Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why we MUST Invest Time in Writing SOP

My household administration is managed by my mother. Not because she is a dominating helicopter parent but a conscious choice by me and my husband so that we can pursue our professional goals. But there are times when she goes out of town to visit my brother or a trip to check her own house. I usually dread these times because I need to figure out fast quite a few things. When does the “dhobi” come and how do we keep track of the clothes, do we take milk everyday or alternate days or what is the plan, where all the pulses are kept and rice . . . the list is endless and for me seems more complex than a quadratic equation. Last time fed up with my antics, my mother wrote specific details in a notebook and handed it to me the night before she was supposed to travel. There were separate pages for each and every task. 

In any office or factory, there are often situations when the regular person in-charge might be on leave or has fallen sick. An employee might have decided to quit suddenly or a more dire situation when an employee is asked to quit immediately. How do we ensure that the work does not get stuck and things keep on moving? How can we train a new employee to perform routine tasks in her/ his area of work? How can we remove dependencies and reduce failures?  

There are two types of activities in our lives (personal and professional) – repetitive and non-repetitive. The non-repetitive ones often require specific skills, inputs and processes which might be unique but the repetitive ones can be completed by anybody with a detailed instruction sheet.  The simple answer to create a person independent work environment is to write Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). But first you need to identify the bucket list of repetitive tasks in your organization. 

What are SOPs?

SOPs are step-wise written instructions of routine/ repetitive tasks to avoid miscommunication and to make tasks process driven rather than person specific. SOPs inherently help save a lot of time during crunch situations. 

Receiving and processing a purchase order, issuing cheques for payment, entering bills in the accounting system, preparing and issuing job cards for production, testing for quality control and assurance, receiving raw material at stores, machine maintenance procedures, dispatching finished goods to customers are some of the repetitive tasks that can be documented in an SOP. The critical factor here is the SOPs should be specific tasks and cover only a limited area of concern or task in a larger function. 

The prime benefit is consistency of information to derive similar quality of output and error proofing the results. 

Who all can write SOPs?

The most competent people to write SOPs would be people actually performing those tasks. The documents should then be reviewed by Supervisors, Department Heads for accuracy and validity. There has to be a defined hierarchy of authors, reviewers and approvers of SOPs. 

How to write an SOP? 

There are few simple pointers on writing your SOP.

  1. Create an SOP Template file. Choose uniform fonts, font sizes, paper size, layout and version control method. Setup specific numbering system to identify the SOPs. 
  2. Prepare a master list of repetitive tasks function – wise for which SOPs are prepared. The tabulated sheet should include the name of the Author, Reviewer, Approver, Document Title, Version, Version Date, Change Note and Review periodicity.

  3. Every SOP should have title, contents, purpose, applicable to which area, who will be using it, definitions, procedures, steps, reference document or person list, checklists and formats and handling and safety instructions wherever applicable. It should highlight the revisions and the distribution list. Finally, an SOP should inform whom to Contact for deviation or changes. 

  4. Write the SOP step-wise. No SOP should be more than 6 – 9 steps or else break it into 2 different SOPs. On an average people cannot follow a long list of steps to complete one task without losing focus.
  5. Use simple sentences, bullet points, even a flowchart, diagram or photograph to explain the point.
  6. Test the SOP with people who are totally unrelated to the task. And continue to improve it till it is generating the desired outcome.
  7. Train people on how to use the SOP and display it in a non-editable form in the work area.
  8. Review and version control of SOPs is vital. Setup a review calendar for all SOPs and conduct reviews timely.

    All management systems like ISO, HACCP, Six Sigma, 5S, OHSAS, Sarbannes Oxley, GAAP, GMP (name it) etc. use SOPs as their fundamental building block. There is no Euclidean concept of writing an SOP. Whatever works for your company and people is fine. The outcome and consistency is important not the language and aesthetics of the SOP. 

    Many of us must have read about the recent accident in Tata Memorial Hospital in Navi Mumbai when two employees were stuck to the MRI machine as one of them entered the room with an oxygen cylinder. There were warning signs posted at the entrance and such incidents are clearly avoidable with a little bit of effort. How did they end up going into that room with the cylinder in the first place? It is most likely that the people conducting the tasks were not trained to look for the SOP and follow it.  

     However, writing an SOP is not the end in itself. The strength of an SOP is the depth of training imparted to the user of SOP to follow it to the last dot or bear the consequences.

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