How to Write Standard Operating Procedures?

Posted by
Julia in Technical Writing on 3/24/20215 min read

man in brown jacket with laptop

Standard operating procedures, or SOPs, are documents that contain a set of instructions on how to perform a task in a correct and safe way according to all the regulations. This type of technical documentation is equally important not only for new companies that are just establishing their processes but also for those who have been working for a long time. In the majority of spheres, it is vital to have standard guidelines telling employees how to work.
To understand the value of an SOP, let’s figure out what benefits it gives:

  • Compliance with standards. All employees will have the same knowledge and use the same standards. That means a lot when we talk about the quality and efficiency of work and reduction of errors, and it contributes to the consistency of workflow in general.
  • Safety. Instructions provide the safest ways of fulfilling tasks and, of course, producing safe products.
  • Quick onboarding. Another question of great importance. Newbies need not only a tutor but a set of instructions as a source of information.
  • Scheduling. You can specify when and what should be done to avoid slowing down the workflow pace.

Writing an SOP: Best Practices

How to write a useful SOP from scratch? It is not a difficult task if you follow simple steps. Actually, the same steps may help you update the existing SOPs. So, what you are to do:

  • Define what processes need to be documented and how they are going to be interrelated. Not all processes that take place in a company require being documented. Only the ones that have significance. And, if they are somehow connected, show it, including references or links to each other. This can help different departments cooperate more efficiently.
  • Define the end result. You don’t need to specify all the details. It is just what you want to achieve and what problems you want to solve.
  • Define the format. If you already have some SOPs, you can go on using the same format. If you work for a large international company, most probably you are to use ISO 9000. In other cases, you are to choose what is going to work better for your company and your workflow, and you are not obliged to use international standards. For small teams and processes that do not require details, you can use checklists. Some processes can be described well in the format of steps. And, of course, one can use flowcharts. They are great to demonstrate hierarchical structures and interrelations among the items.
  • Define the end-users. That is an essential step in the process of document creation. It means the document should be focused on the duties and responsibilities of end-users. When you know your target audience, you use the right terminology, give the right amount of information - no excessive explanations, and add corresponding visual content. Our post - Targeting of Technical Documentation will tell you more about that.
  • Define the creators. To create a useful and informative SOP, a technical writer should consult with those who deal with the process described every day. It is better to attract experts from different levels. Those at higher levels are more concentrated on the purpose and are less likely to be involved in the process itself. Experts at lower levels are more involved in the routine. You are to find balance.
  • Define the scope. You are to know exactly the beginning and the end of your procedure not to mix it up with other procedures and processes.
  • Define the metrics. Metrics are used to measure the quality of the process. You can see if your SOP is efficient enough and if not - what are the weak points. You can measure time spent on completing a task or the amount of resources.

These are the essential preparation steps. When you are done with them, you are ready to go further - to work on an SOP structure. Let’s talk about that.

woman pointing at diagram

What Should an SOP Contain?

The majority of SOPs contain the following structural and logical elements:

  • Title page. It includes not only the name of the process or procedure but also the identification number, publication date, company’s or department’s name, authors’ names. Title pages are common for printed documentation. Online documentation doesn’t have a title page. In topic-based systems, like ClickHelp, for example, the first topic in the table of contents can be used as a title page.
  • Table of contents (TOC). Actually, you need it for a substantial document. If your SOP is a checklist, you don’t need it.
  • Introduction. This part describes the process in general and the scope of problems that are going to be solved.
  • Body. These are instructions and procedures. Apart from that, this element may contain clarification of terminology, safety warnings, equipment, supplies, etc.
  • Attachments. Reference materials, notes, internal knowledge base articles, forms, contact information, etc.

Of course, this list may differ from document to document, but the idea will still remain the same.

Creating an SOP in ClickHelp

ClickHelp is a feature-rich cloud platform that may become a great solution for creating and publishing internal SOPs.

The main advantages of using an online documentation tool are:

  • Great environment for collaboration. Several authors may work on a document and easily review it, leaving comments. ClickHelp is an online browser-based tool, so all team members have a mutual environment for work. You won’t lose sight of any updates, which is not an easy task if several authors work on the same document and several experts review it. Where is the last version? Don’t worry, you won’t lose it.
  • Ability to reuse content. If you are working on SOPs for several departments in a company, some information is going to be the same from document to document. You can create reusable pieces of content like variables and snippets.
  • Analytics and reporting. It is not only about the readiness of the document but also about user feedback. They can vote if your SOP is useful and leave comments. It is an amazing opportunity to track soft spots and improve them.
  • Ability to use infographics, videos, flowcharts, diagrams, etc. ClickHelp allows using interactive content. We have great posts about that - Using Diagrams in IT Documentation: Best Practices, Latest Tips on Using Video Content in Technical Documentation.
  • Available information. Using online documentation tools allows you to create documentation that is available 24/7 from any place: you can use your laptop or smartphone to read it. What you need is the Internet.

MacBook on wooden table

Conclusion

Documenting daily routine and other business processes ensures that your team always has a reliable source of information at hand. Even the most talented or experienced employees are not as effective as when they have comprehensive guidelines. Some businesses benefit from using standard operating procedures templates: laboratories, IT companies, HR, restaurants, pharmaceutical companies, etc. What really matters is how to make the information accessible at any time and from any device.

Good luck with your technical writing!
ClickHelp Team
Author, host and deliver documentation across platforms and devices

 

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