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Debby Newslow


Suggestions for Writing Standard Operating Procedures

10 steps to better SOPs

Published: Thursday, June 23, 2016 - 15:24

Standard operating procedures, or SOPs, are critical to quality assurance. Frequently, in an operation with many associates, each one does his or her job as well as possible (because no one wants to do a bad job). Some people, however, will do tasks differently than others—and usually they think that theirs is the “right” way!

SOPs put all this to rest, as they’re officially approved by the responsible department managers and other interested parties, such as the food safety team. SOPs define the correct way to do a task, as established by the company. They are also valuable training tools, as they can be shared with new associates, especially for those new to the task. Associates can then refer back to them once they are working on their own. Even an employee who has been with the company for many years might forget the ins and outs of a task if that person has not done it in a while (and of course, no one wants to ask and look silly). So, having an SOP available allows all employees to discreetly check and make sure they are on the right track.

The first step in creating an effective SOP is to ensure that the individual writing it fully understands the task to be described. Therefore, associates who perform the task daily may be tasked with writing the instructions. This can be intimidating, as many people don’t feel confident in their writing abilities—but by following a few simple steps, the process can be clarified and simplified.

1. Understand the process
It is vital that the person who writes the SOP fully understands the process. If the person who is writing the SOP is not one who usually performs the task, the author should physically perform the task and think about what instructions she would require, assuming the person had never seen the process before. The author may also interview and process-map the activity with input from those associates performing the task regularly.

2. Make a flowchart
The next step is to make a flowchart of the process to be described. Flowcharts help to visualize the process and frequently bring things to light that may otherwise be overlooked. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but write out each individual step in the process and connect them with arrows in order of completion.

3. Get a template
Ever heard the phrase, “Don’t reinvent the wheel?” The organization likely has a template already made up that explains what information must be included. Review the template to see if there are any sections that were not addressed in the flowchart and add that information.

4. Think about it
It may seem obvious, but the next step is to look at each required section on the SOP and think about it. A good litmus test for quality of the SOP is to ask, “Would that example be enough for a brand-new employee to use to complete a task without any further instructions?”

5. Start writing
Using the flowchart, start filling in the template. A few tips:
• Always use direct language, not first- or second-person (i.e., don’t say, “I do it this way,” or, “You do it that way”).
• Always write in the present tense.
• Always use the active voice when writing instructions. In the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. For example, “The floor is cleaned by Employee A,” is written in the passive voice. Instead, use the active voice, where the subject does the action: “Employee A cleans the floor.”
• Avoid words like “should,” as they leave room for alternatives. Use “must” if required or state in the present tense (i.e., “samples are taken”).
• Don’t write the same content in more than one place. Simply link to the other section, or document, or provide the document number for reference. This makes the writing easier and avoids changes being made in one place and not the other, resulting in contradictory requirements.
• Remember the document exists to define the process, not the other way around. Don’t make the procedure overly specific or add requirements such as specific forms or timelines unless they are already part of the process. Don’t write the procedure for how you think it should be done—write it for what is actually being done.
• Use specific descriptions, such as “red” rather than “colored,” or “every four hours,” rather than “periodically.”

Make sure to include the document numbers of forms that are referenced for record keeping, and use titles rather than names when referring to personnel. If it’s tough to get started, imagine speaking the instructions, and just write those words down.

6. Take a break
The next step is to walk away—take a break, walk around the office, and do something unrelated. This is important as it allows the brain to reset itself, to avoid “can’t see the forest for the trees” types of issues.

7. Proofread
Re-read the SOP, and imagine someone else wrote it. What should be changed? Rearrange words and phrases as necessary for clarity and fix spelling and grammatical errors; remember that only the content really matters.

8. Get an editor
Ask a person familiar with the process to read the SOP at this stage, and ask for constructive criticism. Remember, they are not critiquing you as a person, so don’t take anything to heart. Listen to their comments, and if they have merit, use them to update the SOP accordingly.

9. Test the SOP
At this stage, it’s helpful to ask an associate who has never performed the task before to use the SOP to determine if the task can be successfully accomplished using only the written instructions.

10. Submit for approval
Submit the completed SOP to the identified, responsible person for review and approval. If you disagree with a comment, don’t be afraid to bring it up for discussion. As the operator responsible for the task, the author may have a point of view that the manager or food-safety team members do not—or vice versa.

By following these steps, anyone can write a standard operating procedure. Remaining open-minded and collaborative goes a long way toward achieving the organization’s goal of an effective management system. Good luck, and remember, you can do it!


About The Author

Debby Newslow’s picture

Debby Newslow

Debby L. Newslow is president of the food-safety consultancy D. L. Newslow & Associates and the author of The ISO 9000 Quality System: Applications in Food and Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) as well as Food Safety Management Programs: Applications, Best Practices, and Compliance (CRC Press, 2013). Newslow is a certified quality assurance lead auditor with Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance (LRQA).