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SOPs vs. Work Instructions: What’s the Difference?

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In our blog, Understanding the Case for Standard Operating Procedures, we covered the importance of standard operating procedures (SOPs) to maintain quality, protect the public and employees, and meet 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 SOPs? That’s where our technical writing courses come in.

What are Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)?  

SOPs are documented processes that, if written well using the proper voice, sentence structure, language, and formatting, save your organization time and money and ensure tasks are completed efficiently and effectively and in compliance with regulations. While well-written SOPs do all of these things (and more), poorly written SOPs can have the opposite effect. SOPs that produce consistent results, ensure compliance, and help employees avoid injury must be

1. Easy to read

Easy to read means they use simple (familiar) language and sentence structure (fewer words are generally better); begin each step with a verb (SOPs indicate tasks, so this only makes sense); and include guides to help reading, such as a glossary, list of acronyms and tables, and other reading instructions.  

2. Easy to follow

To fully reap the benefits of SOPs, they must be easy to follow (otherwise, they won’t be used, which is a problem in and of itself). Easy to follow SOPs 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 bullets as appropriate (numbers are used for when the sequence of steps matter; bullets are used otherwise); and headings and subheadings. 

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 the Different Kinds of SOPs?

  1. Step-by-Step. Probably the most common format for the SOPs, these straightforwar documents describe the process in incremental, iterative steps that users can follow one by one. 
  2. Flowchart. More common in engineering or technology applications, flowcharts are great when the process might vary depending on circumstances. In other words, the second step won’t always follow the first, as in a step-by-step process. Instead, the outcome of the first step might lead useres in any one of multiple directions.
  3. Multimedia. Some SOPs may take the form of visual illustrations or videos that explain and walk through the process for viewers. This can be an effective way to condense a lot of subject matter into an easy-to-consume format. 
  4. Hybrid. Complex operating procedures can combine these approaches. For example, Step 1 alone might involve decision points, so it might use a flowchart-style process before the user moves on to Step 2.

The Definition of 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, a work instruction 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 vs. 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, in all cases readability and usability matter. 

How to Write SOP vs. Work Instrucitons

  • 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 should 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.
  • 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 numbers or bullets as appropriate.
  • Use plenty of white space.

Are SOPs or. Work Instructions Better for Your Team?

Whether your organization uses work instructions vs SOPs really depends on the task, the level of excellence desired in terms of completing the task, the complexity of the task, and other things.

An SOP gives an overview for completing a task; while it also provides specifics, if the task isn’t very complex, an SOP will probably work fine. For instance, if a task is about how to turn on a machine and it’s as simple as turning a switch, reviewing a dashboard to ensure the machine is on, and alerting others that the machine is now functional, an SOP would work. Keep in mind as well that many organizations have SOPs because they have to comply with regulations.

Think of work instructions as a subset of SOPs; the SOP provides the general steps and the work instructions provide the nitty-gritty. Let’s take our machine example: as we illustrated, if the task is simple, an SOP will do. But let’s say that turning on the machine involves multiple steps that, if not followed, could harm equipment or injure personnel; in that case, work instructions would probably be warranted because it’s important that each step of the process be outlined to ensure a successful outcome.

For work instructions (again using our machine example), the steps might be:

  1. Grab the latch handle with your right hand [n this case, it’s important that the right hand be used]
  2. Pull the latch handle up 60 degrees [60 degrees is very specific]
  3. Count to three as you release the handle

As you can see in work instruction, the directions are very specific. While SOPs can be, and often are, specific, think of work instructions as more specific because they have to be and as a subset of SOPs.

Make Your Instructions Work for Your Team 

Whether your team writes SOPs, work instructions, guidance documents, or checklists, our writing course created specifically to address these types of documents will help them hone their skills. These documents follow a certain “writing recipe,” and it’s one that the professionals at Hurley Write teach in our “Writing SOPs” course.

Watch as MJ Hurley, Executive Trainer, shares some of the benefits of why SOP writing training to ensure that your team has the skills they need to produce the same outcome every time.

SOPs vs. Work Instructions: What’s the Difference?

Contact Hurley Write, Inc.

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Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483
Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483

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