Standard Operating Procedures
How do you define standard operating procedures?
Robust execution in a planned and reasonable way
Defining what is also rules out what is not. And based on that premise, anything that is outside the definitions is not required to be practised. In other words, when what is required is established, there is no need to focus anywhere else. The same principle makes SOPs a powerful tool for robust implementation at the operational level. Given below is a Venn representation of this principle.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are detailed, instructional roadmaps that define how an activity is required to be carried out from start to end. The features of SOPs have been explained below based on the aforementioned principle with the use of routine business examples.
What is to be done:
To enhance digital outreach, a company may adopt the strategy of posting content on their social media handles every day on selected platforms. This also means the content posting is not to be done on any other platform or in other frequency other than daily. The operational focus for the concerned employees falls back to those selected few platforms and that posting has to be done every day.
Who will do it:
Many businesses seek to keep tight controls over the big payments. They achieve this by putting a stipulation that the only finance manager or his reporting authority can approve payments beyond a specified limit. This rules out the possibility of any other employee from the finance department giving effect to such payments. Thus, when it comes to making payments, the finance department would know in advance who can authorise any particular payment. There is no need to be looking for any other authority beyond described in the SOPs.
How it will be done:
Customers come seeking redressal with varied problems. For example, telecom operators receive thousands of complaints every day related to poor network coverage, call drops, billing issues, slow internet connectivity, etc. The root of each problem goes back to different sources. Therefore, the resolution processes are also different. When a customer raises a complaint, the CRM team should know in advance how to carry out the particular resolutions for particular complaints. Network-related complaints cannot be dealt with the same process as complaints about poor behaviour by frontline staff.
When to do it:
Inventory department needs to raise a purchase indent when inventory levels reach the reorder level. This reorder level is decided keeping in mind, among other factors, the time required to restock the inventory to the desired levels. This includes time for order processing for all the parties involved in the supply chain, time for transportation, time for quality checks, etc. Therefore, there is a reason why the reordering takes place at a certain benchmark. Done earlier, there may be no space to stock the inventory. Done later, the business may fail to meet customer demand.
Where it is to be done:
In SOPs, specifying the location of action becomes important in many cases. For example, by eCommerce standards, the delivery agents must deliver the orders at the address specified by customers. Sometimes there are unofficial arrangements between customers and delivery agents for local convenience in delivery. But the delivery agents, on their part, are expected not to go beyond the scope of the established standards.
Why (the desired outcome):
Employees must understand the significance of the output they are creating in the process. For example, a recruiter should realise the importance of the skill sets mentioned in the job description. These skills will be required to be put to use in the position s/he is trying to fulfil. Therefore, the candidates shortlisted by the recruiter must at least fulfil the requirements stated in the job description. By defining the standards of output, SOPs achieve the objective of highlighting the importance of the tasks and activities carried out by employees.
Leap-forward for automation and digitisation
IT-based automation and digital solutions have become a part and parcel of the functioning of modern-day businesses. Business processes and operations, either partially or completely, are carried out via technological solutions. Whether it is digital payment for customers or the use of analytics for refined decision-making, digital and automation technologies are used by companies irrespective of their size and volume of business.
SOPs grant businesses this much-needed foundation for implementing automation and digitisation of their business processes and operations. Take for example a departmental store. Initially, it may not be feasible for the business to go for full-fledged automation and digitisation. But once the right working systems and practices are in place, the business would be in a much better position to understand and comprehend how it should get its processes and operations under the realm of automation and digitisation. Say, the business maintains a physical inventory register for incoming stock. That register would contain various fields of information like dates, product type, brand name, the name of the supplier, quantity, name of authority, etc. All these informational requirements would constitute important specifications in the selection, design or customisation of the inventory management software. Given below is a graphical representation of the aforesaid example.
Quicker operational maturity for embracing growth
Operational maturity is a critical requirement when it comes to business expansion. Without absolute control and authority over business processes and operations in the current setup, replicating them somewhere else becomes challenging. Say, a departmental store wants to open two new branches in a city. Without standardised processes in the primary branch, the new branches will have no definite standards to look up to in managing their operations. They may end up getting better managed than their primary branch or simply throw away. The end results would be lack of functional and operational coordination and lack of uniformity in customer service across the stores.
With SOPs, the business processes and operations get streamlined and standardised. When businesses begin to roll out their business growth and expansion planning and strategies, they have one less thing to worry about. Having SOP-driven systems make it easier for them to replicate the same in new locations or new branches. This is a benefit derived simply from the implementation of the right SOPs. Businesses should not wait for their business to reach a certain size or spread to implement SOPs. If that remains the case, they lose the vantage point of attaining quicker operational maturity with SOPs.
How to make a good standard operating procedure
Draft: Write it down
Among all guidelines for standard operating procedures, if anything should come at first it is drafting. Writing may seem traditional but it has certain inherent benefits to the human perception that even time cannot erode. Writing things down helps in attaining clarity and comprehensiveness of goals and actions. Even if software applications are used to aid the functioning of business processes and operations, having the procedures in a written down, documented format is a must. This phase should not be dodged at any cost. It may look traditional but written (including graphical) representation is one of the best shots in summarising a big picture as well as spotting minor deviations. Drafting SOPs first also facilitates better defining of business processes and operations at an early stage. It also provides an early opportunity to inculcate the best practices and industry standards into the SOPs. Scope of innovation enhances when vision and roadmaps are expressed in physical forms like writing or graphical representation.
SOPs should do what they say. In other words, an SOP should be designed to accomplish its operational objectives. The standards of input, output, and performance should stand defined. SOPs should pinpoint the doers and checkers. The duties, responsibilities, and accountabilities need to be explicitly stated. The point is not to leave any details undefined in the operational roadmap; what can be planned should be planned.
For instance, if the daily sales report of a departmental store needs to be sent to its sales head, the concerned SOP needs to be designed that way. It should specify the format, mention who will report (provision for substitute) and when, the medium of communicating, and all other details necessary to get the daily reports sent to the sales head. If SOPs do not serve in the intended ways, then what is the point of having a planned way of working!
The successful execution of business processes may involve people from within and beyond the organisation. The people who are part of business processes could be employees, suppliers, contractors, government departments, consultants, agencies, logistic partners, etc. For example, in executing the payroll process, various statutory deductions have to be made and the same must also get deposited with the appropriate authorities within the prescribed time limits. Even within a business department and the enterprise, various positions have to collaborate to complete business processes. Thus, it becomes important to forge SOPs to cover the role of all the process stakeholders. If the activity links are broken, the flow of work will not lead to the desired output.
Digitisation is the aspect that makes SOPs for today’s businesses different from the traditional, paper-based SOPs. While documented SOPs are still necessary, entrepreneurs and managers need to approach SOP design from the perspective of IT and software-based implementation. This is mainly because the use of business management software applications has become nearly indispensable in managing and operating modern-day business enterprises.
SOPs cannot contain something that the available and implementable software platforms cannot provide. The adopted digital solution must be able to function on the lines of the defined SOPs and achieve the intended results while maintaining the operational requirements. It should allow for all the necessary collaborations and coordination among process stakeholders.
Eventually, it is the employees who are going to use the digital platform. A simple and intuitive user interface will help employees quickly pick up the skills required to operate the software. In this regard, provision for training may become necessary in certain cases.
Other considerations include implementation support and product maintenance and upgradation.
Lead to action
With or without digitisation, SOPs should lead to action in the affirmative. Employees should be able to make a decision or perform a task using the SOPs. This means there is no place for ambiguity or doubt in SOPs. For instance, a payroll process should specify a trigger date in a month. This is a policy matter but it needs incorporation into the SOPs so that the actual activity takes place as intended. It should not be ‘between this and that date’ or ‘after this date’. This precision of activity-defining foreruns affirmative action or decision-making.
Education and Training
Just because SOPs are officially launched in an enterprise does not mean employees will master it from day one. Even the routine and known practises can look different when asked to be performed under a different shade. The jump from non-SOP to SOP-based working style can take people some time to imbibe the latter. Many experienced employees become proficient and consistent at their work even without SOPs. When the same employees are asked to work following SOPs, they might experience it as a big change. Similar experiences also occur to employees coming from other organisations where they had followed different procedures. Relevant education and training help employees get comfortable using SOPs.
With the use of software platforms for SOP implementation, education and training become even more important. Employees need to get convergent with the user interface and the functioning of the software. Tasks may look very different on a software application as against paper-based SOPs. If employees do not grasp the interface and functioning of the application, their speed of work will slow down and they would be more likely to make mistakes in operating the software. Education and training help employees become convergent with business software applications.
The objective for SOP implementation is not just to manage and streamline the flow of work but also to continuously bring improvements in the ways of working. To achieve this, feedback from process stakeholders is of paramount importance. Process stakeholders include employees, team leaders, managers, suppliers, vendors, consultants, agencies, etc. Inputs from all these entities are critical to identify weaker areas and address them correctly. While not all external entities may be keen to get involved in the process improvisation of another business, the role of employees from all levels of management in relevant ways must be stressed. This could be done through periodical meetings and internal audits. It is also important the conclusions of these meetings and audits are further worked upon. The senior leaders need to follow up and finalise the adjustments. Responsibilities and deadlines have to be assigned to implement the adjustments in the SOPs.
Challenges in SOP development and implementation
Lack of expertise and experience
While SOPs establish the standards of how things need to be done, there is no universally-recognised standard for writing SOPs. With simpler operations, SOP development may not be a tough task. But when we talk about writing SOPs for complex businesses, processes and operations, a certain degree of expertise and experience becomes essential. For instance, the payroll processes in small enterprises ideally tend to remain simple. One of the main reasons for this is simpler salary structures. But if we consider the salary structures in big companies, the CTC of employees has a wide number of components. The payroll process can become so complicated and time-consuming that companies also resort to outsourcing. If the payroll processing is done internally, the task has to be done meticulously and efficiently. To be able to do so, the right SOPs have to be developed. These SOPs can get very lengthy spanning across multiple internal and external entities. Each and every activity has to be taken into consideration. All the process owners have to be identified. All the necessary interdepartmental coordination has to be mapped. The timelines for each activity needs to be defined. With increasing levels of complexity in SOP design, domain expertise and experience prove to be of immense help.
Excessive dependence on people instead of processes
Some retail eCommerce players require customers to share OTP with the delivery agent at the time of order delivery. The delivery agent punches the OTP to validate the same. But some companies may simply require the delivery agents to call up the customers before reaching out for the deliveries. The objective of both the practises is authentication. But the former practice is process-oriented. The other one is people-dependent where the responsibility lies with the delivery agent. If anything goes off the chart with the delivery, process-oriented systems can trace back the truth. But in contrast, it becomes difficult to find the reality in a people-dependent system.
When business activities are not properly defined or left to employees without any benchmarking, they may have to make decisions based on their judgement. Such decisions may or may not lead to output that the business precisely requires. And soon such practises become convenient habits and precedents for others to follow. Here, the bigger problem is not SOP development but implementing new or improvised SOPs.
An important requirement for SOPs is that they should be able to establish all the necessary connections between the different departments and entities involved in a business process or operation. This sounds easy but when it comes to detailed mapping of a task, we tend to leave many details unconsidered. Such mistakes are common. For example, retail store employees sometimes forget to hand over the bill to the customers at the time of check out. Forgetting to provide the bill may be construed as a failure to provide the bill. This could be an offence in many countries. It makes customers a part of the check-out process. Just because some customers do not demand the bills does not take away the responsibility of businesses to provide the same.
Establishing the required coordination between process owners in SOPs can be complex in larger organisations. Sometimes processes pass through multiple departments and positions and it could be more than once. For example, an internal audit team has to coordinate with various departments and employees multiple times to complete the audit process successfully. But this should take place in a planned and systematic way. Without a proper operational roadmap, the audit process can become a painful task for everyone in the organisation.
The involvement of external entities like suppliers or government departments makes it further difficult to define SOPs with precision. When dealing with process stakeholders outside the organisation, businesses have little or no control over internal process compliance.
In defining business processes, it is important to consider various scenarios and possibilities that may affect a process or any part of it. This helps in making processes more robust and less rigid. For example, in a leave approval process, the procedure should also mention who will sanction the leave if the primary leave sanctioning authority is not available to do so. If this provision is not covered, then leave processing might come to a halt or something off the book has to be done and get any urgent leave sanctioned by some other authority. In situations where an external entity is involved, lack of agility in SOPs can hurt the brand and goodwill of a company. For instance, say that a company made some internal policy changes that affect its payment to suppliers. But the company did not ensure that all of its suppliers get notified. This can have adverse consequences for many suppliers when the company executes its payment process under the new policies.
Misalignment of SOPs and IT-automation solutions
The use of software and automation tools to execute business processes and operations is now a standard as well as a business requirement. What kind of software and automation requirements will be required and how they will function are guided by the operational requirements. Therefore, operational planning plays a vital role in defining and meeting the business goals and requirements of digitisation and automation. SOPs constitute an important element of operational planning. Eventually, it all boils down to the execution plan. If SOPs are not well-defined or are not developed keeping in mind the ideal IT and technological solutions, it could create gaps between operational requirements and what the implemented software and automation platform end up providing. No business would want that but the problem of poor software mapping arises from a lack of expertise and sufficient experience in SOP development and its digital form of implementation.
Lack of proper SOP training
Practising a new habit vigorously need not make us perfect at it. But it surely makes us feel home with the new habit. And that is more valuable than being flawless. Perfection then is a matter of time. It is important that employees get convergent with all the parts of the operational activities that they are required to execute on a routine basis. This gives an opportunity to identify where employees are succeeding and where they are struggling. The objective is to make sure that the difficult parts begin to appear easy. Once they get hold of all the parts of their job, they are extremely likely to master it. SOP training is intended for this purpose. Repeated exposure to and experience of SOPs make employees familiar with the new ways of working. SOP training could be off-the-job or on-the-job. But the objective remains the same.
How we do it: SOP Development Methodology
Listing the benefits of standard operating procedures is easy but there is no definite answer to how to write a standard operating procedure. But this problem can be resolved by adopting a sound approach for SOP design and development. YRC follows planned and proven methodologies in the design and delivery of our SOP services and solutions. Explained below is a succinct introduction to our SOP development methodology (How to develop standard operating procedures):
Defining the process prerogatives
A business may want to streamline its payroll process and bring it under the purview of SOPs. We first establish the goals and priorities of the process. These could be methods of salary and incentive calculations, disbursal deadlines, the role of HR executives, approving authority, payment medium, statutory deductions and other regulatory compliances, coordination with other departments, etc. All these prerogatives vary from business to business. But establishing these specifications and requirements is important. It has a strong bearing on the flow and content of the SOPs.
As-is mapping of the existing processes and practises
In the second stage, we map down how the organisation is currently carrying out the targeted process. Here, we consider how the activities are actually being carried out in practice. This can be a tedious task dealing with volumes of data and information obtained via observation and enquiries from various process stakeholders. The resources gathered in this stage are critical for the next one.
With the knowledge of process requirements and the existing ways of working, it becomes feasible to identify any gap or deviation between the two. Finding these deviations to specific details is our objective at this stage. For example, many times, the rulebook says that the HR manager should be approving the salary statements before the documents are sent to the finance department for disbursal following the due process. But in practice, we find that both the HR and finance departments are not strictly following this rule. There may have been no adverse implication of such deviations so far. But gaps like these keep a business vulnerable to process failures.
With all the information and insights acquired from different sources in the previous stages, our experts get to a position to draft/redraft the right SOPs. In developing the new SOPs, our team keeps in mind the enterprise-wide ramifications of new procedures and elements added. This helps us to crochet a network of SOPs that facilitates robust coordination between departments and process owners. The new SOPs are developed in the light of the new requirements.
Despite the care and caution adopted in developing the SOPs, they might still miss the target when put to practice. Validation helps in making the necessary adjustments to make the SOPs deliver accurate results. We test run the new SOPs on a small scale and progressively include more areas.
The new SOPs may still have a scope of improvisation. Sometimes there can be redundancies, avoiding which make processes quicker. Unnecessary involvement of process owners should be avoided. While at times it is also possible that adding a new element could make a process more reliable at the cost of adding some extra time to it.
Clients may also seek modifications to the newly-developed SOPs. It is better to accommodate these changes in the pilot run. Thus, affirmative feedback and the opinion of the departmental heads and senior managers is critical in the validation stage.
After the validation stage, the SOPs are finalised for clients’ approval.
Identifying IT solutions
Most businesses prefer using digital and automation platforms for the execution of their business processes and operations. In this area, we help our clients in identifying the right digital and automation solutions for SOP implementation in their enterprise. We do not sell or develop automation or software applications but we assist clients in finding the best-fit solution. This also covers developing the vendor selection process and financial budgeting. The final decision on the product and vendor shall be that of the client.
We understand that the routine activities carried out by employees can appear alien to them under the framework of SOPs. This unfamiliarity hampers employees’ productivity and slows down business operations. Sometimes change is also resisted for various valid and invalid reasons. Relevant education and training are even more important when digital and automation solutions are introduced. Our training goal here is to make employees convergent with and comfortable using the new SOPs. In training, we put the human aspect first and then the operational technicalities.
Mechanism for improvisation and adjustments
Business processes and operations are always subject to internal and external changes. However big or minute such changes may be, it calls for periodical assessments of the ways a business operates. This has a direct bearing on the SOPs. For instance, if a company makes changes in its leave policies, it will also have to modify the relevant SOPs to accommodate those changes. Or if there are changes in any of the regulatory norms, the internal procedures must also be modified accordingly. We ensure that such a mechanism exists within the SOP framework.
Vision for our SOP Consulting Services
Adoption of digital transformation
Digital transformation has pervaded all industries and spheres of business. No business can stay away from it for too long. It has fundamentally altered how businesses operate and deliver value to their customers. What makes digital transformation challenging is that it threatens the status quo. It exposes businesses to operational risks and hiccups. Anything gone wrong in the pursuit of digital transformation could leave a business in terrible shape.
Our vision is to make the adoption of digital transformation easier and simpler for our clients. Our SOP services and solutions are designed from the perspective of digital and automation platforms. We follow a robust and proven SOP development methodology with a first-shot-hit approach. All the necessary precautions are adopted from planning to implementation assistance. We help clients identify the best-fit IT and automation solutions for SOP implementation. Necessary training support is provided for making employees convergent with using our SOPs solutions.
Improvements in employee productivity
One of the most important objectives for SOP implementation is to make business processes more efficient and effective. It is employees who carry out the business operations with or without the aid of technology. Thus, the role of employees is critical as it determines the quality of business activities. Without healthy productivity levels of the employees, a business cannot achieve better operational performance.
Elevating employee productivity is one of our topmost prerogatives. We seek to achieve this via simplicity of procedures, intuitive representation, training support, change management, and the use of technology. Keeping the procedures simple helps employees easily comprehend what they are required to do and the operational standards to be maintained. Intuitive representation of the operational roadmap makes it easier to follow the procedures. Providing the necessary education and training help employees become familiar with the SOPs before they actually start working on the latter.
Enhanced Customer Experience (CX)
Superior customer experience helps businesses stand out in the competition. It helps build a base of loyal customers and brand advocates. The importance of customer experience could not be emphasised more. As a business interacts with its customers at multiple touchpoints in the customer journey, every such point becomes a source of experience for the customers. This could be when a customer sees an online or physical advertisement, interacts with a brand on social media platforms, visits a business’s eCommerce website, is delivered their orders, etc. It is through proper business processes and standard operating instructions that a business could maintain the desired levels of customer experience.
We, at YRC, recognise the importance of delivering a great customer experience. We also acknowledge the importance of incorporating the necessary elements in the standard operating procedures manuals that, directly or indirectly, affects customer experience. Our process consultants conduct a thorough analysis of the customer journey while pinpointing the touchpoints and defining the customer expectations.
Smooth coordination with external entities
Beyond the organisation, what is the significance of standard operating procedure? Every business enterprise deals with several external entities like suppliers, agencies, government departments, potential employees (at the time of recruitment and before being appointed), etc. Unplanned handling of interactions with external entities could result in many undesirable situations. Unprofessional behaviour with candidates during the recruitment and selection process could send a bad name in the job market for the employers. Suppliers may find it difficult to continue working with businesses that function unsystematically. Improper management of regulatory affairs could shoot troubles for businesses. The list could be stretched but the apparent point is to function in a planned and systematic manner whether it is within or beyond the organisation.
In our SOP consulting services, our focus is not simply to achieve internal efficiency but to also facilitate smooth coordination with entities external to a business enterprise. In developing the SOP solutions, we take into consideration clients’ interactions with outside parties. Sometimes it is possible to ask outsiders to follow rules defined internally but sometimes the SOPs have to be adjusted to suit any external requirement that cannot be changed.
Safeguard brand name
Why is brand name so important to businesses? If the answer is only customers and sales, then there may be a need to revisit this whole idea of branding. Brand perception should not be confined to customers only. There are many other entities whose perceptions and opinions can have positive or negative implications on the brand name of a business. And when that happens, even a business with a glaring brand perception among its customers will eventually fail to keep them impressed. Here, we are talking about the entities like vendors, suppliers, agencies, regulatory bodies, etc. If a business fails to maintain the right functioning with these entities, it will adversely affect its operations. And one of the consequences of affected operations will be the degrading quality of customer service. In designing SOP solutions and services, we keep the bigger picture in mind and bring in multiple perspectives and concerns that have a bearing on the brand name of our clients.