How we do it here - leveraging procedures
Best practice for developing how-to guides or Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)
Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs are how-to guides for repetitive work processes that will see you and your team getting more done in less time. Effective SOPs, clearly written by the people who do the job, for themselves or others who may follow, can leverage your power.
What problems can good SOPs address
The world in which our organisations are operating is changing rapidly, and comes in many forms. The all-pervasive rapidly advancing technology, and the multi-faceted consequences of the exponential growth in human numbers and having tipped from being mostly rural to urban dwellers, to name just two.
Increasing compliance obligations
There will be more government regulation in the future, whether we like it or not like. Leading futurist Daniel Burrus, has identified this as a ‘hard trend’ that isn’t about to go away.
We’ve seen it play out in response to covid, and as society and systems become more complex. Until we move from a culture characterised by a child level to an adult level of responsibility, we sill see more not less compliance obligation on organisations - which the staff in parental government departments find an easy target.
A recent article stated that The Health and Safety at Work Act (NZ) is increasing duties for everyone, and can involve penalties between $300k and $3million, along with a criminal record!
Staff turnover, knowledge leaks and training costs
It’s hard to replace experienced, skilled workers, but comprehensive well-written Operating Procedures ensure that your valuable business processes and knowledge, stay within your organisation. If the details of your business processes are stored in a key team member’s head, losing them can be disastrous at worst, or costly at least.
I was in conversation with a business owner recently, who was in the process of training a staff member in administrative duties for his office. This was the third person in quick succession, after his long time employee of 28 years left to retire. Unfortunately she held so much knowledge about how the operation worked, that was in her head and not documented.
SOPs are easy to do wrong 😔
So often a Standard Operating Procedure will get written up with good intentions, but then not be read or used. And if it does, unless it’s up to date and accurate can cause errors and build frustration. These are the worst kind of boring, rigid printed or even scribbled documents. Or maybe a bunch of disparate digital files strewn across Google or Word documents and PDFs, buried in folders across desktop or cloud filing systems.
What makes a good SOP
I’m going to assume we are on the same page here and thinking digital documentation, that can be accessed from anywhere.
Complex multi step tasks often need to be completed on a computer, but perhaps only once a month. If these tasks rely on memory to be completed consistently, it can be stressful and lead to procrastination, but putting them off in favour of doing something easier just builds a sense of failure.
On the other hand, a good SOP is an informative, helpful and even an entertaining set of instructions, formatted and designed to enhance its readability.
Along with clarifying text, it will often contain contain multi-media in the form of images, video and even audio. When a video needs to be viewed it should be possible within the page, without having to duck out and over to YouTube and risk getting distracted.
A good Standard Operating Procedure should:
Be accurate and up to date
Reduce the time taken to perform the task
Produce consistent, reliable results
Improve the new hire training experience
Let you capture the workflow of your star performers - for others to emulate
Taking summary sales data for the previous month, and loading it into a complex sales forecast spreadsheet. There were literally dozens of steps required, and the first few times I did it, the entire process took me almost an hour to complete. I didn’t look forward to it.
I knew I needed to document the procedure. So the following month, while I did the process, I built a comprehensive page describing the steps and adding screen shots and hierarchical instructions that went into deeper and deeper detail. I tested it the following month and refined it a little. From then on I didn’t have to remember any of it. It was out of my head and into a system I could trust.
From then on it would take me 15 minutes to complete.
That’s 45 minutes a month, or 9 hours a year on just one task.
In addition the benefit to the organisation was massive. The sales and marketing team could build out their forecasts based on accurate detailed knowledge of the most recent sales information across multiple countries, regions, categories and products.
And when I’m ready to pass it on to someone else, it will be a walk in the park.
After, or maybe even before you’ve written your first one, it’s worth considering where the next ones will go. As you begin to experience the benefits, how do you want to organise what will begin to grow into a valuable ‘library’.
Ideally they should be held in flexible, inter-connected collections for ease of navigation and access, making it simple for team members to access the know-how they need, on desktop or mobile, in the moment they’re performing the task.
This will allow everyone to enjoy more predictability in their roles, as they refine their skills on each task and raise their overall performance.
If you ever wonder about the power of operating manuals, look no further than McDonald’s, that has now grown to 38,000 locations across 100 countries!
I remember as a young man meeting up with the manager of McDonald’s NZ head office. He proudly showed me the library of books, that made up their operating manual, copies of which would be given to each new franchisee. It was a massive collection of substantial hard bound books with fine print instructions dotted with photos.
Though you may not aspire to global domination like this, each part of your operation that you can document and pass on to other people to perform to a high standard, contributes to the future proofing of your business.
It will bring consistency to the delivery of products and services, allow you to scale, and maybe one day tell a prospective buyer of your business, “This is how we do it here.”
The how-to for SOPs
This article by the LUCID team is an excellent guide, but here are the main points:
Step 1: Begin with the end in mind
What is the outcome or goal of this process you are about to document?
Step 2: Choose a format
Step by step - using multiple content types such as words, images, video
Hierarchical - Notion does this exceptionally well with its toggle headings
Flow charts - to map out and plan procedures that include many possible outcomes
Step 3: Ask for input
The people who perform the task are the best ones to document it
Step 4: Define the scope
One SOP may need to reference and be linked to one or more other SOPs
Step 5: Identify your audience
Prior knowledge and familiarity with organisation, industry and terminology
Who will be using this SOP
Step 6: Write the SOP
Table of contents
Specific procedure / steps
Step 7: Review, test, edit [repeat]
Check the wording for grammar and coherence
Have people test it methodically, following it exactly
Schedule a review on a calendar that will pop up a reminder
Outdated procedures can often result in them being overlooked, so SOP’s need to be frequently reviewed.
The easiest way to review a SOP is to follow the steps exactly as described and see if they work, or the descriptions need to be edited.
New hires are ideal for testing the effectiveness of SOPs. If the documented steps enable the new employee to complete the task without help, the procedure is sound. If any steps are unclear, confusing or no longer in use, the SOP should be updated. Simple!
Writing SOPs in CORA
Toggle headings allow the details to be collapsed and leave just the key big steps or phases of a procedure.
Initially you will expand every section and follow it pedantically, in order to test that it truly works even if the person following it has no prior knowledge of the procedure.
Then as time goes on, even if there are weeks between doing the task, it will be possible to reference the headings, while knowing that a single click will expand and display the details if they are not absolutely clear and the user needs a refresher.
Virtually any type of content can be included in a Notion page - from text, headings, bullet points and numbered lists, images (screenshots are often helpful), videos, audio files, Figma files (think, build your own flow charts), and much more.
Notion automatically tracks changes, so you can restore an earlier version (or see the changes) if the editing has caused the SOP to no longer work.
SOP pages can be stored as records in a SOPs database, and these pages can be displayed anywhere, in Job Role or Policy pages, and can be linked, but always up to date in all locations whenever an edit is made in any location.
Pages can be shared with people within, or outside an organisation, which can be helpful in collaborations outside your organisation.
Start with one. Chances are you’ll know which one if you don’t think about it too long. Document it, use it, refine it. Then start thinking about the next one.
All the best on your journey of discovery.