A standard operating procedure or SOP is a set of predetermined steps developed by an organization in order to help employees perform routine tasks efficiently. The SOP may consist of one or more steps, but the most common include procedures for all employees, departmental policies or procedural elements for individual tasks. Oftentimes, the SOP is prepared and approved by a supervisor or manager before it is made available for use by junior or new employees. SOPs also strive to create a high level of organizational effectiveness by reducing failure to comply with pertinent industry regulations and thereby increasing productivity, quality and safety.
In addition to creating a uniform and consistent work environment, standard operating procedures also help reduce errors and improve the efficiency of operations. For instance, a procedure for a machine or other equipment may include specific measurements and instructions that must be followed to ensure the machinery works according to specifications. If these steps were disregarded, the machinery could malfunction or even break down entirely. Procedures for such machinery may even include steps for maintaining or replacing certain parts. Likewise, not following instructions for a task can lead to failure and even legal liability.
It is not enough to simply place a SOP on a bulletin board or sign an employee ID card. An organization needs to ensure that each and every employee who will be implementing the procedure are trained properly. A short paragraph or two explaining the purpose and details of a procedure may be helpful, but training sessions should be as extensive as necessary to ensure each employee fully understands the purpose and procedures of his or her role. To that end, a short paragraph or two describing the purpose of a SOP and its relation to related materials, such as a quality manual, should be included alongside the SOP itself.
Training sessions for employees on SOP procedures are not sufficient, either. Correct, comprehensive documentation about the procedures is necessary. This documentation may include a short paragraph or two describing the purpose of the SOP, as well as the steps required to implement each step, along with detailed instructions. For example, if an SOP outlines the process of filling out an order form, an employee can get additional instruction on how to fill the forms properly to ensure that the forms arrive in the proper order, an itemized list of all materials needed to complete each step, and an explanation of why each step is done.
It should also be possible to refer back to the standard operating procedures whenever a specific problem occurs, as long as it is not considered a violation of any laws or regulations. For instance, if an employee forgets to input a SOP number after completing one task, it is okay to refer back to the steps previously set forth in the document. The only rule is that each step in the SOP must be complete and follow the specific directions.
A standard operating procedure document should also include any annual re-checking of the procedures to be followed. This can be done through an audit, when management conducts its own review of the processes and procedures to make sure that the procedures are still accurate and up to date. Management should conduct an audit at least once every three years, as close monitoring of the processes may be beneficial in preventing errors from occurring. If an audit detects that there are problems with processes or procedures, the corrective measures can be put into place before they cause problems within the company. Since corrective measures are usually implemented along with the introduction of new processes and procedures, this usually takes place immediately.