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Teresa Tarwater

Quality Insider

SOPs: Powerful Tools or Colossal Waste of Time?

They started as a way to prevent train wrecks. Now they sometimes create them.

Published: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 17:17

When the topic of standard operating procedures (SOPs) comes up, most people immediately fall into one of two camps: lovers and haters. For every quality manager, auditor, process consultant, training director, and COO who views clear SOPs as the bedrock of efficiency and organizational success, there are just as many who see SOPs as the opposite of helpful.

Instead of viewing SOPs as vital tools and game plans to manage and improve their operations, many managers (you might be one of them) consider them necessary evils at best. It can be hard to disagree, especially if you’ve watched your organization spend colossal amounts of staff time and money creating convoluted, incomprehensible operations manuals and processes that only confuse, frustrate, and confound employees.

Despite using up significant time, money, and staff resources, many corporate SOP manuals end up unusable, unreadable, and sometimes even dangerous. If you ask, “Where’s the business value in that?” you’ve got a good point. You might also ask, “Why do it at all? Should we just stop?”

SOPs started as a way to prevent train wrecks—literally!

To answer that question, it’s interesting to consider where the whole idea began. In the United States at least, SOPs began with the railroads; they devloped them as a way to prevent train wrecks. That’s what scholar JoAnne Yates presents in her book, Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Starting in the 1890s, the railroads and later manufacturing firms “sought to achieve better control of business processes and outcomes by imposing system through controlled communication,” writes Yates. In seeking ways of improving safety and efficiency, these industries pioneered the practice of writing standardized policies and procedures down and sharing standard best practices. No one had done that before!

By creating standard operating policies and procedures—and distributing them to all employees—the railroads found they could better coordinate and standardize their operations, and thus prevent major problems (aka train wrecks!) as their operations grew increasingly complex and geographically spread out.

There’s a lot of business value in that.

Organizations need standardized operations and clear SOPs as much today as they did back during the 19th and 20th centuries. The technology has certainly changed, but the core needs have not.

Modern life and modern organizations are far too complex and fast-paced to navigate by trial and error. According to estimates, average American workers have to make more than 10,000 separate decisions every single workday. As just one example, in his book, Mindless Eating (Bantam, 2010), Cornell University researcher Brian Wansink noted that Americans average 200 separate decisions every day just about food.

No wonder people need guidance, a roadmap to the goal. Without instructions, trial and error is pretty much all we’ve got to go by—but trial and error is “messy,” slow, and sometimes even fatal.

Good systems clearly communicated are still the key to operations success and avoiding business “train wrecks.”

SOPs that real people can access, understand and use really do deliver big business benefits. Good SOPs improve people performance; reduce errors, risk, and costs; ensure regulatory compliance; and, ultimately, improve profits. SOPs can be incredibly practical and powerful tools to transform business results. The issue their detractors still have is that SOPs don’t always succeed.

How to avoid the “epic fail” with SOPs

Even though SOPs’ potential value is obvious, too many organizations know that their SOPs and corporate operations manuals don’t deliver. Why is it that?

Most people are so focused on the clerical aspects of writing up SOPs, they lose sight of why they are developing them in the first place. So, their real value is never communicated to the team, let alone management. Everyone is told, “Let’s get this done so we can get back to our real work.” This mindset is common in situations where SOPs have no link to economic value.

Unless you stay focused on the business outcome, the overall initiative loses focus and importance. If management views SOPs as a low-value task, they probably won’t commit the time and resources to doing it right—and so they won’t see performance results.

A better approach is to shift the focus to how your SOPs will be used. What performance outcome are you trying to achieve? Is it to train new hires faster? Reduce defects? Roll out a new system? Implement a new regulation? Respond to customer inquiries faster? It’s helpful if your desired outcome is something measurable. Examples might be 25-percent reduction in call-handling time, collapsing new-hire training time from five weeks to two weeks, and so on.

What is the business outcome you want to achieve from your SOPs?

Unless your SOPs drive performance, why bother?

To assess the effectiveness of your approach to SOPs, ask the following questions:
1. Does everyone in the organization have easy visibility of how things are done at all levels?
2. Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined?
3. Are work processes repeatable?
4. Is it easy to shift people from location to location?
5. Can your policies and procedures support operations as well as address multiple compliance requirements?
6. Is knowledge of best practices still in people’s heads?
7. Are your “experts” overwhelmed by people constantly asking them for help?
8. Are training costs too high? Is it taking too long to get a new employee productive?
9. Is new-employee training taking too much supervisor time?
10. Are managers spending too much time fighting fires and dealing with mundane issues, instead of mentoring employees and focusing on innovation?

Unless you can say YES to questions one through five and NO to questions six through ten, you are not getting the business benefits you should be from your company’s SOPs.

A simple shift in thinking will help you create an SOP system that people will want to use and your auditors will love. Instead of focusing on creating documents, create “good systems.” If you have a good system, anyone who follows it can get a good result every time. Capture those systems into clear, reader-friendly SOPs and make them easily accessible to employees as aids to their work. You’ll quickly start to see those confounding, hard-to-follow, waste-of-time SOP manuals transformed into powerful performance improvement systems. And that is something to love!

Teresa Tarwater is the vice president of marketing at Comprose, a Quality Digest content partner.


About The Author

Teresa Tarwater’s picture

Teresa Tarwater

Teresa Tarwater is vice president of marketing at COMPROSE Inc., maker of Zavanta standard operating procedure (SOP) software. She is also an adjunct professor of technical communication at Washington University School of Engineering in St. Louis. Tarwater specializes in corporate technical and marketing communications and has been involved in all aspects of commercial software development and marketing from application design and customer education to sales and technical support. She is an expert at designing and managing better SOP systems, as well as providing SOP training and consulting in IT, manufacturing, banking, health, and many other industries.