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How to Write a Standard Operation Procedure

Table of Contents

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can be more powerful than most organizations realize.

When developed and deployed correctly, SOPs can drive greater employee productivity, improve organizational efficiency, and reduce costs. Such results may seem like a tall order for what most employees regard as lists of bureaucratic rules, but that’s because most SOPs are poorly written, difficult to understand, and often – surprisingly – outright incorrect.

When Standard Operating Procedures are written well, they can bridge the divide between employee activities and desired organizational outcomes.

SOPs promote consistency.

Fundamentally, SOPs create a set of standardized behaviors and functions that ensure all workers perform tasks uniformly. In fact, SOPs are pretty much the only way to create and achieve enterprise-wide quality and performance standards. SOPs also help minimize a common but often overlooked problem: “procedural drift” that can compromise results over time.

SOPs preserve and disseminate knowledge.

When Lynn Kelley joined Union Pacific Railroad as vice president of continuous improvement, she was confronted with a serious problem, according to The Harvard Business Review (HBR). A large portion of the workforce would be retiring over the next decade. Under her leadership, “the organization started documenting standard operating procedures to capture employee know-how and wisdom.”

Research shows that SOPs can “facilitate the transfer of knowledge that leads to variability reduction and organizational effectiveness.” Translation: make sure that your best workers’ knowledge and experience is captured in a format that can be shared, just as Ms. Kelley did.

SOPs save time.

From employee onboarding to job transfers and employee skills development to information-gathering, SOPs provide a resource that can shorten the learning curve associated with learning a new role and gathering information related to job duties. And by providing a central repository of information, SOPs keep time spent searching for the information to a minimum.

SOPs foster flexibility.

A typical concern is that SOPs will engender a degree of bureaucracy and rigidity that’s unhelpful for either employees or customers; in practice, however, they can do the opposite. The key is to differentiate must do, should do, and can do activities, according to HBR. This differentiation helps employees understand the difference between critical standards that avoid, for example, safety or regulatory problems, while giving them discretion and opportunity to innovate in other areas.

However, most SOPs are badly written. Here’s how to write Standard Operating Procedures well instead.

  •          Use human language. Avoid technical jargon, business-speak, or legalese. Just speak plainly.
  •          Remember KISS. Keep it simple, silly! A SOP is not a university thesis.
  •          Avoid “writing by committee.” Don’t allow too many cooks into the kitchen, lest their recipes end up unclear, confusing, or even contradictory.
  •          Have a point person. To avoid the committee issue, have someone who spearheads the project with final say over the content; just have them solicit and incorporate as much team input as reasonable.
  •          Tell the reader why. Workplace communications often neglect this key question, but users are more likely to follow procedures with reasoning or logic they understand.
  •          Think about the reader. How will the language sound to the SOPs’ users? Will it read like a lecture? Does it presume incompetence or malfeasance? Does it speak down to them?
  •          Be positive. Use positive language (“do”) more than negative (“don’t”) to make the SOP more engaging and less off-putting. And, since SOPs should tell users how to do something, using negative language makes little sense.
  •          Allow for some flexibility. As HBR recommends, identify must doshould docan do procedures to help users understand what is non-negotiable versus areas where they have discretion.

o   Avoid huge, lengthy blocks of text. Make the document easy to read with liberal use of formatting, bullet points, white space, and visual elements. For example, Cornell University recommends SOP formats like checklists, hierarchical steps, linear or branching flow charts, and annotated pictures.

o   Get help. Developing exceptional SOPs requires some specific skillsets that range from writing ability to strategic thinking. Supplemental assistance or instruction can fill in any gaps.

o   Consider a gap analysis. A gap analysis can help you understand your SOPs’ strengths and weaknesses, where there’s overlap, and what you can do to ensure that your organization’s SOPs are well-written and, ultimately, usable.

Whatever else you do, remember to think about SOPs as a means, not an end.

In other words, SOPs create a bridge to a desirable outcome; the goal is functional improvement in the organization, not just filling up a blank page with words. As Cornell University says in its guide on how to write SOPs: “The best SOP format is one that, given the situation, does the best job of accurately transmitting the necessary information and facilitating consistent implementation of the SOP.”

About Hurley Write, Inc.

Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.

How to Write a Standard Operation Procedure

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