How to Implement an SOP in Your Small Business

By Alexander Hassoulas 

In a perfect world, businesses would have no issues or accidents because everyone instinctively knows exactly how to handle potential emergencies. Of course, the real world isn’t perfect.

Mistakes happen and if there’s no framework in place that explains how to solve these issues, it could lead to disaster – and it did.

In 1856 an excursion train left Philadelphia’s Master Street Depot 23 minutes behind schedule. To make up for lost time, the conductor rushed the train. Meanwhile, another train was scheduled on the same line towards Philadelphia.

While both conductors knew of the other’s schedule, the second did not know about the delays as the first engineer failed to telegraph the information. As you might expect, this led to a horrific train crash leaving more than 50 dead and 100 injured.

As expected, this disastrous crash led to public outcry, which forced railroad companies to implement standardized procedures for communication. It took many more years for Standardized Operating Procedures (SOPs) to became commonplace.

What is a SOP? 

SOP = Standardized Operating Procedure

As the name suggests an SOP is a step-by-step guide for each important procedure. The general rule of thumb is if you do it more than twice, you should write down an SOP.

These manuals not only help businesses avoid accidents, it can also benefit customers by providing consistent quality of service. Almost every large business has at least one SOP (usually many more) from fast food chains to global development companies.

Why do you need an SOP?

Regardless of what type of business you run, there will always be some type of regulation in place that you need to follow, whether it’s from OSHA, EPA, DOT or FDA.

Do you have a small food company and want to label your items organic? You need to follow certain guidelines. Of course, your company can implement further SOPs to further standardize specific processes. Things like employee and customer protections can go a long way in improving your overall brand.

What do you need to create a good SOP?

This is what you need in order to create an SOP.

Organization Chart 

An organizational chart (or org chart for short) shows you the roles and responsibilities of every member of your team and the chain of command. If you don’t implement anything else, the organizational chart is an essential component for any business as it creates accountability within your group.

With it, you are able to properly entrust key tasks to other people within a group and also give clarity to employees on who their direct supervisor is and where they fit within the company structure.

It might seem simple, but a detailed org chart can make it much easier to create your detailed instructions and checklists later on.

Instructions 

Some of the biggest mistakes many people make when writing an SOP are making it too long, difficult to read and boring. All of these problems mean people won’t actually read or retain the information.

If you want an effective SOP you need to organize all of the instructions and break them down into easy to understand steps.

One of the best ways to do that is by taking a two-tier approach to instructions by breaking it up into procedures and work instructions.

Tier 1

The procedures offer a 30K foot view of the actual project. This should include:

  • An overview that outlines the general scope of a project
  • A brief description about the end-goal of a project and result
  • How to access the various systems – a list of software, passwords, etc.
  • The employee in charge of keep the SOP up-to-date
  • Basic steps on how to complete a project
  • Frequently asked questions

Tier 2

Once you’ve got a general idea of the procedures, you’ll want to break it down into work instructions. This provides more detailed steps, which outline how to handle specific situations. You’ll want to take each of the basic steps from the first tier and break them up further.

Think in terms of the future when drafting these steps. Right now you may have one person handling many duties, but in the future you may have a person for each duty. Make sure to separate each of the tasks and duties into their own section so that you can hand it off to a new person and have them figure out the basics. For quick scanning, group related information together so your employees can easily find the information they need.

Besides outlining the “how” of the procedures, a good SOP should also describe the why. When employees understand the reasoning behind the processes, it become easier to improve upon it or remove it altogether if it no longer is needed to solve a problem.

When creating these instructions, make sure to be concise and clear. Each step should be unique and have clear decision points.

Test and Distribute

Once you’ve finished your SOP, you might want to get an outsider to take a look as they can point out instructions that have too much or too little information. You’ll also want to revisit your SOP regularly to make sure everything is up-to-date and incorporates new regulations, technology and organizational structure.

A good SOP allows your employees to have a better grasp on their goals, the project and their team structure. While it takes time to create a good one, ultimately it’s a tool you can use to improve productivity and work flow.

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Alexander Hassoulas
Alexander Hassoulas is co-founder and President at Upkeep Media Inc., a digital marketing agency specializing in SEO, content marketing, and social media marketing for local service businesses.

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