Imagine being in the pre-op ward of a hospital and you’re getting ready to have a major surgery. Your surgeon comes by and you ask, “So what’s the plan Doc?” to which your doctor replies, “I don’t have one, I’m just going to go in and wing it.” Would you proceed with the operation or would you jump up and run out of there?
This seems like an extreme situation, but in many organizations this is exactly the type of thing that happens every day, with results that range from inefficiency and lost profit, to injury and death. Standard Operating Procedures are documented, clearly defined directions and instructions as to how a person within an organization would go about completing certain tasks or processes. These directions usually come in the format of a checklist, step-by-step instructions, or decision tree/flowchart. SOPs are based on tried and tested steps for completing a task or process in the most efficient and effective manner.
About a year ago, I was working with two organizations that either totally lacked Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or completely ignored existing ones because they were inaccurate or outdated. When I suggested that SOPs and checklists are essential to the successful operation of their organizations, the managers in these organizations said things like, “I’ve told my people what to do. Isn’t that enough?” or “They’ve already been trained, so everyone knows what to do.” When asked why things were still not working smoothly, the answer is usually some version of, “I’ll remind them,” and the assumption was that a reminder would be enough to fix the problem. However, when you have to repeatedly remind people what to do, or you think your employees are trained, but they’re still not doing things correctly, there’s a problem, and the first step in resolving it is creating or updating SOPs.
SOPs are what smart organizations use to create consistency in how processes and tasks are performed. They also greatly reduce the chances of mistakes when employees are encouraged to follow the processes outlined. When mistakes occur, they give managers a REAL basis for redirecting or disciplining an employee because there’s little room for an employee to say, “That’s not how Bob told me to do it,” or “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that.”
Although many people bristle at the thought of “standardization”, creating a set of Standard Operating Procedures for your organization may be one of the most important communication tools you can employ. Need more motivation to write Standard Operating Procedures? Here are nine reasons why you probably need them:
1. They facilitate communication
Well written SOPs clearly communicate responsibilities to employees. They don’t have to rely on their memories, or all the things they learned in their training when first hired.
2. They provide consistency and quality control
SOPs ensure that no matter what day it is or who is working, the tasks that keep your organization running effectively will be done the way you want them done. They don’t hamstring employees or turn them into robots. Rather they provide security because each employee knows what’s expected of him or her, rather than guessing what needs to be done daily.
3. They help increase productivity
People who have had clear communication about what’s expected of them are more productive and more likely to achieve peak performance. SOPs also increase productivity for managers by saving them time “retraining” employees or reminding them of what needs to be done on a daily basis.
4. They facilitate cross training
Many organizations have “key players” who are the only employees who normally perform certain tasks. SOPs allow other employees to fill in and complete tasks they don’t normally perform if those key players are on vacation or out sick.
5. They enhance accountability and are essential to the employee performance evaluation process
How can you hold employees accountable for tasks and processes that aren’t documented? Without SOPs, job performance often becomes a matter of opinion. With SOPs, managers can clearly identify employee successes and communicate deficiencies during quarterly or annual performance reviews. When it comes time to discipline or terminate an employee, clearly defined tasks, as opposed to broad job descriptions, give managers the ability to justify their disciplinary or termination actions.
6. They support peer accountability and coaching
When SOPs are clearly documented, employees can help and coach each other when learning new processes, rather than relying on a manager to do so. They also give employees the opportunity (and grounds) to correct/redirect their peers when tasks aren’t being performed correctly.
7. They help create a safer work environment
Clearly written SOPs, along with proper training, reduce the odds of accidents or injury because tasks are written. They may also reduce legal liability should an incident occur.
8. They provide staff with the motivation to do things RIGHT
Well written SOPs not only clearly outline the HOW of procedures, but also the WHY. When you communicate sound reasons why employees should perform tasks in a certain way, they’re more likely to do so.
Although SOPs may not be fun to write and they’re time-consuming to create at first, the time spent writing them is time well spent when you consider the cost of not having them versus the benefits when you do.
9. They help ensure your organization meets legal or compliance requirements
Most organizations have some elements of their business that follow legal or other compliance requirements. Having written SOPs for procedures that are impacted by those requirements not only protects your organization, but also protects your employees and customers by ensuring you’re following those requirements in your everyday practices.
Amy Castro, MA, CSP- is a Performance Communication expert, speaker, author, and blogger of the Performance Communication Blog.