7 steps to generate standard operating procedures for maximum buy-in

In the early 1990s, beer giant, SABMiller, (now part of AB InBev) regarded the development of ‘best operating procedures’ (BOPs), as the cornerstone of its world class manufacturing drive. The organization called this process of creating standard procedures ‘bopping’, and, even today, it is a key activity when the group takes over a new brewery. Defining and formulating a good set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be one of the first things you do if you’re striving for continuous improvement success.


Different operators will, very often, follow different operating procedures. This occurs because different operators have had different standard work experiences or have been taught incorrectly. For example, tampering with, or constantly adjusting machine settings, is often a major cause of quality problems. This type of deviation from the optimal set of steps is one of the main causes of inconsistent output quality.

Your organization will never truly improve if you don’t maintain a consistently high level of quality, which can be hard to achieve if your operations aren’t clearly defined. The solution is to carefully document and standardize the best or ideal operating procedure. Every operator should then be trained according to this procedure.

Standardized procedures not only ensure consistent product quality and equipment availability, but also ensure consistent and optimal cycle times and throughput rates. Furthermore, if everyone follows a standard process, product defects and costly rework can be prevented. Toyota refers to this process as 'standardized work' and it forms a key element of the Toyota Production System.

Formulating and writing an SOP can be quite a challenge, and it often takes several attempts to produce material that is truly instructive. But remember, a well-drafted SOP is not a static, one-time effort. It has life. It provides the baseline against which thoughtful and effective improvements can be planned and implemented.

The following seven steps will help you develop SOPs that will generate maximum buy-in from your workforce:

1. Identify outcomes

Standard operating procedures really come into their own when they are designed to achieve specific results. Decide what business goals will be achieved through better management with SOPs and how those goals will be measured. Several benchmarks exist in the industry to help measure quality and efficiency in particular areas.

2. Produce a first draft

There’s no right or wrong way to write an SOP. Whether you choose to use simple steps, hierarchical steps, or a flow chart, first make a detailed list of the steps in the order in which they are executed. A simple way to get started is to observe someone performing the process as it now exists and write down everything that the person does. The document should address the sequential steps, safety precautions, equipment to be used, and standards.

Name the SOP using descriptive action words. If the SOP is longer than 10 steps, consider breaking it up into sub-steps. Make sure to use highlighting, bold letters, or any other method to bring attention to key elements in the procedure.

3. Conduct SME reviews

Provide all subject matter experts with a copy of the draft SOP. These include operators, maintenance personnel, trainers, process engineers and production managers. Ask them to review and suggest changes that will make the process steps easier to understand or that will improve performance. Point out that their input is valued and that it will be used. Creating a sense of ownership and actively engaging your work teams will encourage buy-in and adherence to the SOPs.

4. Test the SOP

To be absolutely certain that a procedure is well written and performs as expected, have someone test the procedure by performing each step exactly as it is described. Another person unfamiliar with the process should also follow the procedure, together with the SOP writer. Observe whether the instructions are easy and logical for them to follow. The best SOP is one that accurately transfers the relevant information and facilitates compliance with reading and using the SOP.

5. Display where appropriate

Draw up a final draft of the procedure and display it in the appropriate locations, specifically on the production floor. A master SOP file should be kept in a central location for easy reference. It’s a good idea to have a detailed SOP for training purposes as well as a short one-page, visual summary which is displayed next to the machine for critical procedures. Creating a one-page flow chart of the procedure is also a good practice and can serve as a quick reference guide.

6. Train all employees

One of the last steps in the SOP writing process is often the most neglected. Train or retrain everyone as necessary to follow the procedure exactly. Even with very detailed steps, it is necessary to train all employees. An added bonus is that new employees, in particular, will get into the swing of things with less difficulty, which will boost productivity. They’ll also be able to receive input from their peers more easily, as everyone will be on the same page with regard to how certain things should be done.

7. Continuously review the SOP

A key contributing factor to the successful implementation of SOPs is operator ownership, the degree of which is often indicated by the extent to which operators make the effort to improve SOPs. If an operator (or anyone else) identifies an improvement opportunity, it must be conveyed to the team leader and production manager. The latter will then summon the same group of experts mentioned in step 3, allow the operator to present the proposal and take appropriate action.

Ensure at all times that the documentation controls are strictly adhered to and that changes to general SOPs are implemented in all relevant areas. Each SOP should be reviewed about three months after implementation and, thereafter, at least annually. In addition, the SOP should be reviewed when ‘near misses’ occur to identify ways of preventing their recurrence.

A common misconception about SOPs is that they restrict resourcefulness and make work monotonous. But it’s quite the opposite. Once SOPs are in place, you’ll most likely find that people are more inclined to share their input on the current state of affairs, and you’ll see more suggestions for improvements from employees across the board.

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