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Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
Ryan Ogden Headshot

Written by Ryan Ogden

Ryan is the Founder of Momentum and he built it to help small to medium-sized companies systematize their operations to scale their business.

After reviewing submissions from organizations for our SOP makeover program, we put together a list of the top 10 improvement opportunities or mistakes to avoid when creating SOPs.

  1. Lack of audit trail – SOPs should include the name of the author and document controls, preferably at the top of the document template if using document-based SOPs. It is good practice to have both of these controls. For online or digital SOPs, tracking isn’t usually an issue, but these systems should still be thoughtfully set up with the correct fields for tracking. Additionally, a version history is generally needed for auditable environments.
  2. The dreaded “blob” – An interviewer/author can end up with a blob of information on tasks and the procedure due to how interviewees talk about their procedures. The author’s goal is to take the blob and separate or parse out the information into digestible, actionable steps, removing any unnecessary information and words.
  3. Lack of what to avoid  – Include what to avoid in SOPs. Team members might know common mistakes or a particular task that, if not followed precisely, will have a negative impact on the task. For example, in a task for an accounting firm’s SOP for tax filing, a team member could inadvertently file a client’s taxes without the client’s review and approval. In that situation, they should include in the SOP, DON’T PUSH THIS BUTTON. Or they could see if the button could be hidden or default not to be selected.
  4. Multiple scenarios/procedures  – Multiple scenarios and procedures can quickly complicate SOPs and business processes. The more clarity provided on what the procedures are should allow the author to break them apart, parse them out, and then the clearer the procedure will become.
  5. Use of “typically” – The expectation is that a team member can perform a task to a certain standard. Words like typically, sometimes, and should introduce confusion and questions, making the task less clear on what to do or not. The more confusion or complexity introduced, the harder it is to perform a procedure to standard. Additionally, if organizations avoid the mistakes of multiple scenarios (#4) combined with removing confusing words (#5) should eliminate unnecessary “hedge words.”
  6. Reference missing or mislabeled information  – It is very easy to refer to steps that have changed or no longer exist, and that will happen. Still, there are tools (SOP management software, using bookmarks in Microsoft Word) to use to minimize to avoid mistakes. During the SOP approval process, have the approver or champion look for missing or incorrect numerical or other listing information within the procedure.
  7. Screenshots vs. screen shares – When following a detailed SOP, multiple screenshots can increase the length as they take up space, can be timely to grab and place, and might not be as clear as a video. A screen share or video is a great way to show how to perform the task. It is excellent to use both as a video might be watched a few times, and then essential screenshots and instructions can be referenced from then on.
  8. Information but not procedures – Anytime extra information is included, instead of only instructions, confusion is usually created. Context and reference information is essential to include in an SOP but make sure to separate advice or additional information from the step-by-step instructions, so the instructions are clear and concise.
  9. Unclear who, what, why, when, and where – SOPs need to be detailed enough so that a new or newly trained team member can perform a procedure up to standard. Tables can be great tools for answering and clarifying who, what, why, when, and where.
  10. Lack of SOP usage tracking– More than not, organizations don’t have a centralized place for procedures. Tracking SOPs lets organizations know how team members progress and learn the procedures. Also, a staged learning and development environment for team members with automated testing for skills, and knowledge creates a self-sufficient learning environment for new hires or team members learning new skills.

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