where they can find them before they spend too many resources on figuring it out for themselves.
There must be a culture and an openness to use SOPs in projects. This means that the project manager has a responsibility to ensure that the implementation is successful. If SOPs have been assigned to the employees by the management, it is the project manager's job to make sure that the employees understand the value the SOPs can give the project and them. It can be challenging to implement new tools in developed teams and it must be underestimated that the success of implementation depends on employee acceptance.
If the project team demands SOPs, it is important to communicate the value it can provide to management. It requires resources to develop and maintain SOPs and it is often a process that does not provide the optimal value from the beginning, but over time can create value throughout an entire organization. Failure to communicate clearly may result in management failing to allocate the necessary resources and implementation may fail.
In addition, it is important that the SOP is maintained by the relevant persons. Sometimes those who best understand the procedure are not the best at developing the SOP. Conversely, it is conceivable that the author does not always have the necessary knowledge alone to develop the best procedure that represents the organization's resources. In other words, there could be employees with relevant knowledge who are not included.
Innovation most often emerges when employees have the freedom to carry out their work in their own way as well as experiment with different workflows. SOPs can lock an employee into one specific way to complete a procedure. SOPs can make projects static, they describe what the purpose is, how it is executed and its success criteria. Innovation most often comes with more dynamic settings. Therefore, SOPs cannot be developed for every scenario and sometimes the resource heavy parts in projects can provide value that cannot always be measured and assessed. Ultimately the balance between planning and flexibility will be a hard one to find and will depend on many of the factors presented in this article but also other.
SOPs are not a recipe for the best way to perform a procedure, but rather the best-known way for an organization to perform it. It is important that it is clear to the project and program manager know this and why there is a lot of focus on the maintenance of these documents. It must also be clearly communicated to employees who use the SOPs, so that they can actively help to develop and maintain these SOPs. New and different ways should not be overshadowed the existing SOP, simply because the existing SOP is an essential part of the project work. There still needs to be room for improvement so that these essential procedures provide more value for the organization.
R.H. Schmidt, P.D. Pierce, 22 - The use of standard operating procedures (SOPs), Editor(s): H.L.M. Lelieveld, M.A. Mostert, J. Holah, In Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition, Handbook of Hygiene Control in the Food Industry, Woodhead Publishing, 2005, Pages 348-362
This chapter comes with the key component to be included in a SOP. In addition, it comes with more detailed information than described in this article on knowledge to maintain and review existing SOPs. The U.S. food industry sanitation process is used to study the benefits SOPs have.
Takaaki Kato, Jieh-Jiuh Wang, Ning-Yu Tsai, Elements of standard operating procedures and flexibility issues in emergency management: A Japan-Taiwan comparison, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, Volume 71, 2022
This article provides a more detailed answer on how they handle planning emergency responses. The article looks at Japanese and Taiwanese municipal governments and how they handle these events with SOPs. This article provided a insight into how SOPs can be used for emergencies and what considerations need to be made when developing these documents. As this article has examined a SOPer used in projects, they have provided insight into how SOPs can be used under uncertainty in projects.
Martin Killcross, 18 - Develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Editor(s): Martin Killcross, Chemical and Process Plant Commissioning Handbook (Second Edition), Butterworth-Heinemann, 2021, Pages 155-164
This chapter describes different scenarios where operating instructions can be used in and has generally provided insight into the SOP's broad adoption in different industries. This has further the assumption that there is no clear format for an SOP, but that organizations are adopting them and adapting as needed. This article can provide a greater insight into the many scenarios’ SOPs can be used for.
1John Carter, TCGen, New Product Development Process At Apple (4 Steps), April 16, 2021. https://www.tcgen.com/blog/product-development-process-apple/