SOPs for 2018 and Beyond – Start Improving Now!

Many of us have a procedures manual that sits on a desk somewhere, collecting dust and probably only used when a new employee comes on board.  At a previous company we had one that was called Big Red.  It was in a 3-inch red binder (hence the name) and it was so detailed that it included specific screens, keystrokes and entry fields for many processes.  It should have been a great resource, especially for new hires, people covering for vacations or for those processes that only happened a couple of times a year (such as inventory counts or year end processes). The problem was that it was a static document and a lot of the time it showed how a process “should” be done, not how it was done.  Missing would be things like customer-specific items (such as company A requires a consolidated invoice).  They can also be lagging people finding a better way to do something, making some pages out of date as soon as they are published and distributed.

The reality is that unless you are ISO certified it is unlikely that you are doing many reviews or audits of your SOPs.  It can easily happen – most of us run lean staffing levels, there is always something customer-related that is “top priority” and various other reasons that cause us to push a review off.    However, if you are trying to maintain a culture of continuous improvement failing to update your SOPs is a lost opportunity.

Think of the changes that could happen in a year.  Upgrades to any of your ERP, Accounting, HR, Payroll or Shop systems.  New regulations that may require different record keeping. New customer requirements that have been implemented across the board.  New training that has shown employees a better way to do something.  These are just a few examples, we can all think of many more.  Now think of how many are documented.  How many of those are handled by only a single person? Now what happens if that person leaves the organization?  So why is the SOP review considered to be something that can be put off yet again?

So how do we make sure that our SOP documents are effect and up to date?  Consider having them on an intranet site that is only accessible to your employees.  This will help make it more easily accessible, which should result in it being accessed more often.  Being more visible should result in discrepancies being identified more often and more quickly.

When writing your SOP, make it as detailed as possible.  An SOP should be something that you can give to almost anyone within your organization so that they could take over the process and complete it.  One of the best ways is to have a few different views of the process with each one getting progressively more detailed.

Step One – Flowcharting

Show the process as part of a flowchart.  Allow the audience to see how that one process fits into the larger organization.  Many processes may seem trivial or “just busywork” to the person doing the tasks.  By displaying how that process fits into the larger picture, you can increase employee satisfaction by showing them that a group of tasks helps to contribute to customer satisfaction and the company’s success.  Alternatively, the diagram may bring to attention processes and tasks that do not contribute value and are candidates for either re-engineering or elimination.  If the process is to satisfy the requirements of a small number of customers, now would be the time to have your account managers approach those customers to ensure that the process is still being used or perhaps needs modification.  There is no use trying to optimize a process only to find out that the audience for it has changed their requirements.

Being as detailed as possible will assist in doing an optimization for two reasons – one, it allows an auditor to identify unnecessary tasks; and two, it forces you to check if those are still the required steps.  As an example, an accounting process may call for 8 tasks to occur in a specific sequence.  However, your accounting software has been recently updated and three of those tasks are no longer needed because they can now happen as part of a single command instead of running them individually.  The new SOP should reflect the reduced number of steps.

Step 2 – Checklists

The next step is to create a checklist that provides more detail than the flowchart.  This should have enough detail that an experienced operator will understand what steps are required, but not quite enough that a new employee would be able to do the process without additional information.  For example, a very simple invoicing process may look like this:

  • Ensure that all load documents and data for the billing period have been entered
  • Ensure that all proof of deliveries have been scanned into the system
  • Perform the invoice run
  • Determine how the customer wants their invoices and either e-mail them or print and mail them

At this point assume that the process will be performed by a competent employee and this document is just to assist them in assuring that all parts of the process are carried out.  If they have not already been involved, make sure that all the relevant stakeholders are onboard with the process as it is currently documented.  This allows them to buy into the process and identify and redundancies or improvements.  Identify pain points within the process.  Know where things currently break down and determine with the stakeholders how to correct them.

Step 3 – A Detailed SOP

The last step is put together a detailed document that spells out all the tasks and sub-tasks that go into that process.  This is where you document specific screens, fields to be entered, etc. This document provides enough detail that a new employee could use it to complete either a process or some of the tasks that make up that process.  An example of a task from above could look like this:

  • Log into Dispatch system
  • Go to Invoicing module
  • Run XYZ report to identify any probills missing information
  • If no missing information, go to 6.1.11 performing a billing run
  • If there is any missing information go to probill screen, etc.

Getting into this level of detail will further allow the identification of changed or redundant steps.  It also provides a high degree of risk management because the knowledge of how to run a process is fully documented.  This means that if an employee has an accident and is on short or long-term disability, or just goes on vacation, how they performed their job is not just stored in their head.  Another employee will be able to step in and backfill for them.  It also allows for easier transitions when an employee is transferred or promoted.  Having a detailed document means that the new person does not need to take notes (because they can easily access the document) and can focus on learning the task instead of writing things down.

A few final tips:

  • Use simple and easy to understand language in all steps.
  • If jargon or specialized terms must be used, provide a definition for the reader.
  • Keep sentences short or use point form, especially in the most detailed document.
  • Use the active voice. Utilize terms like “identify”, “direct”, “evaluate” or “review” to get the point across without requiring interpretation
  • Avoid ambiguity, such as using terms like “periodic”, “typical” or “should” as they do not give any consistent direction or execution
  • Be careful around important terms. Remember that “may” allows the user to decide. “Must” is always mandatory and “should” is always conditional. Make certain to use the proper term!
  • Use bulleted items or lists to focus attention and slow the reader’s pace. Long dense paragraphs are more likely to be either ignored or only skimmed over. Make it so that people can scan the document to quickly find the information that they need.
  • Use revision numbers and archive previous versions. This ensures that should you ever have to go back to (or defend) a previous process you have the necessary documentation.
  • At the same time, ensure that employees only have access to the most current documentation. You don’t want to make changes to a process only to find out later that an employee was using an out of date document.
  • Use a consistent format for all processes. Having your operations team use one format and accounting using another will just lead to confusion and time will be wasted by having to figure out how the other team formatted things.

The final thing is must be a living document that someone is the process owner and then updates it whenever situations change (such as software updates, regulatory changes, etc.).  Concurrently the process owner should be looking for redundancies and efficiencies every time the document is reviewed.  In the end you should get more done with less wasted effort, resulting in not only an improved bottom line but also in more satisfied employees who know that they are contributing value.

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