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What is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and How to Write It
Imagine for a moment that you work in the customer service department at a grocery store. A customer comes in one day and says they need to return a bag of bread. Most likely, the store you work for already has a set of written rules in place for how to handle this situation. That written set of rules is what is known as a standard operating procedure.
Freedom without rules doesn’t work. And communities do not work unless they are regulated by etiquette. Judith Martin
Standard operating procedures are written, step-by-step instructions that describe how to perform a routine activity. Employees should complete them in the exact same way every time so that the business can remain consistent. Standard operating procedures help maintain safety and efficiency for departments such as:
- Sales and customer service
- Employee training
A standing operating procedure should never be difficult to read or vaguely worded. It should be brief, easy to understand and contain actions steps that are simple follow. A good standard operating procedure should clearly outline the steps and inform the employee of any safety concerns.
The standing operating procedures should be the basis for training any new employees. They should also be updated every year to ensure they stay relevant to the current needs of the organization.
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Tallyfy eliminates the many pains of using Word/Google docs and flowcharts to document and run your processes. It replaces static documents and flowcharts – giving you the power to automate and run your processes.
By making ourselves write down our processes and know-how on Tallyfy – we can now ensure that steps are never missed or done out of order. There’s fewer mistakes and a lot of time is saved on training. Len Gilbert / Digital Prism
Why Do You Need Standard Operating Procedures?
Some business owners have a hard time grasping why standard operating procedures are necessary. They already trained their employees so why do they need a written document outlining the process as well?
This is sort of like asking why doctors have a written list of procedures they follow before performing surgery. Or why the FDA has a written list of procedures for how restaurants can handle food.
- They save time and money
When the same task is completed in many different ways, it will always take longer to complete. Having a standard operating procedure in place streamlines the process so employees can accomplish more in less time.
- They provide consistency
Having a standard operating procedure in place ensures that regardless of who is working, business processes are being completed the correct way.
- They improve communication
Standard operating procedures make your employees’ jobs easier because no longer do they have to guess as to how they should be performing their jobs. And they don’t have to try to rack their brains to remember what you told them when they were first hired.
- They allow you to hold your employees accountable
How can you evaluate your employees if you don’t have written standards in place? Without standard operating procedures, employee evaluations become a matter of personal opinion, which is hardly fair to your employees.
- They create a safer work environment
When employees perform the same tasks in completely different ways, it is not only inefficient it is actually a liability for your business. Standard operating procedures ensure that employees perform their job functions in a safe and consistent manner.
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One of the biggest misconceptions about standard operating procedures is that they will cause businesses to become rigid and inflexible. This article in the Harvard Business Review does a great job of explaining how having systems in place for employees to follow actually makes businesses more flexible.
How to Write a Standard Operating Procedure
Now you know what a standard operating procedure is and why you need one. However, you may be wondering how you can actually go about creating your own. Standard operating procedures require a lot of planning and preparation before you can even begin writing the document.
Here are five steps to follow when creating your own standard operating procedure:
To get started, have the managers talk to your employees about the duties they perform in their jobs every day. This will allow them to begin creating a detailed list of processes that need standard operating procedures.
From there, you can review the list with your managers and look for any redundancies. This list will serve as a starting point for creating your standard operating procedure.
- Plan the process
In this step, you will need to decide on a format for your process. Do you want it to be a step-by-step guide or a workflow diagram? From there you can create a template. You will also need to decide how your standard operating procedure will be made visible to your employees. Will you have a written copy posted or will a copy be available online?
- Talk with employees
Now that you have your list of processes and you have created your template, you need to talk to your employees. This is important because you can’t fully understand the process unless you have spoken with the people who actually perform it on a daily basis. Only speaking with management is not enough.
- Write and review the process
Once you have spoken with your employees, immediately add your notes to the template. From there you can review your standard operating procedure with employees once again and obtain input from your managers. You should also determine who will be responsible for oversight and maintenance of the standard operating procedure.
Keep in mind that all of your standard operating procedures should read the same way while still distinctly describing the functions of each area of your business.
- Maintain the process
Your work is not finished once the standard operating procedure is written! In order for it to remain relevant and useful, you must maintain and update it at least once per year.
A written standard operating procedure not only lets your employee know how they should be doing their job, it lets them know why. When you explain to employees why tasks are performed in a certain way they will be more likely to complete them.
Standard operating procedures are time-consuming to create at first but the benefits are worth it. They will save you a lot of time and frustration down the road.
Standard operating procedures are detailed, written instructions on how to perform a routine business activity. They are easy to read and they explain every detail of the process being described. It is important to keep in mind that a good standard operating procedure doesn’t focus on what needs to be done but rather how it should be done. A standard operating procedure is an effective tool that every business should have.
Standard operating procedures will give you a better understanding of your business processes and help you decide how to move forward. They will ensure that all employees are performing the business processes in the same way.
Having standard operating procedures in place will also give you the option to scale your business more quickly. This is because standard operating procedures make it easier to replicate these processes across your organization.
Many businesses choose to implement standard operating procedures by displaying written documents in areas where they will be clearly visible to all employees. However, often times there are better tools available to businesses. Using a workflow management system like Tallyfy is a great way to create an interactive database of information rather than a cumbersome document. Feel free to visit our case studies page to read how other business owners have successfully utilized our app in their businesses.
Read more posts related to What is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and How to Write It
10 Principles of Organizational Culture
Companies can tap their natural advantage when they focus on changing a few important behaviors, enlist informal leaders, and harness the power of employees’ emotions. See also “What Is Corporate Culture?”
Illustration by Lars Leetaru
How often have you heard somebody — a new CEO, a journalist, a management consultant, a leadership guru, a fellow employee — talk about the urgent need to change the culture? They want to make it world-class. To dispense with all the nonsense and negativity that annoys employees and stops good intentions from growing into progress. To bring about an entirely different approach, starting immediately.
These culture critiques are as common as complaints about the weather — and about as effective. How frequently have you seen high-minded aspirations to “change the culture” actually manage to modify the way that people behave and the way in which they work? And how often have you seen noticeable long-term improvements?
What Is Corporate Culture?
At its worst, culture can be a drag on productivity. At its best, it is an emotional energizer. Here’s how companies can use it to gain a competitive advantage.
If the answer to these last two questions is “rarely,” it wouldn’t surprise us. We don’t believe that swift, wholesale culture change is possible — or even desirable. After all, a company’s culture is its basic personality, the essence of how its people interact and work. However, it is an elusively complex entity that survives and evolves mostly through gradual shifts in leadership, strategy, and other circumstances. We find the most useful definition is also the simplest: Culture is the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.
Made of instinctive, repetitive habits and emotional responses, culture can’t be copied or easily pinned down. Corporate cultures are constantly self-renewing and slowly evolving: What people feel, think, and believe is reflected and shaped by the way they go about their business. Formal efforts to change a culture (to replace it with something entirely new and different) seldom manage to get to the heart of what motivates people, what makes them tick. Strongly worded memos from on high are deleted within hours. You can plaster the walls with large banners proclaiming new values, but people will go about their days, right beneath those signs, continuing with the habits that are familiar and comfortable.
But this inherent complexity shouldn’t deter leaders from trying to use culture as a lever. If you cannot simply replace the entire machine, work on realigning some of the more useful cogs. The name of the game is making use of what you cannot change by using some of the emotional forces within your current culture differently.
Source: The Katzenbach Center
For further insights: See strategy-business.com/10PrinciplesCulture
Infographic: Opto Design/Peter Stemmler
Three dimensions of corporate culture affect its alignment: symbolic reminders (artifacts that are entirely visible), keystone behaviors (recurring acts that trigger other behaviors and that are both visible and invisible), and mind-sets (attitudes and beliefs that are widely shared but exclusively invisible). Of these, behaviors are the most powerful determinant of real change. What people actually do matters more than what they say or believe. And so to obtain more positive influences from your cultural situation, you should start working on changing the most critical behaviors — the mind-sets will follow. Over time, altered behavior patterns and habits can produce better results.
You may be asking: If it is so hard to change culture, why should we even bother to try? Because an organization’s current culture contains several reservoirs of emotional energy and influence. Executives who work with them can greatly accelerate strategic and operating imperatives. When positive culture forces and strategic priorities are in sync, companies can draw energy from the way people feel. This accelerates a company’s movement to gain competitive advantage, or regain advantages that have been lost.
Research shows that companies that use a few specific cultural catalysts — that is to say, those that use informal emotional approaches to influencing behavior — are significantly more likely to experience change that lasts. Of the companies that reported consciously using elements of their culture in Strategy&’s 2020 Global Culture & Change Management Survey, 70 percent said their firms achieved sustainable improvement in organizational pride and emotional commitment. That compares with 35 percent for firms that didn’t use culture as a lever. Although there is no magic formula, no brilliant algorithm, no numerical equation that will guarantee results, we have gleaned some valuable insights through decades of research and observation at dozens of enterprises, including some of the most successful companies in the world. By adopting the following principles, your organization can learn to deploy and improve its culture in a manner that will increase the odds of financial and operational success.
1. Work with and within your current cultural situations. Deeply embedded cultures cannot be replaced with simple upgrades, or even with major overhaul efforts. Nor can your culture be swapped out for a new one as though it were an operating system or a CPU. To a degree, your current cultural situation just is what it is — and it contains components that provide natural advantages to companies as well as components that may act as brakes. We’ve never seen a culture that is all bad, or one that is all good. To work with your culture effectively, therefore, you must understand it, recognize which traits are preeminent and consistent, and discern under what types of conditions these traits are likely to be a help or a hindrance. Put another way, there’s both a yin and a yang to cultural traits.
For example, a European pharmaceutical company with a solid product development pipeline had a tendency to be inward-looking. It had great execution capabilities and an excellent record of compliance with regulators around the world. However, when new products were ready to be launched, the company had a hard time marketing them to physicians and healthcare providers. Rather than bemoaning the company’s ingrained insularity — for example, its collective tendency to value the opinions of internal colleagues more than those of outside experts — the leaders decided to use this feature of its culture to its advantage. They set up a program through which employees were acknowledged and rewarded by colleagues for “going the extra mile” to support customers. By recognizing a new kind of internal authoritativeness, the company tapped a powerful emotional trigger already in place, and engendered a new (and strategically important) behavior in its sales force.
2. Change behaviors, and mind-sets will follow. It is a commonly held view that behavioral change follows mental shifts, as surely as night follows day. This is why organizations often try to change mind-sets (and ultimately behavior) by communicating values and putting them in glossy brochures. This technique didn’t work well for Enron, where accounting fraud and scandal were part of everyday practice, even as the company’s espoused values of excellence, respect, integrity, and communication were carved into the marble floor of the atrium of its global headquarters in Houston. In reality, culture is much more a matter of doing than of saying. Trying to change a culture purely through top-down messaging, training and development programs, and identifiable cues seldom changes people’s beliefs or behaviors. In fact, neuroscience research suggests that people act their way into believing rather than thinking their way into acting. Changes to key behaviors — changes that are tangible, actionable, repeatable, observable, and measurable — are thus a good place to start. Some good examples of behavior change, which we’ve observed at a number of companies, relate to empowerment (reducing the number of approvals needed for decisions), collaboration (setting up easy ways to convene joint projects), and interpersonal relations (devising mutually respectful practices for raising contentious issues or grievances).
Neuroscience research suggests that people act their way into believing rather than thinking their way into acting.
A telecommunications company was seeking to improve its customer service. Rather than trying to influence mind-sets by, for example, posting signs urging employees to be polite to disgruntled customers, or having employees undergo empathy training, the company focused on what psychologists call a “precursor behavior” — a seemingly innocuous behavior that reliably precedes the occurrence of problem behavior. Leaders had noticed that poor teaming led to poor customer service, so the company rolled out a plan to encourage better and more effective teaming within call centers. To accomplish this, they set up regular design sessions for improving practices. When employees felt they were part of a happy team, and sensed a greater level of support from colleagues, they began treating their customers better.
In another example, a resources company in the Middle East was seeking to make its workplace safer. Rather than erect placards threatening workers with consequences, the company focused on a relatively basic precursor behavior: housekeeping. It organized a litter drive. Picking up trash as a team helped employees take greater pride in the workplace, which engendered a greater sense of care for fellow employees and made them more likely to speak up when they noticed an unsafe situation. Changed behavior, changed mind-set.
3. Focus on a critical few behaviors. Conventional wisdom advocates a comprehensive approach — everybody should change everything that’s not perfect! But companies must be rigorously selective when it comes to picking behaviors. The key is to focus on what we call “the critical few,” a small number of important behaviors that would have great impact if put into practice by a significant number of people. Discern a few things people do throughout the company that positively affect business performance — for example, ways of starting meetings or talking with customers. Make sure those are aligned with the company’s overall strategy. Also check that people feel good about doing these things, so that you tap into emotional commitment. Then codify them: Translate those critical behaviors into simple, practical steps that people can take every day. Next, select groups of employees who are primed for these few behaviors, those who will respond strongly to the new behaviors and who are likely to implement and spread them.
At an Asian banking company, rapid inorganic growth had led to diverse ways of working across different units and geographies. To focus on improving teaming, customer outcomes, and the ability to realize synergies, the CEO and leadership embarked on a culture-led evolution program. They targeted just three critical behaviors: taking extra steps to delight customers, valuing performance over seniority, and backing up and supporting one another. They then converted these three general behaviors into specifics for each part of the company. Delighting customers, for instance, was translated into frontline staff collaborating with other colleagues to solve client problems and prioritizing the implementation of process improvements that affected customer outcomes. For all three behaviors, leadership recognized and celebrated examples in which people made an extraordinary effort. Senior leaders acted as role models, explicitly modeling these three new behaviors. The company also identified influential frontline, client-facing employees who could demonstrate these new behaviors in action.
4. Deploy your authentic informal leaders. Authority, which is conferred by a formal position, should not be confused with leadership. Leadership is a natural attribute, exercised and displayed informally without regard to title or position in the organizational chart. Because authentic informal leaders, who are found in every organization, are often not recognized as such, they are frequently overlooked and underused when it comes to driving culture. It is possible to identify such leaders through interviews, surveys, and tools such as organizational network analysis, which allow companies to construct maps of complex internal social relations by analyzing email statistics and meeting records. Once identified, these leaders can become powerful allies who can influence behavior through “showing by doing.” In fact, when companies map out their organizations, they can identify leaders who exhibit different core leadership strengths (see “Four Types of Authentic Informal Leaders”).
Four Types of Authentic Informal Leaders
Every organization has people who influence and energize others without relying on their title or formal position in the hierarchy to do so. We call them “authentic informal leaders.” They are a powerful resource in spreading a critical few behaviors from the bottom up. Among the many types of informal leaders present in organizations, the following are seen most frequently.
Pride builders are master motivators of other people, and catalysts for improvement around them. Often found in the role of line manager, they understand the motivations of those with whom they work. They know how to foster a sense of excellence among others. They can be found at every level of a hierarchy; some of the most effective pride builders are close to the front line, where they can interact directly with customers as well as employees. Pride builders often have powerful insights about the culture and about what behaviors are likely to lead to improvement.
Exemplars are role models. They bring vital behaviors or skills to life, and others pay attention to them. They are well respected and are effective peer influencers in the middle and senior management cohorts.
Networkers are hubs of personal communication within the organization. They know many people, and communicate freely and openly with them. They serve as links among people who might not otherwise share information or ideas. If you want to see an idea travel virally through an enterprise, enlist your networkers.
Early adopters enthusiastically latch onto and experiment with new technologies, processes, and ways of working. Involve them in your performance pilots, or whenever you are trying to demonstrate impact quickly.
At one major oil company, an informal leader named Osama became known as the “turbo-collaborator.” His role gave him very little formal influence. But when he began working at the refinery, he walked the plant with the engineers, maintenance technicians, and operators, and took copious notes. As a result, he knew everyone and developed relationships across disciplines. Whenever somebody wanted to know how the place really worked, they would speak to Osama — who would either have the answer in his notebook or know precisely the right person to ask. When the company formed a buddy program between operations and maintenance aimed at using greater collaboration to improve plant reliability, it knew it needed Osama at the heart of it. He connected people, defined templates to encourage collaboration, and captured success stories. Identifying, engaging, and nurturing such informal leaders allows companies to harness their talents and further the company’s transformation efforts.
5. Don’t let your formal leaders off the hook. Most organizations tend to shunt culture into the silo of human resources professionals. But leaders in all parts of the company are critical in safeguarding and championing desired behaviors, energizing personal feelings, and reinforcing cultural alignment. The signaling of emotional commitment sets the tone for others to follow. If staff members see a disconnect between the culture an organization promulgates and the one its formal leadership follows, they’ll disengage quickly from the advertised culture and simply mimic their seniors’ behavior. The people at the top have to demonstrate the change they want to see. Here, too, the critical few come into play. A handful of the right kind of leaders have to be on board to start the process.
When Jim Rogers was CEO of GE Motors in Fort Wayne, Ind., he became frustrated because his senior leadership group of more than 15 leaders seldom functioned together as a “real team.” As described by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith in The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (Harvard Business School Press, 1993), a real team is one with a high level of emotional commitment; the leadership role shifts easily among the members depending on their skills and experience and the challenges of the moment, rather than on any hierarchical positions. Team members hold one another accountable for the quality of their collective work. Interestingly, at GE Motors the senior leadership group members often demonstrated real team capabilities in running their individual business units and functions. So Rogers decided to find ways to break them into subteams of three or four members to address specific cross-organizational issues facing the larger group. Over time, he mixed the subgroupings to match emerging issues. By working in different subgroup settings, the executives developed camaraderie, which in turn improved the effectiveness of the group as a whole.
6. Link behaviors to business objectives. When people talk about feelings, motivations, and values — all of which are vital elements of strong cultures — the conversation can often veer into abstractions. It may then range far afield of what it takes to succeed in the market. Too many employees walk away from culture-focused town halls or values discussions wondering how the advice on how to be a better person actually translates into the work they do. To avoid this disconnect, offer tangible, well-defined examples of how cultural interventions lead to improved performance and financial outcomes. Select behaviors that are aimed specifically at improving business performance and can be measured over time.
Operations Associate Interview Questions
- Try more general keywords (‘engineer’ rather than ‘systems engineer’)
- Check your spelling
- Replace abbreviations with the entire word (‘accountant’ rather than ‘CPA’)
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