effective SOPs binders

Writing effective SOPs: 3 points most people miss

Good management requires some solid systems in place to manage toward or against. You can create systems and effective SOPs (standard operating procedures) for any operational aspect of your and your team’s work. This includes running meetings, documentation, projects execution, individual and team reviews – the list goes on.

Naturally, companies have systems and SOPs in place for major operational issues. But how do you create effective SOPs and best practices for your own department’s or team’s operations?

The actual format and detailed content of effective SOPs vary considerably, and I will not be discussing that level of detail here. Frankly, you can Google format ideas or simply open the SOP template in Word and get cracking. My main goal here is to bring to your attention three things often overlooked (or simply unknown) that make or break the utility of an SOP.

Effective SOPs Advice #1. The most effective SOPs set an objective or goal of the operation you are creating guidance for.

To be clear, this is not an objective for the SOP itself. Your team should agree on the objective for the operation the SOP is being developed around. For example: what is the purpose for standardizing meeting notes? Why do you want to document guidance on handling customer complaints?

Do not go soft on this step. It’s foundational. In order for SOPs to be the beacon that you need them to be to current and future team members, the objective or goal of the operation needs to be crystal clear. It also helps define what should be included and what should be left out. If any part of the SOP doesn’t support the defined objective, then either the objective needs to change, or the SOP content does.

I’ll give two examples:

Example 1. Meeting notes. You probably know by now that I strongly recommend capturing only four critical pieces of information for meeting notes. Anything else is extraneous and distracting. We had multiple objectives for that SOP/guideline:

  • Decrease the precious time my team was taking in writing out robust notes after the meeting that they could be spending on actual work
  • Get them to pay attention and participate in the meeting itself rather than scribbling down what everyone said
  • Document the rationale for decisions made at the meeting, so we were not confused at a later date about why things played out the way they did.

Don’t get tricked into thinking, “Isn’t it obvious?”

Example 2. Program development. I used to design and launch customer service programs for clients. Defining the objective of the program in the program SOP seem like such a silly step – “Isn’t it obvious?” clients would ask. However, defining the operation objective saved us considerable grief later on.

  • If the objective of the operation was to support only cases that met certain criteria in order to optimize positive outcomes, then we had to hold steadfast to that objective, even if there were pressures to help customers with cases that didn’t meet our criteria. You can see how caving into the pressures would have definitely compromised our outcomes!
  • And it brilliantly created an out for us: Dear Client, we jointly agreed that we want to optimize outcomes by using these case criteria. If you really want us to help this customer, you are agreeing to the potential of negative outcomes as a result. Your call.

For example, you’ve heard of the governing principle, “The customer is always right.” This can provide bottom-line guidance for any customer service agent whose particular challenge is not explicitly defined in the SOP.

Effective SOPs Advice #2. Define governing principles for the operation.

An SOP can’t cover every single thing that can possibly come up. In addition, you shouldn’t expect constant updates based on every new event that occurs day to day. That’s why having a set of governing principles – guidelines your team can use in the absence of explicit direction for a particular circumstance imbedded in the SOP – can be good to define up front.

You can do this one of two ways: either brainstorm governing principles up front and then after the SOP is completed, run the SOP back through the governing principles to ensure there is alignment. Alternatively, write the SOP and derive basic governing principles from them directly.

Effective SOPs Advice #3. Let your intended audience write it.

For my managers, this point has been somewhat controversial in the past. Managers often feel like they should be writing the SOP – after all, they are in the position of knowing what to do and how to do it, and they would like the guideline to be one they measure or manage against.

However, this brings up an important point about management: It’s not about you. Yes, you want an SOP to promote consistency and reliability among your team members. However, you also want people to follow it. If you had to guess which method promotes buy-in from employees – something handed down to them, or something they had a hand in developing – which do you think is more successful?

Might there be more drafts and might it take longer to develop? Yes.

But will your line staff learn valuable lessons in how to think of their own work? Will they gain incredible skills to support their own professional development? Might they come up with issues from the “front lines” to address in the SOP that you wouldn’t have come up with? And are they more likely to be invested in the consistent execution of that SOP?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Teach them how to do it. Then let them do it.

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