Standard Operating Procedure: The secret to a fail-proof SOP
No one is going to claim that McDonald’s makes the world’s best burger. Why then can it sell $50 million burgers a day? Because it can deliver the same burger everywhere, every time. That is the magic of a standard operating procedure (SOP), and it works in any company where it is used correctly.
In this article, you will learn:
What is a standard operating procedure?
What are the benefits of an SOP?
Why do so many departments fail to get value out of SOPs?
The one thing that will virtually guarantee your success.
What are other common SOP formats?
How would your department grow if your team executed every task with precision and speed? Whether you’re working in a small business or a huge enterprise, keep reading to find out how to bring that vision to life.
What is a standard operating procedure?
A standard operating procedure (SOP) is an official document with detailed instructions that outline how to perform a specific task.
Organizations use it to help their staff do consistent work.
For when the rubber meets the road
A standard operating procedure lets your team know exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
This isn’t a high-level procedural document. The SOP addresses the nuts and bolts (sometimes literally) of the job with specific steps that leave little to no room for interpretation or error.
Who uses standard operating procedures?
SOPs can be used in any vertical. They are especially important for businesses with tasks that are done over and over again. In those cases, streamlining results in lower costs and higher output. Standard operating procedures are common in:
You should seriously consider creating SOPs for specific procedures before growing your business if you want to maintain high quality.
The benefits of standard operating procedures
Avoid stupid mistakes
Left to their own devices, there is very little chance that your crew will complete a task the same way you would. Define the “right” wayto do everything and get every employee working like your best employee.
Get ahead of the curve
SOPs orient teams toward preventing problems rather than reacting to them. They make sure nothing falls between the cracks.
Standard operating procedures are a natural quality management system that ensure your team’s work is up to par every time. This helps you avoid delays and re-doing work.
Get everyone on the same page
Miscommunication can happen in two ways:
The person talking might use the wrong words.
The person listening might misunderstand.
That means that simply providing a single, vetted source of information could reduce errors by as much as half. That adds up to huge savings in time and resources.
Cover your ass
Even in well-run facilities, something will go wrong. Keep the blame from falling on you by proving that you have SOPs — and that those SOPs are followed. It also protects the whole company from fines and litigation.
Most importantly, giving your team all the information they need in a detailed SOP prevents accidents from happening in the first place. That leads us to our next point.
Leave nothing to chance
It’s easy to forget to mention details when assigning tasks on busy days. That becomes a big deal when those details are health warnings, safety measures or environmental hazards.
To ensure you remember every relevant detail every time, SOPs are how you write them down once and easily attach them to assignments.
Give better training
With standard operating procedures, you can start onboarding new employees to their jobs in an orderly way. Since the SOPs are at their fingertips at all times, new hires can work independently sooner, freeing up experienced professionals to focus on their own workloads.
Do more with less
Right now, your employees are wasting time tracking down the same information again and again. Instead, your team can direct that energy toward getting the job done. By providing assignments with full, detailed instructions, standardization frees up resources.
When all employees start to do the same work the same way, they are sure to think of ways it could be better, and they will let you know. If you don’t have this experiment mindset, that can sound like complaining. Instead, if you have an easy way to act on their suggestions, you can direct that energy toward something positive. Often, these small changes add up fast.
A department without standard operating procedures finds itself in big trouble the day key employees quit or retire, or even go on vacation. The team is more flexible when everyone’s know how is in one place (commonly referred to as a “single source of truth.”) They can cross-train and adapt regardless of what changes.
Regulatory compliance for dummies
The most important instructions of all are the law. If regulations are misunderstood or disobeyed, it could spell catastrophe for the entire company. SOPs ensure every employee knows they need to comply and how to comply.
Make a name for yourself
Managers who are efficient and effective lead departments that can grow without growing pains. Good companies entrust them with better opportunities. You are in a strong position for moving up the ladder when your daily operations are known and reliable.
SOPs set your team members up for success.
Expectations: They understand exactly what they are expected to do.
Support: They know where to find the resources they need.
Acknowledgement: You hear and act on their requests and recommendations for improvement.
Independence: You have no need to micromanage.
Impact: They see their work moving the department forward rather than being wasted.
Why do some departments fail to get value from their standard operating procedures?
At this point, you may be thinking, “If we can get better work done faster with fewer errors, accidents and risks, why aren’t we using standard operating procedures already?!”
Great question! SOPs are invaluable tools, but just like any tool, you can use them incorrectly. Here are the common mistakes that keep teams from unlocking that value:
This is the single biggest reason most teams fail. They are too busy doing the work and have no time to document it, despite how much simpler it would make their job in the long-run. Ultimately, urgent, short-term needs get in the way of long-term planning.
Don’t be discouraged, though. In the example below, we’ll show you how to work SOP writing into your management routine.
SOPs do create some additional work: You have to maintain them. Incorrect, incomplete or outdated instructions are not much better than having no instructions at all.
Wrong time, wrong place
Even perfect instructions do no good if they aren’t available. Too often, well-written SOPs end up in a binder in the office while the workers who need them are out in the field. Putting the SOP into a physical form makes it difficult to have it at the right place at the right time. The department may not benefit from the effort of creating it.
A pain to use
If your SOP isn’t easy to use, it won’t be used at all. SOPs must be formatted in a way that makes using them easy — even enjoyable.
If the instructions are written out, they may need a clear table of contents, color-coded tabs, and lots of headings, subheading and bullet points.
You can also build the SOPs into the workplace itself. For example:
On checklists, add QR codes that link to websites with helpful information.
In fact, this principle of integration is so important that you will find it plays a key role in creating a fail-proof SOP. We go into great depth on this below.
Lack of accountability on the ground
It takes energy to change habits, and people will usually only do it if they know there will be consequences. Every SOP should include a section that explains how and when to evaluate the work relative to the SOP.
Lack of buy-in from management
For employees to take standard operating procedures seriously, you must ensure that the SOP is, in fact, the measuring stick that management uses when evaluating work. If management’s expectations of a job well done do not align with the contents of the SOP, that means one of two things:
Fortunately, handing management a well-written SOP makes it easier for them to default to it as their evaluation tool of choice rather than creating their own.
Set in stone
Your department’s needs are constantly changing. If you wrote the standard operating procedure in a way that requires a lot of effort to update, you may have created more work than you saved.
Examples of inflexible SOPs include:
Physical copies: Printed pages that have to be tracked down and swapped out
Page formatting: Completely full, dense content where adding information to one page will affect the layout on all the following pages (as opposed to replacing a single page)
Content formatting: “Wall of text” verbiage (as opposed to graphical — more on this later) that makes small changes hard to see
Unannounced: Any change that is not also announced and trained for in meetings
Going by memory: Procedures that don’t have to be looked at when executing the work (making it easy to miss new information)
Don’t worry, there’s good news!
Don’t be discouraged! Knowing all the ways a standard operating procedure can fall short means you can stop the problems before they start.
How to create a fail-proof standard operating procedure
There are three things that will make a standard operating procedure virtually bulletproof: Make your SOP digital, interactive and integrated.
Building and updating SOPs is faster and easier on a digital platform.
Updates push out to all team members in real-time.
Multimedia instructions use text, images and even video, along with one-click links to other helpful content.
Make your SOP and your checklist one in the same.
Have team members check off each step as they complete it.
All information for that step is in front of them as they do the work.
Create an SOP that does the work for you.
Automatic notifications alert team members of procedure updates and outstanding tasks.
Team members input data into the standard operating procedure itself which triggers additional steps as needed.
Automatically generate reports of work done. Track performance, downtime, inventory and more.
In short, your standard operating procedure will no longer look like a manual. It will become the tool your team uses on a daily basis to know where to be, when to be there, what to do and how to do it.
See it in action: Standard operating procedure example
In this example, a maintenance manager — let’s call him Joe — is responsible for his entire facility plus $2 million worth of manufacturing equipment. Joe needs to work with his team to fix the equipment as quickly as possible when it had problems because the company loses $200,000 of revenue every day the production line is down.
Even more importantly, Joe wants to extend the useful life of the equipment so it doesn’t have problems in the first place, and that requires regular preventive maintenance (PM). This could be anything from visual inspections to replacing filters and checking oil levels.
Getting set up
Joe is using Limble CMMS to hold all of his SOPs so that they will be digital, interactive and integrated. (Joe’s a smart guy.) Depending on how much time he has, Joe can either create all his SOPs at once, or he can start with just a few and add SOPs as the needs arise.
Setting up everything at once
Joe can start by listing each piece of equipment and attaching any helpful information (manuals, manufacturer contact info, notes, etc.)
For each piece of equipment, Joe can create SOPs for:
Routine maintenance (checklists, schedules, auto assignments, etc.)
Reporting problems (submission forms)
Assigning work (checklists, auto assignments, etc.)
If Joe is busy — let’s be honest, he probably is — then he can enter a piece of equipment and define its SOPs the next time an employee reports a problem. Limble becomes his new way of assigning tasks and tracking progress. But because he’s using Limble, a task he has created once can be used as the standard operating procedure from that day forward.
All Joe has to do to built his SOPs is select a data type (for example, maybe he wants the technician to upload a photo or mark the step done) and write the instruction for that step. Joe has all kinds of data types to choose from (which we’ll delve into below).
Standard operating procedure for routine maintenance
It turns out Joe is quite busy, so he started building the standard operating procedures for his machinery by entering just a few pieces of equipment into Limble. He created a couple of preventive maintenance SOPs for tasks that he knows tends to fall between the cracks. In this case, Joe’s team should complete each one once a month.
Standard operating procedure for reporting problems
Joe also wants the employees operating the machines to follow SOPs when reporting problems, so he created custom reporting forms in Limble for the pieces of equipment the operators call him about most often.
Unfortunately, it is common for the operators to submit reports that are vague or leave out important details. Now, Limble prompts them to include all of the required information.
Joe makes it easy for those operators to access the forms by printing Limble’s unique custom QR code taping them right on the operators’ control panel. Now, they scan it with their phones, answer a few questions and click to submit.
Always know the current work status
When Joe gets to the plant Thursday morning, he looks at the list of work to be completed that day, organized by the team member it was assigned to. Some of them completed all of their work the day before and have empty lists. Some team members have tasks that are still in progress. In a single glance, Joe can see who has which jobs, which equipment they’re working on, and the current status.
Automatic triggers and notifications do the work for you
Joe also sees that there is a new outstanding task: A quick inspection of the conveyor belt to see if anything looks worn or loose. Limble created this task based on the routine maintenance SOP Joe made because it has been exactly one month since his team last completed the checklist. In two clicks, Joe assigns the task to Rick.
In fact, Limble had created two tasks that morning, but when Joe originally made his second SOP — checking the drains for blockages — he had told Limble to automatically assign it to his team’s plumber. He could reassign it if needed, but because it was auto-assigned, even if Joe had been called away for an emergency that morning, the plumber would know to get the drain work done.
Everything at your fingertips
When Joe assigned the visual inspection task to Rick, Limble pinged Rick’s phone to let him know. When Rick clicked on the notification, it pulled up the full SOP and he headed straight to the machine.
If Rick gets called away for a moment, the SOP will be waiting for him in his Limble task list.
Multimedia standard operating procedure
Rick scrolls through the instructions in Limble and immediately knows what to do. That’s because Joe wrote out each step and included images of what each portion of the conveyor belt should look like. There’s even a video showing how to remove side panels where necessary.
Joe attached the manual as a pdf, and there’s a link to technical support on the manufacturer’s website in case Rick needs it.
The real magic: Interactive standard operating procedure
Getting rich information
Rick doesn’t just read through his checklist. He inputs data straight into Limble for each step.
Photo/video: For safety, this SOP requires shutting down the equipment and locking it so another employee cannot restart the equipment while Rick is inspecting it (called a “lock out, tag out”). Limble prompts Rick to upload a picture of the lock in place so that he cannot proceed without having taken this vital step. Taking and uploading the picture is easy since Rick is using Limble on his phone anyway.
Text/number: Next, Limble prompts Rick to check the “hours run” counter and enter the number.
There is another standard operating procedure for servicing the engine after every 5000 hours of run time. Limble will automatically assign that task if the count is high enough. But today it’s not.
Dropdown/checkbox: Rick uses a yes/no dropdown to indicate whether the belt looks frayed.
In this case, it does, so Limble prompts Rick to report the problem (filling out all the required fields) and sends the report to Joe.
Linking standard operating procedures
Joe sees the conveyor belt problem report comes through. He hasn’t created an SOP for replacing frayed conveyor belts yet, so he jumps in and makes a quick SOP template.
Joe then links that SOP to a couple other processes so that they will trigger it automatically:
Routine maintenance > Work assignment: Any future inspection that notices frayed belts will automatically include the new SOP on the assignment to replace the belt.
Work assignment > Ordering materials: This procedure uses spare parts out of inventory, so Rick adds that part to the equipment file, noting how many are currently in stock, when to re-order, and how many to order. In other words, he creates an inventory SOP.
Standard operating procedure for ordering materials
When Joe created the inventory SOP for spare conveyor belts, he decided that the plant needs to order more belts once current inventory falls below 10, and that the order should get inventory back up to 20.
Sure enough, there were only 10 belts in inventory, so when the assignment to replace the current frayed belt was completed, inventory fell to 9 and Limble automatically created a new task to order more. If this had been a bigger facility, the task would have been automatically assigned to the purchasing department or the maintenance coordinator. Joe’s team isn’t that big, though, so he set the SOP to assign all purchasing to himself.
Updating a standard operating procedure
After doing the inspection a few times, Rick thought it would be more efficient to add oil while he had the side panels off anyway instead of that being its own stand-alone task. He put his thoughts into the same form his coworkers use for reporting problems so it would go straight to Joe. Joe thought it was a great idea and simply added the step to the inspection SOP.
Regardless of when Joe makes changes, Rick always has access to the most up-to-date version.
Logs and reports
A few months down the road, Joe has entered all of his equipment and built out SOPs for every maintenance routine. Limble automatically logged all his team’s work on the equipment’s work history, and Joe is able to see in his reports which equipment takes up the most of his team’s time.
His budget was increased so he could replace an outdated $200,000 machine. He had been asking for years, and it was finally granted because he was able to show that the company spends $50,000 year on parts and labor trying to keep it alive, and even then its downtime costs the company $600,000 of lost revenue per quarter.
Joe didn’t have to calculate this himself and hope management would believe him. It was automatically (there’s that word again) compiled for him based on tasks that were completed following his standard operating procedures.
Collect team members’ knowledge
Notice how, by building his standard operating procedures within Limble, Joe documented everything he had learned about the equipment over his decades with the company. By adding in his team’s suggestions, the SOPs became the single data storehouse for the department.
Now, Joe’s team takes less of his time with questions, it’s easier for Joe to take vacations, and there’s a lot less anxiety about the fact that Joe is planning to retire in the next 5 years.
More than a document
For it to have an impact, an SOP has to be more than a document — it’s a management tool that:
Automates: Executes repetitive tasks and communication,
Guarantees thoroughness: Ensures nothing falls through the cracks,
Gives insight: Reveals opportunities to increase productivity and decrease costs.
It becomes a platform that doesn’t just tell stakeholders what to do — it helps them do it. Limble SOPs are fail-proof because they integrate procedures into daily work and provide value on every level of the organization:
Managers: Streamlines administrative work
Technicians: Provides clear expectations
Executives & business owners: Gives visibility into financial strengths and weaknesses of day-to-day operations
More than you bargained for
If you were expecting to just learn about title pages and tables of contents, this introduction to standard operating procedures may have been a surprise. Hopefully you caught the full scope of what digital, interactive and integrated SOPs in Limble can do for your organization:
Manage your equipment and facilities
Limble becomes the single source of all information on all assets. This makes it easy to get the most out of equipment at every phase of its life cycle.
Lighten your work load
Limble automatically creates tasks (complete with SOPs) based on a variety of triggers. Its user-friendly layout and assignment routing drops the time spent managing from hours to seconds.
Limble is a quality control/quality assurance system that keeps your team performing consistently and reveals potential problems before they arise.
Limble tracks use and triggers purchases when inventory drops below the limits you set. You will fix equipment faster with the right parts in hand.
Limble ensures regulated work is:
then saves the approval history with:
Limble tracks all team members’ work so you can reward top performers and hold lagging team members to task. (Share metrics with the whole team for positive peer pressure.)
Plan for the future
Limble is available to all employees at all times, which means the team isn’t too dependent on any one person’s know how. The department can continue to run smoothly regardless of ever-changing circumstances.
Other common types of standard operating procedures
If you decide to go old-school, you have a few different types of SOPs to choose from. In the following paragraphs, we discuss the pros and cons of each SOP document type.
1) Step-by-step procedure
A step-by-step SOP is the simplest method. As its name implies, it works like an easy-to-follow checklist of step instructions, describing every action an employee will need to take to complete the task at hand.
When to use a step-by-step SOP: Use this type of SOP when the task is straightforward and should always be executed in the same manner.
Simple to understand, create, and use.
Ideal for routine tasks.
Not applicable for complex processes, or those that require any decision making.
2) Hierarchical standard operating procedure
A hierarchical SOP is a better choice for complex procedures that need more structure and additional information. It provides further details within each step. While a step-by-step SOP may list steps 1, 2, and 3, etc., this would also include hierarchical steps 1a and 1b; 2a and 2b, then 3a and 3b. It can also come in the form of a checklist or bullet point list.
For example, let’s imagine that a new employee needs to sign up for benefits online. If step 1 tells them to create an account, step 1a may give directions on creating a username while step 1b will guide them to create a unique password before proceeding.
When to use a hierarchical SOP: Use this type of SOP when the workflow you outlined needs an extra layer of instructions. Hierarchical SOPs allow you to include all the required steps in a tidy format, without having to create lengthy descriptions that are hard to follow.
They provide additional information while keeping things simple.
Each step provides the background and context for the next one, so there’s no need for lengthy explanations.
Updating hierarchical SOPs can be time-consuming, especially if the change in one step means you have to make changes in other steps.
Not a good fit for any business process that requires decision making.
3) Flowchart standard operating procedure
Flowcharts are images that explain what path to follow depending on the situation. These processes are not linear — the outcome of one step will determine the course of action for following steps.
When to use a flowchart SOP: Flowchart SOPs apply to complex situations. They could be used when troubleshooting engine problems or addressing a complaint. They allow users to visualize workflow steps and quickly proceed with the job at hand.
They are great for understanding the big picture behind complex processes.
They minimize confusion for staff when deciding how to proceed.
Flowcharts make it easy to improve business processes. It is easy to see ways to combine or rearrange steps. In the end, you can reduce waste, eliminate bottlenecks, get more done, optimize the amount of time needed for the desired outcome, and so on.
They are a great choice for processes where the outcomes can be hard to predict, such as customer service calls.
Updating flowchart SOPs can be a serious hassle. If you make a bigger change, you may have to redraw the entire flowchart or a substantial part of it.
Long flowcharts can look clumsy and messy, making it difficult for users to understand and follow through. They need to be well-thought-out and structured to be useful.
4) Management standard operating procedure
In a nutshell, a management SOP is an SOP for writing SOPs. That probably sounds weird — let’s clarify this.
For organizations with a large number of SOPs, it’s best to have a document that explains how to write and manage new standard operating procedures. This document is known as the management SOP. It serves as a template that outlines how SOPs should be structured. Its job is to ensure that new procedures are consistent with older SOPs.
A management SOP will cover topics like presentation and layout, and how to review, approve, maintain, and carry out new SOPs.
When to use a management SOP: These are most helpful to large companies. This is especially true if there are many procedures to document and multiple staff who write the SOPs.
They get rid of the problem of conflicting procedures and help ensure that all SOPs comply with best practices.
They speed up the SOP creation process by using a template. Having a management SOP takes out the guesswork, and saves your staff from having to memorize all the steps for creating SOPs from scratch every time.
They add an extra layer of work because, like other SOPs, you have to regularly review and update management SOPs.
How to structure an SOP document?
Traditionally, here is what you would expect to see in a standard operating procedure document (not necessarily in this order):
Procedure’s name (for example, “Air Conditioning Unit: Changing the air filter”)
Unique SOP ID number
Date created or updated
Department or team the SOP applies to
Names and signatures of everyone involved in creating the SOP
Information about when the SOP was created and what was changed the last time it was updated.
Table of contents
Summarizes the document and helps the user quickly find what they are looking for. Helpful when the document is very large.
Purpose and scope
Describes why the SOP was created, which processes are covered, and what the document aims to accomplish.
Roles and responsibilities
Lists the people (employees, managers, etc.) who will need to follow this SOP. Outlines their responsibilities. This helps avoid confusion and keeps everyone accountable.
The core content that forms the bulk of your SOP. This section outlines the work to be completed, including all the information relevant to each task. This can include pictures, charts and other helpful images.
A list of related training materials, websites, or reference guides to your SOP. This is another feature that comes in handy when getting new team members up to date.
Every industry has its unique vocabulary, including acronyms. Explain it all here.
Show the signatures of anyone who was required to approve the SOP.
Steps for writing effective an standard operating procedure
To ensure your effort doesn’t go to waste, you need to think ahead. Start by doing foundational work:
Be prepared for change management: Introducing changes can be difficult. Clarify your company’s goals and explain why you need SOPs. This will give your team the drive to keep going if they run into obstacles along the way.
Select processes you want to standardize: Avoid the distraction of trying to create an SOP for every single procedure in your company. Focus on the core processes and those activities that impact health and safety, quality, and the bottom line.
Organize the SOP team: Select a team that will be accountable for creating the document and meeting deadlines. Don’t forget that, sooner or later, you’re going to need input from people that will be using these procedures.
Once all that is out of the way, use the following steps to create an actionable standard operating procedure for the tasks you picked.
1) Decide on the scope of your SOP
For every process, think about what exactly you intend to document and how detailed the SOP needs to be. This is largely influenced by:
How important the topic is to your operations (such as health and safety considerations).
The intended audience for the SOP you plan to write (for instance, an SOP for new employees would likely require more information than one for more experienced staff).
The complexity of the business process itself.
2) Collect necessary information
Every standard operating procedure should be created with the end-user (staff) in mind. That means the person outlining the procedure needs to be aware of the existing workflows, best practices, and workplace limitations. Many of these details will have to be sourced from experienced employees who know the process inside and out.
Consider including this vital information:
Schematics or instruction booklets, and OEM manuals.
Required equipment, gadgets, materials, and tools needed to execute a specific task.
Personal protective equipment (PPE).
Potential safety hazards and safety warnings need to be mentioned.
List of the actual steps in the task workflow.
The number of people required to complete the job.
Any additional details that need to be included to successfully execute the task.
The main difference between an industrial SOP and an office SOP is the type of information that needs to be included. For example, a heavy equipment operator needs PPE and safety guidelines along with standardized work instructions. In contrast, a help desk worker or a junior marketing manager might need login information for a tool they need to complete their task.
After this, you can review all the information with the maintenance supervisor or other stakeholders to fine tune the list. Some processes that you may want to create SOPs for are:
taking and returning tools and parts from inventory
quality control and other specific tasks
3) Choose an SOP type
Earlier on, we discussed the major types of SOPs (Step-by-step, Flowchart, and Hierarchical list) and when to use each type. Assess your operations and choose a suitable SOP type for the process you’re outlining.
4) Write the first draft
With all the above steps completed, you can get down to writing the actual SOP. Depending on the type of SOP you’re writing, a simple document editor like Microsoft Word will be sufficient for the job. For complicated processes with flowcharts, you might need a dedicated flowchart software (we recommend Lucidchart) or one of the tools we list in a standalone section below) or a well-structured template.
5) Distribute and review the first draft
The document may require several reviews, especially if this is your company’s first attempt at SOP writing. Don’t rush this step. It’s important to have employees at different levels available to review the procedures and ensure that they align with your organizational objectives and current workflow.
6) Publish and implement the SOP
We advise that you put the SOPs through a testing phase where your staff will use them and offer feedback. After getting substantial feedback, commit to tracking how effective the documents are, then make more adjustments and tweaks if necessary.
7) Staff training
To further help ensure compliance with the SOP, you must fully train all staff to use the SOPs for the techniques and procedures relevant to their work. Be sure to document who completed which training.
A few standard operating procedure examples from the industrial space
Curious to see some standard operating procedure examples from the manufacturing space? Here are a few.
Standard operating procedure example #1: Determining silt concentration
One thing you should learn from these examples is that you do not have to follow one set format. You just need to make sure that the document contains all relevant information.
Fast-track your team with digital, interactive, integrated standard operating procedures
Standard operating procedures are the secret behind the world’s most effective teams. But you have to do more than document; you have to provide your team with the tools that make doing great work the path of least resistance.
Still don’t think you have time?
Not ready to implement full-scale standard operating procedures? Maintenance professionals can still move their departments forward with a smart preventive maintenance plan. Save yourself days of work with this free download.
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