6 Steps for Writing an SOP
Step instructions or standard operating procedures are vital for consistent and safe operations -- but they are not always the easiest task to write! You also want to ensure directions are straightforward, so they're followed.
Let's first break down what an SOP is. We'll then go into six steps to make the SOP writing process as simple as possible.
What is an SOP?
Standard operating procedures (SOP) are step-by-step instructions detailing how workers should carry out their everyday tasks or a business process.
Here are some examples and the purpose of each:
- Restaurant SOP: The purpose is to deliver high-quality food from the kitchen.
- Teaching SOP: The intent is to educate students using the best methodology.
- Customer Service SOP: The objective is to quickly resolve customer issues under the “first call receipt” initiative.
- New Employee SOP: The goal is to acclimate new employees during their first week at the company.
- Sales Acquisition SOP: The aim is to convert qualified leads in the funnel into sales opportunities. The sales process.
Even if your company has an SOP template, there are key steps for writing an SOP that we recommend following:
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Step #1: Define your audience
You need to step deeply into the shoes of your intended reader for standard operating procedures.
Go back in time to when you were a newbie in your workspace. Remember what it felt like not to know how to navigate on the job. With your experience in mind, answer these questions:
- Who is my reader or end-user?
- What do I want them to know/do?
Use the answer to the last question to pinpoint the document's purpose.
Also, ask for assistance from subject matter experts (SMEs) within the organization to ensure quality standards are met. These experts might be in Marketing, IT, Human Resources, etc. Management leaders should be involved in the process.
Pose the following questions to yourself and your SMEs to determine why a specific SOP is needed:
- What are the problem areas in everyday work practices?
- What are the common missteps for workers?
- Is safety an issue?
- Is your organization challenged with meeting standards?
- Are you coming up against technical issues?
Write down the answers to these questions and let them guide your content. For example, perhaps your target reader is all employees in the company. You're writing an emergency procedure for a fire drill.
The purpose of the fire drill procedure is to help the reader understand where everyone should go in the case of a fire drill, noting specific routes and offering alternatives.
Hint: Review existing policies and procedures and incorporate information from these documents if needed to ensure consistency.
Step #2: Plan and organize your content
Next, generate content ideas. Maybe you already know what complex steps and detailed instructions need to be included. Write them down. Or perhaps you need to do more research. Continue to interview SMEs or team members to determine necessary tasks or basic steps.
Organize all of this info into an outline or concept map (an excellent visual way to organize complex ideas). Categorize and sequence the information. Place "like content with like content." Also, create headings that briefly summarize the contents of each section.
See more examples of SOPs and learn how to write one step-by-step in our online, self-paced course.
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Step #3: Pick a format
Select an SOP format that will help the reader easily digest the information:
- Basic Checklist: This format is ideal for straightforward routine procedures. It calls for short, easy steps. These can be displayed in the form of a bulleted or numbered list. It's beneficial as a simple steps format.
- Complex Checklist: Processes that are complicated call for a more broad level of detail. Envision a basic checklist but with branches of tiered details that fall below each step, such as Step 1a, Step 1b, etc. This hierarchical steps format improves the flow when dealing with methods that are complex and/or multi-contributors to writing an SOP.
- Process Flow Diagram: This diagram, sometimes referred to as the flowchart format, appeals to readers who need illustrations. In this mode, processes are charted from start to finish in the form of a map. Boxes indicate the steps, and each is connected by arrows to plot the pathway. This mapping with software companies like Miro makes it colorful, easy to follow, and fun to build. Below is an example SOP flow chart:
You could also combine a visual format with a written one. Whichever format you choose, the content will be the biggest factor in your success.
Step #4: Write your draft
With your content plan in place, time to write the actual content (this should be the easy part if you were thorough in your planning).
Here are our best tips for writing your first SOP draft:
- Use active voice over passive voice, as this is more engaging for the reader.
- Include a table of contents to help the reader easily navigate the content.
- Add specific headings. These are the natural antidote to information overload. They also guide your table of contents.
- Insert bulleted items. Bulleted lists add white space and help organize your content.
- Include detailed steps. Add detailed instructions or your list of steps in a hierarchical format.
- Use short words to enhance clarity and avoid jargon.
The following standard operating procedure example is for the Central Fire Protection District of Santa Cruz Counties' personnel operating vehicles. It outlines the scope, purpose, definitions, etc., of using these vehicles to enforce safety laws and the safety of the drivers.
Notice how this SOP includes the purpose of the document at the top, so the reader knows what to expect before reading. The writer incorporated clear headings and white space through the use of bulleted lists and paragraphs to create digestible content.
Hint: Don't edit the document until you've finished writing. Trying to edit and write at the same time typically makes you feel stuck and frustrated in the process.
Step #5: Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3
Time for quality assurance or quality control. Allow team members to follow the procedure and ask for feedback. Identify any problems, such as missing steps, and revise procedures if needed.
You can set up a testing environment in one of two ways:
- Option #1 Individual, Private Feedback: Provide a separate Word Doc to each of your testers. They will go through the SOP process and provide individual feedback through the editing of the document. Feedback is private.
- Option #2 Collective, Group Feedback: Provide a Google Doc that is accessible to all testers. Each person will go through the SOP process and provide feedback that the entire group can see. Feedback is centralized.
Keep an open mind. You need more input to improve your output. Writing an SOP is, without a doubt, a highly iterative process. Collaboration also provides a sense of ownership and consistent outcomes.
Step #6: Edit for substance, grammar, and readability
Once you've tested your SOP, thoroughly edit your document. Start by reviewing the substance again. Does it match your reader's needs and the purpose you identified at the beginning? Is it easy to understand? Update or revise if needed.
Next, edit for grammar. We always recommend using a grammar check, such as Grammarly. This tool helps make sure that you don't have any careless errors, especially in important documents.
Comprehension is also key with an SOP. Consider using a readability tool -- that is even better than a colleague combing through your every word.
Related: 10 Types of Technical Writing
Final Words for Writing an SOP
As you can see, the entire process of writing standard operating procedures should be methodical.
Follow the above step instructions: carefully plan out your audience and SOP purpose, generate your content, write out detailed steps, and receive the support of experts and tools when you need them.
Finally, keep your procedure document up to date by reviewing and potentially revising it at least once per year (ensure that it still meets the policy requirements).
What should an SOP include?
An SOP should clearly explain the steps required to complete a task or internal process, along with any tools, materials, safety guidelines, and resources (like a simple checklist) needed. Additionally, an SOP may include definitions of terms used in the document or links to reference documents that readers might need to consult to understand the SOP.
What should not be included in an SOP?
An SOP should not contain instructions that would be better suited to a manual, such as detailed descriptions of how to use specific software. Additionally, an SOP should not include subjective opinion or commentary that is not directly related to the task at hand.
What is the difference between an SOP vs a policy?
A policy is a broad statement of intent, and it outlines the direction an organization intends to take in general. It may also guide actions that are prohibited or discouraged. An SOP, by contrast, is a more specific step-by-step guide document that provides detailed instructions on how to complete a particular task. An SOP includes exact steps and instructions that allow users to understand exactly what needs to be done.
Why do we need Standard Operating Procedures?
Standard operating procedure document (SOPs) provide a consistent set of instructions for completing a task. Without SOPs, tasks may be completed differently each time, resulting in confusion and inconsistency. With an SOP, there is a single document that can be used to train new employees or serve as a reference when needed.
When should you create an SOP?
It's important to create an SOP whenever there is a task or internal process that needs to be completed on a regular basis. This could be something like a monthly financial report, or daily maintenance of equipment in the office. This way, anyone who needs to complete the task can do so quickly and accurately by following the instructions in the SOP.