by Penny Hopkinson, founder of Manual Writers International® and author of “Manual Magic: Create the Operations Manual Your Franchisees Need to Succeed“
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) capture organisational knowledge for all repeatable core processes. Well-written SOPs capture the unique strengths and values of your company’s culture. They empower your employees to operate at peak performance and become active contributors.
So, your objective is to ensure that your employees get a reliable result the first time, every time. To quote Aristotle: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.’ SOPs are meant to be followed precisely as written every time the task is performed to maintain consistency, efficiency, and quality.
By making procedures easy to access and refine, your SOPs will continuously evolve with the input of your talented team.
Crafting SOPs Your Team Will Use
As an entrepreneur, you may resist documenting your processes. Formal SOPs sound stifling. Traditional top-down manuals are notorious for being dense and disengaging – more overlooked rulebooks than practical resources.
Yet effective SOPs are crucial as you scale. Clear, consistent operational procedures allow you to maintain quality, ensure compliance, and train new employees. So, bring your systems to life with relevant, collaborative SOPs that turn policies into living documents your business can thrive on.
Identify ‘process wizards’ with invaluable knowledge and proven techniques for complex tasks. Have them document their methods to categorise institutional wisdom. You get authentic guidance in team members’ words, not top-down prescriptions. This is particularly relevant to young millennials and Gen Z, who prefer to learn from their peers and value collaboration.
When producing SOPs you must:
Understand the process: Begin by thoroughly understanding the process for which the operational procedure is being written. This will involve talking to subject matter experts, observing the method in action, or reviewing existing documentation.
Define the objective: Clearly state the procedure’s objective, specifying the desired outcome and any key goals or targets. This will help guide the overall structure and content of the operation.
Identify the target audience: Determine who must follow the operational procedure, such as a manager, designated team member or external contractor. This will influence the level of detail and complexity.
Visualise the process: Learn how to use the power of visualisation. It’s a powerful way to write good content for knowledge sharing.
To do this, first, write for the reader, not for yourself. Then visualise everything with your mind’s eye and try to put yourself in the expert’s place. This means learning to create vivid mental pictures and involving all five senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste – when developing your imagination.
Break down the process: Break the process down into a series of sequential steps, ensuring each step is clear, concise, and easy to understand. Imagine a storyboard for creating a How-To video.
Use clear formatting: Format the operational procedure using numbered or bulleted lists, headings, and subheadings to make it easy for readers to follow.
Include visual aids: Use a series of ‘how-to’ videos, diagrams, flowcharts or images to illustrate complex concepts or steps, making the procedure more accessible and engaging for the target audience.
Detail roles and responsibilities: Specify the roles and responsibilities of individuals involved in each process step, including any compulsory approvals, collaboration, or communication.
Instructional voice and language: Write clear, step-by-step instructions to guide the reader through a process or task. Use simple, direct speech and, when possible, use an active voice, bullet points and numbered lists. Use simple language and avoid jargon or technical terms wherever possible.
Correct language use is essential in all mandatory procedures – i.e., ‘You must comply with [a specific law] and all regulatory requirements.’
Address potential challenges: Identify any everyday challenges or obstacles that may arise during the process and give guidance on overcoming or mitigating them.
Reference related documents: Include references to any related documents, forms, or resources that users may need to complete the procedure, such as templates, checklists, or policy documents.
Establish a review process: Implement a process for regularly reviewing and updating the operational procedure to ensure it remains accurate, relevant, and effective.
Test and refine: Before finalising the operational procedure, invite individuals from the target audience to test the document to ensure it’s clear, accurate and easy to follow. Gather feedback and make any necessary revisions to improve clarity and effectiveness.
Proofread and edit: Carefully proofread and edit the operational procedure to ensure it’s free of errors, inconsistencies, or ambiguities. This will help ensure the document is professional and easy to understand.
Align SOPs to Business Goals
Ensure procedures actively advance – not hinder – strategic objectives. For example, if rapid repetition is critical, avoid bureaucratic sign-offs.
Explain how following each procedure contributes to success metrics like efficiency, quality, cost containment, or sales targets. This fosters buy-in by demonstrating SOP relevance.
Optimise Format for Utility
Avoid dense paragraphs spanning multiple pages. Use scannable headings, bullet points, images, charts, and videos to engage readers. Hyperlink keywords to definitions for quick reference.
- Arrange content logically.
- Group related topics and order steps chronologically.
- Include a searchable table of contents and index.
Make SOPs Interactive
Transform static SOPs into living documents via cloud collaboration tools like Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) or Office 365.
- Store procedures on password-protected shared drives.
- Invite team members to suggest process tweaks, contribute new best practices and clarify processes through discussion.
Promote Continuous Improvement
Enable staff to flag outdated sections for review if regulations change. Require teams to append lessons learned from projects, such as tips for avoiding pitfalls.
- Designate SOP stewards accountable for keeping content current.
- Schedule bi-annual working sessions to update procedures based on recent operational innovations.
Store SOPs on easily searchable online portals accessible across devices such as desktops, tablets, and smartphones. Explore options to the traditional Operations Manual, like a knowledge-sharing centre accessed via a portal or a dedicated knowledge-sharing platform.
- Introduce new staff to the portal during onboarding.
- Send regular refresher emails linking to relevant SOPs for current initiatives.
Reinforce with Training and Recognition
Complement SOP resources with training like classes, workshops, job shadowing, and microlearning videos. This drives correct application, not just reading.
- Publicly recognise those who create procedures or share expertise.
- Find creative ways to reward SOP usage through points or badges on online portals.
The reality is SOPs can be something other than stuffy documents that employees avoid. With thoughtful design, interactive formats, and grassroots involvement from staff, you can cultivate lively SOPs that provide invaluable institutional wisdom right when your teams need it. Rather than gathering dust on shelves, they will become fundamental tools referenced daily across your business.
Penny Hopkinson is founder of Manual Writers International®, which she launched in 1986 to bring a fresh perspective to producing operations manuals. She joined the British Franchise Association in 1989 as an affiliate professional advisor, and in 2011 was appointed to a Companion position. She is the author of “Manual Magic: Create the Operations Manual Your Franchisees Need to Succeed“.