The term "standard operating procedure" may conjure up thoughts of rigid regimentation. However, a well-conceived standard operating procedure, or SOP, does not require lock-step routine. In fact, SOPs play an essential role in the efficient operation of an organization. SOPs ensure that basic procedures run smoothly, allowing your staff to concentrate its efforts elsewhere.
SOPs use previously agreed-upon specifications designed to achieve a beneficial outcome of a routine task. SOPs impose a standard procedure on a routine task, eliminating variation that often occurs when individuals approach a task without guidance. For instance, a SOP for hand washing for employees in an area responsible for food handling would include step-by-step instructions, along with descriptions of how hot the water must be, how long employees should lather their hands and how to turn off the faucet to prevent re-contamination.
Consistency and Efficiency
SOPs ensure that employees are on the same page concerning routine procedures, allowing for consistency in outcome as well as production. In organizations with high employee turnover, SOPs are essential. Even companies where staffing is stable can benefit from a well designed and properly executed SOP. For instance, a telephone script for customer service representatives or telemarketers provides a framework for employees to respond to standard situations they may encounter with customers, such as correcting billing errors or scheduling a repair call.
In an emergency, the difference between saving a life and a life lost is often less than a minute. SOPs for preparing an emergency vehicle, lifting an unconscious person or navigating a smoky hallway represent the best practices for executing critical duties that nearly all first responders encounter at some point. SOPs also often represent the best practices for the production of parts that must conform precisely to standard requirements. For instance, critical parts for products such as automobiles and computers frequently have an allowable margin for error as small as a fraction of an inch.
Checklists for Evaluations and Audits
Organizations can use SOPs as checklists during an audit or an investigation to determine whether the employees properly follow the procedures. SOPs can also serve a role in evaluating historical data by reconstructing the activities of a project or department. Testing a SOP allows organizations to determine whether employees can satisfactorily complete a given task by following the given instructions, as well as disclose areas where further development or revision of instructions is necessary.
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease; What's a Standard Operating Procedure?; October 2010
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Frequent Questions -- Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs); September 2008
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Guidance for Preparing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs); April 2007
- "Irrigation and Green Industry"; The Importance of SOPs; Jody Shelan; December 2008
- Iowa State University Food Safety Project: Overview of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
- National Mastisis Council Regional Meeting Proceedings; Standard Operating Procedures: Managing the Human Variables; Richard Stup; 2002
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