How to Write an SOP that Employees Can Easily Follow (6 Steps)
Have you ever tried building Ikea furniture?
Sometimes, you pull out those instructions and it is simple. You follow the instructions, connect a few screws, and have a new piece of furniture in an hour. Other times, it doesn’t go that smoothly.You keep backtracking and returning to the instructions because that piece of furniture you are putting together is wobbling or just doesn’t look right. It’s at those times that I get frustrated and swear I’ll never buy furniture I need to put together myself again.
But the real problem is that those instructions aren’t clear. And, when instructions aren’t clear for your company’s standard operating procedures (SOPs), it can be frustrating for employees (not to mention costly for the company).
Working for ScreenSteps — a cloud-based knowledge base company that helps companies create and share SOPs — I’ve seen how having clearly documented procedures saves companies time, money, and a whole bunch of headaches.
In this article, I share six steps to writing a standard operating procedure that your employees can easily follow. By following these steps, the goal is you will create SOPs your employees will actually want to use on the job.
1. Determine the task that must be done
Before you start outlining or writing an SOP, you need to start with the end in mind. Why are you creating a procedure in the first place? If an employee uses this SOP, you need to determine what they need to accomplish by the end of the procedure.
What do they need to do? Do they need to add notes to a product or customer profile? Maybe they need to exchange a product for a customer.
The point is your employees have an action that completes a task. You can determine many of these questions by the questions that your employees and customers ask.
2. Identify the context for your procedure
Once you know the purpose and outcome of your SOP, you can start working backward. Fill in the context for your procedure.
To understand the context for your SOP, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who needs this procedure
- What do they already know?
- When will they use the procedure?
- What is the outcome of them using this procedure?
- How often will they perform this procedure?
It’s essential to know who your audience is for this SOP. It will help you cater the SOP to these people, ensuring you include all the necessary information without overwhelming them with too much information.
3. Determine a narrow scope for your procedures
Sometimes it is tempting to make one procedure an entire manual and cover several scenarios with one SOP. But, you don’t want to list out every variation in one SOP.
That makes it difficult for your employees to find the guides, which often leads to employees not using your SOP.
But, you want your employees to use your documented procedures. Determine the scope for your procedure and keep it narrow. Then write down the core path they must follow to perform the procedure.
If you are tempted to write out multiple variations of a procedure in one SOP, split them into multiple SOP documents.
For example, if you have a procedure titled, “How to make a deposit” but you find that the procedure is quite different when you deposit a check versus depositing cash, break it into two separate articles: “How to deposit a check” would be one and “how to deposit cash” would be another.
4. Choose a format
There are many different types of SOPs. Depending on the purpose and the scope of the procedure, you will want to present your SOP for the easiest use. Some SOP template options include:
Use a checklist if your procedure is done frequently and employees generally know the background information needed to complete an assignment.
Step-by-step instructions (standard articles)
Use a standard article when you have straightforward instructions that need to be followed in a specific order.
These are procedures that are similar to when you put together a piece of Ikea furniture. There is a right (and only one) order to put together the furniture.
If you have the right tools, you can use decision trees when there are many paths that an employee can take. If there are a bunch of “if-then” scenarios in the procedure, a decision tree helps employees make a choice and move to the next step.
These are presented in flow charts or Word documents.
A workflow article is a “choose your own adventure” interactive guide that allows you to document complex procedures. Like decision trees, workflow articles help employees navigate through options within a procedure.
Note: In order to use workflow articles, you need a cloud-based software (such as a knowledge base) that has the technology for workflow articles.
5. Write down the steps to perform the procedure as a bulleted list
Now, it’s time to start writing down the steps in a procedure. The easiest way to do that is to walk through a procedure and write down a bulleted list for each step.
- What did you ask, say, do?
- Did you need to know any background information to take that next step?
- What needs to be done in order to move on to the next step?
Make your sentences short and choppy
Write simple and short sentences for your SOPs. While your English teacher would be ashamed, your co-workers will love you. The purpose of an SOP is not to write the next great novel. The purpose of an SOP is to quickly communicate how to perform a task.
Edit your SOPs for conciseness. Don’t write “When you get to this screen you will see a menu with several options. Move your mouse over the button that says Add Contact and click it.”
Instead, write: “Click Add Contact.” That’s all your employees need to follow instructions.
Add design elements
An additional way to make SOPs more skimmable and easier to follow is by adding visual cues. The design elements help lead the reader's eyes through the document and emphasize the most important information.
Include screenshots so that your employees see exactly where to look or click during a procedure.
Add styled text to call out important information. These design elements don’t need to be complex. Some examples of simple ways to add clarifying designs are:
- Bolded words
- Italicized phrases
- Highlighted sections
- Color emphasize
- Annotations on screenshots
Since you want your procedures to only include information that is absolutely necessary to complete a task, you’ll want to add links to your SOP.
Link out to other policies and procedures that are related. So, if an employee doesn’t understand what a specific industry term means or can’t remember your exchange policy, they can click on the link to get more information.
Using links makes it so you don’t overcrowd information. It allows you to provide additional information without overwhelming your employees who already understand the background information to complete procedures. It makes it easier for employees to skim your SOPs.
6. Review and test
Once you’ve finished your SOP, it is best to take it for a trial run before distributing it to your company. Have a focus group try out your SOP and provide feedback.
Are the instructions clear? Did they get stuck at any point? Are you missing a step?
Take the feedback from your focus group and update your SOP with clarifications. Have the group try your SOP until the group can perform the task perfectly by following the instructions precisely.
By having a group role-play your SOP, you catch errors early before the guides are used live and cause employees to make mistakes.
Want an easier way to document and share your procedures?
Documenting your standard operating procedures helps your employees avoid mistakes and streamline the work in your company. Writing your procedures isn’t enough. Your employees need access to your SOPs.
As you document more of your standard operating procedures, you’ll need a way to organize them so that your employees can use them. One way is using a cloud-based knowledge base.
A ScreenSteps knowledge base is a fast and easy way to write your SOPs. One customer was able to write 4X the SOPs in ¼ of the time with ScreenSteps’ authoring tools. Then it is easy for employees to search the knowledge base and pull up the guides they need in seconds.
Of course, there are many knowledge base options out there. As you search for a knowledge base to organize your SOPs, use these five tips to help you choose the right knowledge base for your organization.