By Josh Keegan, Owner/Director Keegan Consulting Group
I have worked for numerous organisations over the years in both the public and private sectors. I have also worked for businesses that vary in size from the very small to multi-nationals. With all of this wide-ranging experience, I have found one thing systemic impeding overall productivity – lack of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s as I like to call them as it saves me time trying to type it out).
For those not in the know (and I know I am covering my bases), SOP’s are a baseline which all staff can use on a daily basis when completing tasks – it is a list of instructions on how to do something, usually listed in numerical order. Any search performed on SOP’s will uncover a plethora of information you can refer to and usually they are of best use in the manufacturing industry to prescribe use of machinery. The task, or work, can be almost anything and the SOP is primarily used to align ways of working to maximise efficiency within any organisation especially those with disparate processes. I would like everyone to note at this point that I said they are used as a baseline. I have been in a number of situations where an SOP cannot be used and where a process is so complex that writing an SOP for it would induce carpel tunnel syndrome. I will also advocate that they cannot and should not be used for every single process. However when an organisation has SOP’s documented, albeit even only partially, it provides a common way of working without major variations that typically take up time (and money).
Let me give you an example taken from a project I was worked on a while ago where I was able to use SOP’s to best advantage. The particular organisation in question had many offices all of which were geographically diverse. In each office for administrative tasks, all had a unique way of completing each task that did not match any other office. This was completely understandable as each office was isolated and as such they relied upon information from the previous incumbent as a basis for them to complete what they needed to do. In many instances, to the previous incumbent’s credit, instructions would be left behind either on paper (which would be lost or out of date by the time it was written) or left as a file (typically left in a location only IT would be able to find). Subsequently, any training on how to do things differently and frequently more efficiently, often was lost as staff reverted to their own knowledge and resourcefulness to complete the required task. Frequently, this situation would come about due to the urgency or nature of a request and any training provided would simply be abandoned for being too complex, or because it did not cover what the staff member was attempting to do. Of course, part of my recommendation to management was to suggest SOP’s as a resolution to the issues of disparate processes (like any project, this was simply one of many). At a senior leadership meeting, I was asked what would be a best “guesstimate” of what I thought the potential benefit would be in terms of productivity gains should SOP’s introduced. Based on my background and experiences, I was able to make a judgement call that the potential productivity gains would be in the order of around 60% with me couching it as a best case scenario.
Due to the scale of the overall project, I delegated standardising procedures and reviewed the overall outcome once the rest of the project was delivered (pretty standard really). Upon review, I was astounded to find that overall productivity had gone far beyond my meagre 60% “guesstimate” and had jumped to a whopping 90% measured increase in productivity.
The introduction of SOP’s is an easy way for organisations to quickly achieve productivity and efficiency gains and from this experience and others, I would highly recommend it as the empirical evidence suggests that at least with routine tasks, efficiencies can be gained. To help out, I have put together a list of what to do:
1. Identify tasks repetitive tasks that could benefit from having an SOP.
Repetitive tasks are usually the best place to start to gain efficiency from having SOP’s. Once you have identified those, the challenge is to examine your organisation to see if there are others that could potentially benefit from having an SOP.
2. Let a subject matter expert (SME) create the SOP for but a particular task or set of tasks.
An SME knows and understands the process and knows the correct way to complete it. Have them document the process and frame it so they understand if there is a better way of completing the task/job then now is the time to put it into the SOP. This also has the benefit of starting the organisation down the path of continuous improvement.
3. Have an established, well liked and motivated SME document the SOP.
An SME who is well liked and well-motivated means that your SME will complete the task given to them as well as help smooth over any difficulties when the finalised SOP is introduced. This person is now your change champion – after all they will support the new process especially if they wrote it.
4. All SOP’s need to be kept in a centralised repository.
It almost goes without saying, but all SOP’s need to be kept in a location that is easily located by all staff, including management. SharePoint can be a great tool for an organisation however one location on a shared drive also works just as well.
5. Communicate about the SOP’s.
When embarking on creating or updating SOP’s, communicate this to all staff including the executive. Volunteers and people willing to both document and improve the process will usually make themselves known. It is a chance for them to influence others in the organisation as well as adds something to their resume.
6. Have regular releases for the SOP’s.
There is nothing worse than keeping back a new way of working until it is all finished. Unless there are very good reasons for withholding the SOP’s from staff, release them as they are completed. If the SOP means it will take less time, then why not start making employees lives easier? Having regular releases allows for quick-wins to be gained early allowing the executive see the benefits gained.
7. SOP’s need to be living documents.
SOP’s need to be checked at least annually to ensure the process is still valid and works. Even better is to allow for continual updates to the “finalised” SOP’s allowing for errors to be corrected and better ways of working can be placed in immediately for the benefit of everyone.
8. Don’t over-complicate it.
Make it easy for everyone to read. The idea is for someone new to be able to read, and more importantly understand the SOP. My tip is to give the SOP to someone unfamiliar with the process you are attempting to document to see if they can follow what has been described. If they can, great! If they can’t, ask them what’s wrong with it – I have found the person you have asked to review the SOP, frequently are able to offer very useful insights into what’s wrong with the SOP (also links back to Point 7).