Standard Operating Procedure – Mystery Simplified?

A vital aspect to any quality system is working in tune to the laid out Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). An SOP is both a policy &procedure document that narrates and describes those regular recurring activities appropriate that correspond to quality of operations. SOPs are created keeping in mind the consistency, to execute all operations appropriately in the same manner time and again.

Definition of SOP: (Standard Operating Procedure)
An SOP can be described as a practice of having written methods to control a practice in lines with predetermined standards or specifications to obtain a desired result or outcome. Standard Operating Procedures are often the written steps that explain about the good work practices, the overall plant safety practices and routines; IT measures related to security, financial controls, or those aspects the employees need to follow at the workplace. The SOPs detail activities step by step and elaborate on how to perform something at work critical to quality, critical to safety operations or those critical to security.

What is the need to have these standard operating procedures in place?
Standard Operating procedures are created as certain regulations may demand them to be in place as part of the compliance requirements (SOX, DOT, OSHA, FDA and EPA). Certain industries have these voluntary guidelines that provide to suggest them as being best practice (ITIL, IFRS, ISO quality, standards OSHA VPP, GAAP to list a few). In fact organizations aspiring to become world class in the way they operate try to become the best in their industry are required to have these standard operating procedures in place. Policies of organisations, inculcation of six sigma discipline or industrial standards egg the need for exacting consistency. The presence of standard operating procedures ensures to:

• Protect Workers
The workers who are able to follow the best practices are confident to work much better and follow the established procedures more confidently as their actions are supported by management and the regulations are also adhered to. Through the use of standard operating procedures fewer corrective actions are required. In case of any legal consequences then the standard operating procedures shall limit your liability and damages at work providing a sense of protection to these workers.

• Protect Customers
Customers are entitled to be delivered with products or service that are dependable along with the accepted measures and this shall be consistent and not on any individual’s work and this shall also not vary from one place to another.

• Standard Operating Procedures as a two-tiered system
It is possible that standard operating procedures could have a two-tiered system that addresses the procedures and Work Instructions. While procedures lay out a general view of the steps at a higher level, Work Instructions get more detailed.

The advantage with this two-tiered system is that SOPs are likely to change less often while the work instructions may have to be changed more frequently due to changes in the structure of the organizational, application software or equipment.

Designing Procedures
The standard operating procedures provides a clear description as to who and what needs to be done by that individual. Through this aspect the Standard Operating Procedure characterizes relationships & control measures. As a result the employees are able to spot their roles and responsibilities and in the process find themselves fit in the business process. The standard operating procedures clarify the different decision points & also provide the necessary inputs/guidance on the criteria to make a decision.
While writing a standard operating procedure, ensure these questions are answered:

• Who does what in that process? (role or person responsible)
• What do these roles do? (frequency ,tasks, to what standard or criteria)
• What will the outcome be? (objective results ,deliverables, measures)
• Is the answer addressing all the above clearly?

Writing standard operating procedures:
Always begin each procedure step with an action verb. This way one can ensure that each step is distinct and decision points are clear. Standard Operating Procedures make use of third person reference connotation. The cause/effect relationships should be clearly spelt and defined. The procedural flow shall move forward over time and shall be not focused on the how to do information, so as not to be too detailed, see below for more:

First try to analyse who your audience is and then the information they need. Also think as to who will be reading these to be developed procedures. Then spell the types of details that are needed to meet the audience’s needs. Then define how the organization of the details shall be to optimize user reviews and navigation based on the process needs.

For better readability organise those related contents together so that the reader is better able to pick and go about for improved understanding. This way piece of related information would stay together. Also through this breaking of information into correlated groupings, the end-readers can easily navigate from general to specifics points quickly. This is also to keep in mind that most of the workers are aware of their job and may need to only refer to the procedures for less frequent performed error conditions, tasks or any other decision making criteria.

SOP written with process maps
During the initial procedure design phase, check to see what all tasks need process maps. After that spell out all the necessary steps in place to complete that specific task. As soon as the task has been mapped, proceed to field testing if it actually works real time. Process Mapping is all about invoking each step in the task and making it more efficient & easier to adhere to. Soon after mapping the process, convert this process map into an outline for easier use in writing the procedures.

Incorporating tables, process maps/graphics/ simple diagrams in your written procedures provides a good visual appeal. Usage of modelling provides an easier good way to communicate high level & complex relationships. So to conclude performing in accordance with well-drafted standard operating procedures is a key aspect of any QMS with a basic purpose of consistency at work.