Imagine you manage a restaurant and a new employee starts. You begin their first day by asking them to clean up all the cutting boards and cooking utensils in the kitchen. That may sound like a simple task, but as any food services professional will tell you, there’s a specific process to cleaning any food contact surfaces. By sending your new employee in blind, you’re risking your customers’ health, and you could fail your next health inspection. Worst of all, you could’ve eliminated those risks if you’d taken the time to write a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
An SOP is a detailed set of step-by-step instructions that tell employees how to complete a routine task. You need an SOP not just for things that can affect health and safety (though they’re especially important in those cases), but for any job employees need to perform on a regular basis. Otherwise, you wind up with inconsistent results and constant questions from your employees. SOPs give everyone the direction they need to complete their day-to-day tasks as efficiently as possible.
If you’ve never encountered an SOP, much less created aone yourself, it can sound daunting to describe every job function down to the last detail. But it’s actually not that complicated. Below, we’re going to explain what a good SOP needs to accomplish and show you how to build your own.
Why SOPs are so valuable
First and foremost, SOPs give your business predictability and efficiency. If everyone knows exactly how each job is meant to be done, you can expect uniformity in results, time to completion, and amount of supplies used. That makes it easier to budget time, minimize waste, and evaluate employee performance.
You also save time as a manager when employees have tried-and-true workflows they can hand off to each other as needed. SOPs serve as ongoing training manuals for staff to refer to when they forget how to do something, instead of asking you to explain it multiple times. That also comes in handy if someone switches jobs or has to fill in for an absent team member.
SOPs also give your business greater accountability and risk control. If someone skips a step on the SOP and something goes wrong, there are no excuses they can hide behind. That’s not to say the SOP is a tool to help you punish or blame your staff. But for a struggling employee to improve their performance, they need to first acknowledge they’re making mistakes. The SOP leaves no room to shirk the blame -- they either followed it or they didn’t. And if someone follows all the steps on the SOP and runs into an unforeseen problem, guess what? You can just update it for next time. That’s the beauty of the SOP -- it’s a living, breathing document that evolves as you and your team learn.
SOPs are especially crucial for tasks with health or safety implications. You need to reduce the risk of these jobs as much as possible, and a set of clear instructions can show employees how to do them safely. But a less obvious benefit of the SOP is that it can reduce your business’ legal liability for certain incidents that occur. If an employee causes harm to themselves or someone else while working for you, but you can prove they were trained properly -- and in accordance with relevant laws and regulations -- there’s a better chance your business won’t be held liable. The SOP can serve as written proof that your training was up to snuff.
Questions to answer before writing your SOP
Before you start writing up an SOP, you need to answer a few questions about your business:
Are you the right person to write an SOP for this task? This question comes down to how much you know about the process in question. Do you know all of the steps? How it could go wrong? How to make it safe? If not, you may be better off consulting someone else. The SOP needs to be as thorough and accurate as possible in order to serve its purpose, so be sure to ask for help from employees who are already completing this task on a regular basis. Interviews are a normal part of the SOP-writing process.
How many staff roles are involved? If your SOP is describing a process that involves more than one person -- especially if those people are in different roles -- you need to make it crystal clear who exactly is doing what by assigning each step to a specific person.
Do you need this in multiple languages? According to a U.S. Department of Labor report, foreign-born workers make up 16.9% of the total labor force. So, there’s a good chance that some of the people using your SOP won’t be native English speakers. If that’s the case, you may want to have your SOPs translated into multiple languages and incorporate annotated diagrams where applicable.
Answering these questions helps ensure that your SOP is as useful as possible to as many people as possible.
What to include in your SOP
Each of the following components should get its own specific section in the SOP to ensure employees have everything they need to complete the task:
Purpose and scope. Describe the purpose of the process, its limits, and how it's used. Outline the key roles and responsibilities for each part of the operation. Employees should be able to read this section and know the goals of the task at hand and who’s responsible for each one.
Terminology definitions. In this section, define any acronyms, abbreviations, or phrases that aren't in common parlance.
Procedures. This is the meat of the document, where you list all the steps with necessary details. In addition to the steps, you should also cover any equipment, troubleshooting procedures, and safety considerations where relevant.
Health and safety rules and warnings. Not everyone includes a dedicated section on this, but we would recommend giving safety considerations their own dedicated section in addition to mentioning them in the steps themselves.
Equipment and supplies. You should also provide a complete list of what equipment employees need for this task, what they’ll use it for, and where to find it.
Precautions and troubleshooting. Discuss any common issues and provide solutions for when things go wrong.
Here’s an example of a great SOP from FEED Kitchens of Madison, Wisconsin on the task we used in our hypothetical earlier: Cleaning and sanitizing food contact services. FEED is a public organization that rents out commercial kitchens to non-profits and individuals lacking access to such facilities, and they have several other food services-related SOPs you can peruse.