Imagine this: you’re lying in a hospital bed waiting to have a major surgery. Your surgeon stops by to check on you 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 out of bed and run out of there?
This seems like an extreme situation, but in many businesses, some form of “winging it,” happens every day, with results ranging from inefficiency and lost profit to injury or even death.
When I’m called in to consult with businesses that are having issues with employees not doing tasks correctly or customer service being performed inconsistently, the first thing I always ask is, “Let me see your SOPs.” What I usually hear is, “We don’t have any,” or the business has some form of employee procedure manual, but it’s inaccurate and outdated or stuffed on a shelf collecting dust, which is about as helpful as not having SOPs at all. When I stress the importance of having SOPs and explain how they’re essential to the successful operation of their businesses, I hear 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.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are documented, clearly defined directions and instructions on how a person within an organization would complete specific tasks or processes. These directions usually come in the format of a checklist, step-by-step instructions, or a decision tree or flowchart. SOPs are based on tried and tested steps for completing a task or process most efficiently and effectively.
SOPs are what great organizations use to create consistency in how processes and tasks are performed. They also significantly reduce the chances of mistakes when employees are encouraged to follow the procedures outlined. When errors occur, they give managers an objective 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 some people bristle at the thought of “standardization,” creating a set of Standard Operating Procedures for your business may be one of the most essential tools you can employ for successfully running your business for various reasons.
They facilitate communication: Well-written SOPs clearly communicate responsibilities to employees. Employees aren’t left to rely on their memories or all the things they learned in their training when first hired. They’re an easy-to-access resource an employee can turn to when they forget how to do a task or want to ensure they haven’t missed a step. When writing your SOPs, don’t simply document the steps of a process, but be sure to include the rationale for doing them if it’s not obvious. When you communicate sound reasons why employees should perform tasks in a certain way, they’re more likely to do so.
They provide consistency and quality control: SOPs ensure that no matter what day it is or who is working, the tasks that keep your business running effectively will be done the way you want them and the way they should be done, without you having to constantly correct people or stay on top of them. They don’t hamstring employees or turn them into robots. Instead, they provide security because employees know what’s expected of them, rather than guessing what needs to be done daily.
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 daily. Think about all the time you spend in a day answering questions that an employee could quickly look up in your SOPs, if only you had them. Additionally, asking, “Did you check the SOPs for the answer?” will encourage people to be more proactive in using the SOPs rather than using you as a crutch.
They facilitate cross-training: If your business is like most businesses, there are one or two employees who are the “experts” on specific tasks or subjects. When we have these experts in our businesses, it becomes easy to rely on them and therefore, other employees never learn how to do these tasks. The problem is, if these “key players” are out sick, on vacation or quit, we’re stuck with no one in the business knowing how to do those tasks. Well-written SOPs allow other employees to step in and complete tasks they don’t typically perform. Additionally, using SOPs to cross-train employees before a key player is away will ensure you have more than one expert always available to perform important tasks.
They enhance accountability and are essential to the employee performance evaluation process.
SOPs allow managers to clearly identify employee successes and communicate deficiencies during quarterly or annual performance reviews. Without SOPs, job performance often becomes a matter of opinion. If you have an employee that needs to be disciplined or terminated, having clearly defined tasks, as opposed to broad job descriptions, gives managers the ability to justify their disciplinary or termination actions. Additionally, with SOPs, employees can help train new employees and can coach each other when learning new processes, rather than relying on a manager. They also give employees the opportunity and the grounds to redirect their peers when tasks aren’t being performed correctly.
They help create a safer work environment: Written SOPs, along with proper training, reduce the odds of accidents or injury because important tasks are clearly documented, identifying for everyone the right way to do them. Not only does this keep your employees and customers safer but may help reduce your legal liability should an accident or incident occur. Be sure to document all training employees receive and have all employees sign off that they’ve read and understood the SOPs.
They help ensure your business meets legal or compliance requirements: Most businesses have some elements of their business that follow legal or other compliance requirements, for example, veterinary practices and stores that sell live animals. SOPs for procedures that are impacted by those requirements not only protect your business but also protect your employees and customers by ensuring you’re following those requirements in your everyday practices.
Although SOPs may not be fun to write and can be time-consuming to create at first, the time spent writing them is worth it when you consider the cost of not having them versus the benefits when you do. Keep in mind that you don’t have to create all your business’s SOPs yourself. A great way to get started writing your SOPs is to identify employees who are experts in different areas of your business and have them begin to document the tasks they do and all the steps they take to do each task the “right” way. Then, involve other employees in reviewing the draft SOPs. Their review should not only be to look for inefficiencies or missing steps, but also to ensure they clearly understand the steps and rationale as written. Getting your employees involved in creating your SOPs empowers them and builds buy-in to the processes they are documenting because people are always more committed to doing things when they get to decide the best way to do them.
Amy P. Castro, MA, is a business, leadership and communication expert, author and speaker who helps organizations develop leaders and build amazing teams one person at a time. She works with pet industry professionals who want to grow their loyal customer base by building a “Best in Show” team that can deliver a 5-Star Customer Experience. Amy is also the president of Starlight Outreach and Rescue, a nonprofit rescue in the Houston, Texas, area, and she has personally fostered more than 1,000 shelter pets.