In our last blog, we covered the importance of standard operating procedures (SOPs) in maintaining quality, protecting the public and employees, and meeting compliance and security regulation demands. SOPs are vital documents that lay out the who, what, when, and where for important procedures in your industry or organization. But how do you write standard operating procedures and work instructions? That’s where our technical writing courses come in.
What are Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)?SOPs are documented processes that, in theory, save your organization time and money, ensure tasks are completed efficiently and effectively, and ensure compliance with regulations. You may be asking why we used "in theory." While well-written SOPs do all of these things (and more), poorly written SOPs can have the opposite effect. The goals of SOPs are to produce consistent results, ensure compliance, and help employees avoid injury, among other things. To that end, they must be
- easy to read
- easy to follow
To be useful, SOPs must be easy to follow (otherwise, no one will use them, which is a problem in and of itself). Easy to follow means they use graphics that augment (not necessarily take the place of) text; lots of white space (the goal is NOT to cram the information together so that it's hard to read); numbering or bulleting as appropriate (numbers are used for when the sequence of steps matter; bullets are used otherwise); and headings and subheadings.
Easy to read means they use simple language (words that are one syllable); simple sentence structure (fewer words are generally better); and begin each step with a verb (SOPs indicate tasks, so this only makes sense. guides to help reading, such as a glossary, list of acronyms and tables, and other reading instructions.
Well-written, effective SOPs produce consistent results. If your organization’s SOPs don’t produce consistent results or aren't used, it may be because they're hard to use, hard to read, and hard to follow.
What are Work Instructions?
Work instructions are related to SOPs but are more granular. In other words, if I’m writing an SOP about how to make a peanut butter sandwich and it includes five steps, I might break down one or more of the steps so that the user would know exactly how something is done. For instance, if the first step is to open the jar of peanut butter, I could provide a work instruction that would tell the user exactly how to open the jar of peanut butter; it might even include information about where to retrieve the peanut butter jar. The use of work instructions often depends on the complexity of the process, users' familiarity with it, and how often it's done, among other things.
Keep in mind that different organizations use the terms SOPs and work instructions differently; in other words, what might be called an SOP in one organization might be called a work instruction in another (we've also seen organizations that have guidance documents that they refer to as SOPs or work instructions).
Regardless of what they’re called, however, they must be easy to follow and easy to read so that they produce consistent results.
- Use process mapping to figure out where the process should begin and end (while process mapping may seem like an extra step, it actually saves time because writers avoid including irrelevant steps in their SOPs.
- Don't fall into the trap of thinking that all SOPs and/or writing instructions be presented in the same way; sometimes, a short video will do while in other cases a flow chart would work.
- Don't mistake SOPs or work instructions for guidance documents, checklists, or descriptions--all of these documents have their place, but they're distinctive documents.
- Be sure to include the appropriate sections in the appropriate order; for instance, if materials are required, that should be early in the document so that users know what they need to gather before beginning the task.
- Provide reading instructions by identifying terminology and acronyms and using numbering or bulleting as appropriate.
- Use plenty of white space.