Standard Operating Procedures (or SOPs) are a field of technical writing all their own. Nearly every company has a training manual of some kind, and while not all training materials may be referred to as Standard Operating Procedures, the function and purpose are the same: Providing written instructions for how to perform a specific task. A strong SOP program can also reduce errors, injuries, improve productivity, and establish trust and confidence with customers or oversight regulatory agencies.
Well-written, well-organized SOPs save time and money. When the writing is clear, revisions and updates to information can have rapid turnaround times. Clean technical writing also results in faster employee training, improving overall productivity. With strong SOPs, employees will make fewer mistakes, and will require less supervisory time if they’re comfortable referencing the documents on their own.
But how does a company go about designing a good SOP program? When it comes to technical writing, there’s a saying that goes “Keep it simple, stupid.” Simplicity is smart, it works, and unfortunately, it is much more difficult to achieve than complexity. A skilled technical writer can review a rough draft of a procedure and quickly organize it into an intuitive, logical flow of steps. Just as important as the actual work of writing is communication: talented technical writers ask questions and offer options, working with companies to design procedures that meet their unique situations. One-size-fits-all does not apply in this field. Investing in an attractive SOP program that is never used outside of audits is a one-way ticket to disaster.
Core to a good SOP program is early establishment of open channels of communication: if the way a procedure is actually being performed deviates from the SOP, change the SOP. Remember, the SOP must be simple, intuitive, and useful, or it will be ignored.
The writing voice must be clear and concise. Do not use five words when one will do. Feel free to use slang terms and company lingo, too; if the technical name is a dripplewidgetdoowopperdiddlybob but everyone calls it “the yellow drill,” then use both in the document to prevent confusion. If the person writing the document is not the person who will be performing the work, then the writer must ask the people performing the work what they think. What do they call X and Y? If nomenclature is critical, train employees to use the correct words rather than ignore the problem. Ultimately, the SOP must make sense to the employee using it.
Include bullet points, tables, photographs, technical diagrams, and quick directions that can be printed and posted where used. There is a tremendous amount of information employees are expected to absorb and retain; it is safer to keep crucial directions clear and easily available than to rely on memory.
Organization of the sections is also important: does it make sense to list the steps in that order? If not, rewrite! Always strive to write in the order the steps are actually performed. To hone the usefulness of the SOP as a tool, the information required to actually perform the task must be kept front and center. Complex tasks may need to be split among multiple SOPs—try to keep page counts down. Ten-page SOPs are inefficient. If the SOP absolutely must be long, include a key at the beginning so employees can skip to the part they need easily; don’t make them read the whole document, combing through it for the information they need.
by Grace S.