Service Management Blog

How to Write an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure)

Stephen Watts
5 minute read
Stephen Watts
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Businesses and teams of all types regularly find themselves in need of writing an SOP, or standard operating procedure. IBM defines an SOP simply as “a set of instructions that describes all the relevant steps and activities of a process or procedure.” It’s crucial that organizations know what is needed to complete certain tasks or processes, and an SOP offers that guidance. However, the process of writing an SOP is not always easy and varies from organization to organization.

Here are some tips to guide your organization through the SOP process, making it as painless, efficient, and effective as possible.

When and Why to Write an SOP

Broadly speaking, an SOP is needed to make organizational policies, goals, missions, and visions actionable. The SOP gives tangible guidance to help put policies into place that further organizational goals while meeting organizational requirements. In addition, it helps to provide consistency in how tasks are executed throughout an organization.

More specifically, there are a number of organizational needs that an SOP can meet. For example, it can help an organization meet compliance standards, set safety standards, and ensure that its activities have no adverse environmental impacts. Additionally, a well-written SOP can help to ensure that schedules are adhered to, support internal and external training efforts, maximize production, and prevent organizational failures.

While a well-written SOP is essential for many aspects of organizations, writing an SOP can be challenging. Further, as businesses, especially IT businesses, change quickly, it can be difficult to ensure that these documents are updated and that they don’t rapidly become obsolete. As a result, it’s important to write and revise your SOP timely and effectively to ensure that it’s meeting organizational needs while serving its purpose.

What you Need to Consider and Know Before Writing an SOP

The process for writing an SOP is unique for each organization, so it’s important to find a drafting process that fits your team’s specific needs. That said, there are a few things that you should always consider when starting the drafting process.

First and foremost, you want to make sure that any SOPs are easy to read, understand, and use. If they’re not, then they won’t be utilized and, thus, won’t be effective. Second, it’s important to make sure that procedures are actionable and leave your audience with clear action items identifying which steps should be taken to meet a specific goal. Third, procedures should be specific and measurable. This will ensure that you can evaluate the effectiveness of a process while making adjustments as necessary.

As you plan for and draft your SOP, you’ll also want to make sure that:

  • Your SOP is simple. It’s not meant to serve as a training manual. Instead, it supports in-depth training and provides guidance about specific organizational processes. It must be simple and concise enough for your audience to utilize it effectively.
  • Your SOP is versatile. As discussed, businesses are always changing. You want to write your SOP in a way that it’s effective even if a specific application or tool changes. It should be centered around guiding principles that do not change as quickly as some of the tools used by your team.
  • You are consistent with the format used. While there are many options for formats and no one style to use, it’s important that you’re consistent with the type of format used. This makes it easier for your audience to navigate and benefit from the SOP.
  • Always consider your audience when drafting an SOP. This is perhaps the most important factor to keep in mind. For your SOP to serve its purpose, it must be relevant, helpful, and usable for its audience. As a result, when drafting you should always consider the audience. Considering the audience includes thinking about factors like prior knowledge; whether you’re addressing new employees; and relevant factors impacting language skills or understanding of industry-specific language.

The Process for Writing an SOP

Keep the End Objective in Mind

When you’re ready to begin drafting your SOP, start with the end in mind. Consider what you want the SOP to achieve and all activities, from beginning to end, that are necessary to meet this objective. To help with this initial step, consider mapping out the activities with a flowchart or diagram to help understand every aspect of the process. Doing so should give you an outline, scope, and sequence of the relevant procedure.

Balance Depth and Usability

From your outline, you should have a clear understanding of each step of the process. It’s important, however, to consider which steps can be combined, which can be eliminated, and which ones need to be expanded.

One of the most challenging aspects of drafting an SOP is ensuring that it has enough detail to be usable by your audience, but not so much detail that your audience doesn’t want to use it. Experts recommend having between 5 and 7 steps per SOP. Before writing your SOP, work to ensure that your outline has adequate detail but not so many steps or so much depth that it’s overwhelming and unusable.

Draft the SOP

Once you’ve revised your outline and any applicable flow charts or diagrams, draft your SOP. It should include:

  1. A Title Page. This should have the title; SOP id number; the date it was drafted or revised; the name of the organization, role, department, or division that it applies to; and the names and signatures of individuals that drafted or approved it.
  2. Depending on its length, it might be necessary to include a Table of Contents. This isn’t necessary for shorter SOPs, so use your judgment as to whether it’d be a helpful tool for users.
  3. The relevant procedures. Start this section with a short introduction that conveys what the SOP is about, what it’s intended to accomplish, and to whom it’s applicable. This introduction should help to guide users through the SOP. In addition, this section should include the scope of the SOP; any details that are needed to accomplish each step of the procedure; clarification for any ambiguous language, including acronyms or terms that are not widely known; and any supplies or equipment that are necessary to complete each step.
  4. In addition, you should have a section for any health and safety warnings as well as a section for troubleshooting.

Additional Things to Keep in Mind During and After Drafting an SOP

A clear system for planning, drafting, and revising an SOP can help to ensure that you don’t get overwhelmed with the process and that you create an effective product. As you create your own system for this, some additional things to keep in mind are:

  • The benefits of seeking input from relevant team members and stakeholders. You want an SOP to be used by applicable teams. To help ensure that this happens, talk to them before, during, and after the drafting process for input and feedback. As part of this input, schedule regular reviews with people that use the SOP so that you can identify and address any areas of concern.
  • The importance of testing an SOP. Once drafted but before it’s put in place, test the SOP to ensure that it is accurate and usable. Further, have other team members test it too. This will help you identify and deal with any problem areas before it’s put into action.
  • The need for regular revisions. Schedule a review of the SOP at least every 6 to 12 months. This will enable you to identify and update any obsolete areas, making sure that the SOP continues to be relevant and helpful.

Effectively drafting an SOP can help make your team and organization stronger, safer, and more efficient. Rather than getting overwhelmed by the idea of this process, utilize these tips and steps to put together a plan. Once you’ve developed a thorough plan and system, simply trust that system to help you create an effective SOP that your team can utilize.

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About the author

Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts (Birmingham, AL) has worked at the intersection of IT and marketing for BMC Software since 2012.

Stephen contributes to a variety of publications including CIO.com, Search Engine Journal, ITSM.Tools, IT Chronicles, DZone, and CompTIA.