How to Write an SOP

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are critical to your organization’s productivity, consistency, and quality control. Standard operating procedures are also essential to your organization’s safety conditions, regulatory compliance, and risk management. In short, SOPs are vital to all aspects of operational continuity and success. 

But what exactly are standard operating procedures? What goes into writing an effective SOP? Below, we’ll take a deep dive into standard operating procedures, including a detailed guide on how to write an SOP. We’ll also take a look at industry best practices for developing effective SOPs, some of the challenges you’ll likely face during implementation, and the role that maintenance management software can play in helping your organization overcome these challenges.  

What is a standard operating procedure

A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a step-by-step guide for completing a routine process. The purpose of SOPs is to help workers carry out specific tasks that require uniformity, accountability, and efficiency. 

Whereas an organization’s processes outline what needs to be done, an organization’s procedures detail exactly how to do it. SOP documents are a valuable resource for ensuring that tasks are completed accurately, in compliance with current regulations, and consistent with industry best practices.

The organizational role of effective standard operating procedures

SOPs play some important roles in organizations including:

  • Quality control, ensuring that tasks are performed consistently, correctly, and in alignment with industry best practices
  • Training and onboarding, serving as educational material for new employees and as reference material for current employees
  • Compliance support, helping organizations align with regulatory requirements and avoid the fines, penalties, and operational disruptions that may be triggered by non-compliance
  • Better accountability, establishing responsibilities, setting expectations, and delegating tasks to personnel with the proper training and areas of specialization
  • Greater efficiency, providing clear workflows, streamlining processes, reducing time to completion, and allocating resources with greater precision

Different types of SOP documents

There’s more than one method for writing SOPs. The right SOP format may vary from one task type to another, or you may choose to leverage and combine several formats to clarify the procedures surrounding a more complex task.

Common SOP formats include:

  • Step-by-step instructions, providing a start-to-finish manual on task completion.
  • Hierarchical steps, in which an outline is used to break more complicated steps down into detailed sub-steps.
  • Flowcharts, in which visual representations are used to illustrate steps, simplify complex procedures, and express multiple decision points.
  • Checklists, in which all individual action items are listed in an easy-to-read and logical sequence.
  • Hybrid SOPs, combining numerous different formats. 

Which industries use SOPs?

In addition to the general roles outlined in the section above, SOPs play specific roles in a variety of industries. For example:

  • Manufacturing organizations use SOPs to provide detailed steps on operating machinery safely, inspecting products for quality assurance, and scheduling routine preventive maintenance activities.
  • Healthcare organizations use SOPs to define protocols for patient admission, treatment, and discharge; to delineate the steps for handling emergency procedures; and to communicate guidelines for preventing the spread of infectious disease.
  • Hospitality organizations use SOPs to streamline procedures for handling guest check-in and check-out, standards for thorough housekeeping, and guidelines for handling food.
  • Construction organizations use SOPs to inform guidelines for safety on construction sites, procedures for the use of heavy construction equipment, and detailed project management procedures including steps for planning, executing, and closing construction projects.
  • Information Technology organizations use SOPs to inform testing protocols in software development; procedures for data encryption; and guidelines for regular system maintenance.

What should you include in an SOP

Your industry and the nature of your business will inform your approach to writing SOPs. Much of what is included in your SOP will depend on the equipment you use and the processes you employ. There are, however, several common elements that should be included in any comprehensive SOP document

Below, we outline a few of the elements that are typically included in a standard operating procedure document.

  • A Title Page with a date of creation, document author(s), and a unique SOP number to facilitate tracking and analysis
  • A Table of Contents with a navigable index of the sections and subsections included 
  • A Statement of Purpose, including a brief explanation of the procedure, its scope, and intended objectives
  • An index of key terms, abbreviations, and acronyms to help readers interpret the document 
  • Delegation of responsibilities, identifying the roles of individual team members and subject matter experts responsible for carrying out specified procedures
  • Procedural steps, including detailed, clear, and concise step-by-step instructions on how to perform the task, as well as a checklist of materials, tools, or equipment required to complete the procedure
  • Visual aids, including any diagrams, flowcharts, or photographs that might simplify and clarify the procedure
  • Safety measures, including any procedural precautions that must be taken to reduce risks, manage potential hazards, protect personnel, and use equipment properly
  • Documentation, including forms that must be completed as part of the procedure, and guidelines for how records should be maintained, stored, and accessed

Why are standard operating procedures important? 

Standard operating procedures are important for a variety of reasons including alignment with best practices, preservation of organizational knowledge, and quality assurance (QA). Without SOPs, organizations may face an increased risk of human error, a heightened susceptibility to regulatory non-compliance, an inconsistent training regimen, an absence of accountability, and diminished quality control.

These risks underscore the purpose of developing clear and detailed SOPs. SOPs are essential for ensuring that routine operations are carried out accurately, consistently, and in compliance with industry standards and regulations.

Key benefits of SOPs include: 

  • Adherence to best practices, with SOPs codifying proven strategies, procedures, and industry standards 
  • Preservation of organizational knowledge, with SOPs capturing critical processes, preserving them within the organization, and making this knowledge accessible to current and future members of the team
  • Quality Assurance (QA), with SOPs ensuring that products and services meet predefined standards for quality and consistency 
  • Safety and compliance, with SOPs dictating workplace safety protocols and reducing the occurrence of accidents, injuries, and penalties
  • Communication and collaboration, with SOPs providing clear and streamlined instructions to relevant personnel across departments and throughout the organization

Standard operating procedures in maintenance

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are important to organizations at large. They play a particularly crucial role, however, for maintenance teams. Maintenance work often involves complex tasks, critical assets, and specialized safety protocols. Standard operating procedures make it possible to balance these important considerations and make strategic, cost-effective decisions. 

Among the important functions they serve for maintenance teams, SOPs:

  • Provide clear guidelines for the safe, accurate, and effective completion of maintenance tasks, including repairs, inspections, and upkeep
  • Identify risks and minimize the likely impact of potential safety, health, and environmental hazards 
  • Ensure consistency and uniformity in the performance of maintenance tasks
  • Capture industry best practices and codify these practices for future maintenance team members
  • Support compliance by providing actionable guidelines for adhering to industry regulations and standards
  • Provide documentation and audit trail demonstrating compliance with regulatory standards
  • Facilitate planning of routine maintenance tasks and support preventive maintenance scheduling
  • Allocate resources by identifying the tools, parts, and materials required for the completion of maintenance tasks and ensuring that these resources are used correctly
  • Incorporate manufacturer recommendations to extend the expected useful life of your equipment and reduce the likelihood of unexpected failures
  • Streamline the repair process to ensure tasks are performed proactively, promptly, and correctly, and to minimize downtime and operational disruption 

How to write an SOP

Below, we provide simple steps for writing a standard operating procedure that you can implement for your organization and optimize business processes

Step 1: Define your objectives

What is the primary purpose of the SOP? Identify the objectives you aim to achieve, the scope of the SOP, and the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure your outcomes.

Step 2: Assemble your team 

Build a team of contributors that includes process engineers, maintenance technicians, and other relevant stakeholders. Delegate roles in both the development and implementation of SOPs. Build accountability into the process from the very start.

Step 3: Gather information

Begin by documenting your organization’s current procedures. Measure these against industry best practices, regulatory standards, and your internal objectives. Use your findings to inform the replacement, revision, or updating of current procedures. 

Step 4: Outline your SOP document

Create a well-structured and logically sequenced outline of your intended SOP document. As we noted earlier in this guide, the following sections are commonly included in a basic standard operating procedure document:

  • Title Page
  • Table of Contents
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Key terms
  • Delegation of responsibilities
  • Procedural steps
  • Visual aids
  • Safety measures 
  • Required documentation.

The specific nature of your operation, processes, and equipment may lead you to include additional sections. But you can use the outline sections bulleted above as a starting point before customizing your SOP to your own needs.

Step 5: Write your new procedure

Fill in the outline with corresponding information. This should include clear, concise, and detailed step-by-step instructions, technical specifications, relevant visual aids such as diagrams and flowcharts, and identification of the tools, materials, or equipment needed to perform the procedure.

Step 7: Test and revise your procedure

Implement a pilot test in a controlled environment, preferably one that effectively simulates real-world conditions. Identify issues or gaps in your procedure, gather feedback from relevant stakeholders, and make necessary revisions to your SOP.

Step 8: Implement the SOP

Once you’ve finalized the content of your SOP, begin implementation by introducing it to relevant team members. This communication should include details on how to access SOPs. Access will be an important part of implementation, and in many cases, organizations will enlist the support of Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS) to facilitate both communication and access. 

Step 9: Train employees

In addition to access, employees must be given clear instructions on how to execute newly codified procedures. Conduct training sessions, provide opportunities for hands-on practice, and use practical demonstrations to assess how well employees understand new SOPs. Make SOP training a part of the onboarding process for new employees as well.

Step 10: Monitor, evaluate, and update

Conduct ongoing monitoring as well as regularly scheduled reviews to evaluate the effectiveness of new SOPs. Establish a feedback loop and encourage employees to share their experiences. Use your findings to identify opportunities for continuous improvement. Periodically revise or update standard operating procedures accordingly.

Writing an SOP: Best practices

Incorporating proven best practices into this process can improve your outcomes and reduce the need for revisions. 

  • Incorporate the right people in your process including technical experts, facilities managers, and the technicians or end users who will carry out procedures.
  • Seek cross-functional input, gathering insights and knowledge from all departments that will be impacted by SOPs including production teams, maintenance personnel, supply chain managers, etc. 
  • Keep SOPs simple by using accessible terminology and plain English, as well as including a glossary and laying out procedural steps and substeps in a logical sequence.
  • Use standardized templates and a uniform structure to ensure that SOPs are recognizable and easily used by relevant personnel.
  • Include visual aids such as diagrams, flowcharts, and photographs to clarify complex steps or procedures.
  • Ensure accessibility for all impacted employees by publishing SOPs both in traditional print manual form and through a widely accessible digital maintenance management platform.
  • Conduct regular compliance checks and monitor key performance metrics to ensure that SOPs are being followed correctly and achieving their intended outcomes.
  • Pursue continuous improvement by encouraging employees to provide ongoing feedback, incorporating industry best practices as they evolve, remaining attuned to compliance requirements as they shift, and folding new knowledge into existing SOPs as it becomes available.

Writing an SOP: Challenges

As you’re writing a standard operating procedure, you may face a few common hurdles. Depending on the nature of the task in question, some aspects of your SOP may be complicated.

  • Insufficient detail and unclear instructions can lead to miscommunication, inaccuracy, and human error. Be sure to provide steps that are clear and concise, but also detailed and thorough. 
  • Unneeded complexity and excessive length can be overwhelming and difficult for end users to follow. Keep your SOPs short and break down the most complex steps into smaller and more manageable processes.
  • Employee resistance can slow, disrupt, or even derail the implementation of SOPs. Be sure to provide ongoing communication and comprehensive training to reduce internal pushback.
  • Insufficient resources–including capital, tools, materials, and personnel–can make it difficult to implement certain SOPs. Preempt this outcome with forward-looking task scheduling, streamlined inventory management, and thoughtful distribution of labor. 
  • Inadequate pilot testing can obscure inefficiencies and flaws in your standard operating procedure. Be thorough in your testing phase, gather feedback from actual stakeholders and end users, and revise your procedures based on these findings. 
  • Outdated procedures can lead to inefficiencies, equipment breakdowns, process failures, safety risks, and compliance issues. Conduct regularly scheduled reviews of SOPs and update them as operational conditions shift, industry best practices evolve, new knowledge becomes available, or new regulations are introduced.
  • Poor documentation and inefficient record-keeping can lead to gaps in information, obscure accountability, and magnify the risk of regulatory non-compliance. Make sure to include steps and details in your SOPs instructing on effective documentation and consistent record-keeping procedures. 
  • Generic SOPs–such as those informed solely by manufacturer recommendations, industry standards, or regulatory conditions–may not provide the most effective or efficient guidelines for your specific operation. Be sure to incorporate aspects of each of the above-mentioned sources into your SOPs while also customizing the details of your SOPs to your organization’s specific processes, equipment, and resources.
  • Limited accessibility can undermine the value of your SOPs and prevent stakeholders from leveraging them correctly. Use a combination of printed manuals, digital platforms, and multichannel communication to ensure that all impacted employees know where to locate and how to use SOPs

Maintenance software and SOPs

The right CMMS can support the creation, simplify the implementation, and streamline the management of standard operating procedures (SOPs), especially as they apply to maintenance processes.

Below, we describe some of the ways that digital maintenance management solutions like CMMS platforms can support SOP creation and management:

  • Centralized documentation creates a single repository for storing SOP documents, creating updated iterations, avoiding the use of outdated procedures, and ensuring easy access for all relevant personnel across the organization.
  • Task scheduling features can improve inventory management, resource allocation, and labor distribution for recurring and emergency tasks.
  • Automated work order generation can be tailored to correspond with your maintenance schedule and SOPs
  • Template integration features let you incorporate customized SOP templates directly into this automated work order management process.
  • Digital checklists make it possible to simplify steps and substeps within your SOPs
  • Training modules can be tailored to incorporate SOPs both as part of continuing training and onboarding for new hires. 
  • Compliance tracking makes it easier to ensure that your SOPs are aligned with current safety standards, regulatory conditions, documentation requirements, and audit schedules.
  • Mobile access ensures that maintenance personnel can view and use SOPs in real time from anywhere within or beyond your organization’s facilities. 
  • Performance monitoring, advanced data analytics, and comprehensive reporting tools make it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of your SOPs, identify gaps or inefficiencies in the process, and revise SOPs accordingly.
  • User feedback loops make it possible to capture input from personnel, incorporate feedback into ongoing process improvements, and document related updates.  

In short, a CMMS platform like Limble can significantly lighten the burden of SOP implementation and improve the likelihood that the resulting procedural changes are effective.

Getting started: download our standard operating procedure template

Limble’s leading-edge CMMS offers a full suite of tools to help you develop, integrate, implement, and manage Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). We also provide some basic tools to help you get started. 

To create and customize your own well-structured and easy-to-follow standard operating procedures, check out our free and user-friendly SOP template and get started today.  

Download our Standard Operating Procedure Template!

Standardize your procedures to achieve consistency and uniformity. Use this template to create your own.

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