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standard operating procedure

How did we scale our business using Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

How did we scale our business using Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

Standard Operating Procedures or SOP’s is a fancy way of saying document your day to day processes to make it repeatable. Inside your organization, you would have called it with different terms like Process documents, Blueprints, Playbooks, Manuals, and User guides.

But at the end of the day, it all solves the same problem of educating your employees or customers about a certain process.

Standard operating procedures will be present everywhere within your organization whether you are small or big. The bigger the organization, the number of SOP’s will increase significantly. It is a good practice to bring the culture in the organization to document your routine tasks so that the knowledge is not residing in someone’s head and it’s available for anyone to execute.

Standard operating procedures can come in multiple forms, it comes down to common sense and how that process can be represented. Certain SOP’s can be in a simple documentation format (online, Word, PDF), some could be in the form of Checklists, some could be in the form of diagrams and flowcharts.

The result is how can we educate users in the shortest possible time to make them perform that activity reliably and consistently.

As author Michael Gerber famously wrote in the book E-Myth

You need to be working on your business, not in your business.

Our example scenarios

To understand better why SOP’s are required in an organization, let’s take a couple of real-world examples from our own experience.

Example 1: Recruitment and Hiring Process (Organisation level)

When we were smaller we didn’t have a dedicated recruitment team, onboarding team, HR department, and the IT department. Pretty much all the tasks related to hiring and onboarding were done by either the founder (me) or one or two senior people in the organization.

Today we are close to 130 employees and with all the above-mentioned departments in place in total, there are about 8 people involved in bringing a new employee into the organization.

This is were standard operating procedures (SOP) becomes crucial to make the process seamless, giving clear guidelines on each and everyone’s responsibilities, making it repeatable and reducing dependencies on any individual.

The way we do it at Kovai.co (parent company of Document360) is by clearly defining the SOPs. As I mentioned earlier, Standard Operating Procedures can be represented in various formats.

In our case, it’s a combination of Microsoft Teams with various channels, procedures, and policy documents in Document360 along with flow charts (from LucidCharts).

 

kovai.co-SOP-example-talent-acquisition

As you can see from the above picture, for every step in the recruitment process right from finding talent to the exit of the employee it’s well structured. There is a different Microsoft Channel to list the roles (represented with D prefix) by the department.

Once hired we have set of Standard Operating procedures like an approval process, onboarding process (email creation, laptop allocation, etc), performance feedback after 3-6 months probation, employment confirmation, and if someone resigns, the exit process (represented with T prefix).

The only way you can scale a business is by clearly defining your standard operating procedures and constantly tweaking and improving it as your organization grows.

Example 2: Customer Success Routines

At Kovai.co we have dedicated customer success teams for each of our products. Their primary job is to book appointments with our existing customers and have periodic calls every 3-6 months once to understand product usage, get any feedback, and pass it on to the engineering team.

We have a well-defined process and standard operating procedure for this activity, here is a real sample from our existing Document360 internal SOP project.

kovai.co-SOP-example-customer-success 

As you can see the instructions are clearly defined to the detail “try to keep the content in a single line”, “UK Time”, so if we bring someone new to the team, it will take a few hours to 1 or 2 days to get up to speed on the process.

Without these SOP’s the team won’t be co-ordinated and they will all record in whatever way they think is appropriate. Again this process evolved inside the company over time.

Standard Operating Procedures are investments

The amount of time we spent on producing SOP’s might look overwhelming at the beginning, but definitely over the period, you’ll start seeing the benefits.

It’s always easy to just carry on performing the activities without documenting it or educating someone else to do it. Especially founders and senior managers thought process will be something down the lines of

1. “I know better than anyone else, no one can perform this task”

2. “I can quickly perform this activity within 10-15 minutes rather than spending 2 to 4 hours documenting/explaining the process to someone.”

3. “I wouldn’t ask my people to do anything that I wouldn’t do.”

If you wanted to scale your business and make it into a process-oriented organization, you need to come out of the above thought process.

Any complicated tasks need to be split into smaller tasks so it can be performed by anyone without knowing too many dependant systems. The tasks that might look small 10-15 minutes will all quickly add up and eat your day.

Example: a real cost of a 15 minutes task will be over 45 mins, time allocation on both sides of the task, and the cost of context switching. Soon you’ll be bombarded with too many such 10-15 minutes tasks.

It’s always better to create the SOP, train, and empower your team and then to step back.

SOPs first identify and summarize a task, describe its purpose, and specify when and by whom it is to be performed while simultaneously defining uncommon or specialized terms and addressing potential concerns (e.g., necessary equipment, health, and safety, etc.).

They then describe the sequential procedures to be followed, often utilizing activity checklists and graphic illustrations (e.g., charts, tables, photographs, diagrams, etc.) to help ensure that the procedures are being performed accurately and in order.

Bring SOPs as Organisation culture

Any business should build the culture of running the business in a more systematic and process-driven way despite the size of the organization. The sooner you bring this culture into your organization your business will get streamlined and scale.

It’s easier said than done, but you can take baby steps and gradually improve the culture of constantly transforming the activities into processes.

Imagine every quarter you pick up a set of repeated activities you wanted to document and convert it into Standard Operating Procedures. Bring this culture across all of your departments Admin Operations, Recruitment, Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, and Engineering.

Let’s imagine you don’t have any SOPs, this could be your first quarter initiative, just start with 2-3 SOP’s for each department and bring it as a culture in the organization to continuously look at what activities people are doing in each department and document it.

Admin & Operations

  • SOP – Leave approval process
  • SOP – Vacation policy

Recruitment

  • SOP – How to use LinkedIn Recruiter
  • SOP – Initial screening call procedure

Marketing

  • SOP – How to publish a new blog
  • SOP – Checklist for social media banner images

Sales

  • SOP – How to qualify the  inbound lead
  • SOP –  How to handle pricing objection

Engineering

  • SOP – How do you request for code review?
  • SOP – How to resolve merge conflicts?

Customer Success

  • SOP – Standard set of questions for first customer success call
  • SOP – How to segment customers for customer success calls

Accounts / Licensing

  • SOP – How to refund payment in Stripe
  • SOP – How to follow up on unpaid invoices

Most of these SOP documents shouldn’t take more than a few hours to one or two days. But once done, you can imagine the structure and power it can give over the long run.

You can use a tool like Document360 (or even Google Docs) to easily get started. Here is a screenshot from Document360

standard-operating-procedure-template

Benefits of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)

SOPs can also provide many benefits, such as minimizing the chance of miscommunication, affording comparability, and ensuring regulatory compliance. Here is the list of tangible benefits of having well structure SOPs

  • Enforcing best practices
  • Making processes scalable
  • Onboarding employees
  • Ensuring regulatory and standards compliance
  • Preventing process failures
  • Reducing errors and corrective actions
  • Improving communication (with SOPs, everyone is on the same page)

If you are looking at a long term view, as a business owner, at some point, you might want to sell your company. Just like your client list and products, your Standard Operating Procedures can add value to your company. Well documented routines that are being used sends a positive message to the future owner that your company is organized and can run without you.

Formats of Standard Operating Procedures

All SOPs have in common is the systematization of the individual steps performed in the implementation of a repetitive task to create an overall quality system. There is no one size fits all. Similarly, there is no one tool fits all.

The end goal of Standard Operating procedures is to make sure the end-users understand the procedures well to perform their activity. Try to use the tools you are already using and complement them with tools that will achieve the goal.

Let’s take a look at some of the formats of Standard Operating Procedures

User Documents – Standard Operating Procedures are represented as standard documents in the majority of the cases. This will be more educational helping the employees and users to understand a process in a systematic and repeatable way.

Examples: How to perform code review, How do you set up a new vendor in the banking system, Employee onboarding, and exit procedures. For this scenario, you can use either Document360, Google Docs, Microsoft Word (along with SharePoint or Microsoft Teams), Confluence, etc. I’ll cover later why Document360 is a better option in this case.

Check Lists (Business Process Automation) – This is one of the common forms of SOPs. The majority of the time a procedure will have a predefined set of activities someone needs to perform in sequence.

Examples: Blog publishing, pushing a new release into production, QA final sign-off process, and so on. For this scenario, you need to use some Business Process Automation (BPA) tools like Kissflow, Tallyfy, Process.st, etc

Infographics – This is similar to user documents, but some processes are better explained using powerful graphics for users to understand. Here is a great example How not to look ugly on a webcam you could have put these steps either on a document form or checklist form, but creating infographics makes it powerful and engaging for the users. There are various infographics creating tools like Canva, Piktochart, Venngage

Diagrams/Flowcharts – In some cases, the standard operating procedures will be a flow of logical steps that can be better represented in the form of flowchart or diagrams. Example: How to escalate a problem, Lead flow from signup to sales. Tools to create flow charts /diagrams Lucidchart, Creatly, Whimsical

Wiki/Collaboration: In certain cases, where a lot of people involved in updating the standard operating procedures regularly, then a Wiki or a Collaboration tool will be ideal.

Example: Daily/weekly agile stand-up meetings, Team meetings, etc. In our case, we use Microsoft OneNote for our daily/weekly engineering team meetings, where all the developers and testers update their progress. And for one to one meetings, we follow the Level 10 format from Traction with a standard structure across the company which is maintained as Wiki in Microsoft Teams. You can also use modern tools like Notion.so, Coda

kovai.co-SOP-example-weekly-standup

 

kovai.co-SOP-team-meetings-template

How to write an effective Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

There is no official standard that will teach you how to write an SOP. But there are some steps you can follow that will help you to organize your thoughts and plan the most effective path to standardizing your procedures.

  1. Define the scope
  2. Gather information
  3. Choose the format
  4. Complete the draft
  5. Review with stakeholders
  6. Publish
  7. Promote
  8. Review and amend
  9. Analyze usage metrics

1. Define the scope

Before starting any SOP document clearly define the scope of the document, your SOP must solve a specific problem and easy to understand. Example: “Employee onboarding”, the scope of this document is very clear just by looking at the title. The document should only cover the essential details about this title.

2. Gather information

Once the scope is defined gather as much information as possible. Most of the time a Standard Operating Procedure document is created to streamline existing work. So you’ll know exactly how that’s done currently, once you have all the data it’s easy to put it together in a structured format.

3. Choose the format

As I previously highlighted under the topic “Format of Standard Operating Procedures”, you need to decide the best possible format for the topic. The majority of the cases it will be either a document (Document360, Google Docs, Microsoft Word) or in the form of Checklist.   

4. Complete the draft

At this stage, you are good to complete the first draft of the SOP.

5. Review with stakeholders

It’s important to get the buy-in from all the stakeholders involved for that specific SOP. If we take the same example “Employee onboarding” you might have a few departments and people involved in that process, your Recruitment team, HR team, IT assets team, and Facilities team.

So everyone should clearly understand the document and provide their feedback.  You can utilize the “Discussion” feature in Document360 to get reviews and respond to reviews of the Standard Operating Procedure.

6. Publish

Once you get approval from all the stakeholders who are associated with the specific SOP document, you can publish the document in a centralized internal knowledge base that’s accessible to everyone. If you are using Document360, the SOP is already in a centralized knowledge base, you might also use Microsoft SharePoint (if written in Microsoft Word) or Google Docs.

7. Promote

Sometimes it’s not enough to just create and store the SOP document in a central repository, you need to actively promote that content to all the stakeholders.  One of the biggest challenges with SOP is often the SOP documents are left unnoticed and kills its original purpose.

So you need a mechanism to constantly make sure it’s used actively. Document360 “Notification” feature can be used for this purpose, both for initial publish and also constantly notifying users whenever there are an amendment and new version.

8. Review and Amend

This is pretty standard. Most organizations don’t look back at their processes after defining them, having a “don’t fix what’s not broken” attitude. More often than not, though, there are a lot of benefits to be gained from improving the process. Document360 comes with a few in-built features to address this “Article Versioning”, “Review Reminders

9. Analyze usage metrics

First, you need to define the right metrics. You can’t improve something you can’t measure. You need to constantly check the adaption of the published SOP documents. Imaging after spending so much effort and producing an SOP document and after 3 or 6 months you noticed no one is using it, it is such a waste of effort.

Document360 Analytics features help to see key metrics like how many visits, leading SOP article, search terms used to find SOP’s, Feedback comments, etc

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Structure, Template, and Categorization of an SOP document

Structure:

The standard operating procedures on its own should have a standard operating procedure for how each document will be structured. 

  • Title
  • Article Metadata
  • Executive summary
  • Glossary terms
  • Table of Content
  • Main Content

Having a well-defined structure (SOP Template) for your standard operating procedures brings consistency across all your documents. The above points are just for your guidelines and you can tweak it according to your company fit.  Here is an example.

kovai.co-SOP-structure-template

Document360 single sourcing feature can be used to define this standard repeatable feature in every SOP document.

Categorization

Over some time when your company gets matured with processes and many SOP’s soon, you’ll start seeing a new problem coming, grouping/structuring/organizing them in a well-defined way so people can find it and use it easily.

What’s the point of writing an SOP document if no one can find it or use it. Put a plan in place how you wanted to create an organization level or department level (if you are big) category structure in place to organize your SOP’s

Document360 can help you to achieve this by a couple of features organize using multiple projects or have a clear folder structure and hierarchy using the category manager.

Challenges adopting Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

As I mentioned earlier in the document, bringing SOP’s into the organization is a big investment and a cultural change, which needs to be addressed in a systematic way for the success of the implementation.

Some of the common challenges you’ll experience adaption SOP’s

  • Outdated SOP’s
  • Non-involvement of employees
  • Missing Feedback loop
  • Easy to consume

Outdated SOP’s: Your SOP documents are living documents. It’s not typically done and dusted (the majority of the cases). Hence it will require constantly updating them so it’s not outdated. An outdated document is a useless document.

If SOP’s are not reflecting the current working process (even a slight deviation) then it becomes useless. You can easily address this problem by using the Document360 Review Reminder feature you can set a reminder once the article is published to make it stale after a period. Example 3 months, 6 months, etc. You can then review, amend, and republish it.

Non-involvement of employees: This is another major challenge, if nobody is using the published SOP’s then it’s pretty much useless. You need to have a process to constantly review the metrics, usage of SOP’s and do some push (ex: highlighting it meetings, taking it to senior management to give a push, etc).

Document360 Analytics capability will help you get the metrics highlighting things like views, reads, popular articles, likes, dislikes, etc.

document360-analytics

 

Missing Feedback: You need to get people (employees) involved to mature your standard operating procedures. If left in the silo then you cannot identify the real challenges in the process.

Document360 can help you solve this problem by giving options for the readers (not stakeholders/reviewers) to give feedback on SOP’s like whether they like/dislike or even give explicit comments about certain sections of the article.

Easy to consume: The more simple you keep it, the chances of getting adapted becomes more real.

Document360 provides two different interfaces a Knowledgebase management portal for people who write/manage standard operating procedures and a simple Knowledgebase site focused on readers with great search, category visualization, and feedback options. 

Why Document360 for Standard Operating Procedures?

Even though you can use standard tools like Google Docs or a bunch of Microsoft Word documents stored in a central shared location. Using Document360 will make your life easy and takes away a lot of pain points I addressed throughout the document.

Let me highlight a couple of challenges with examples

You might want to restrict a specific category of SOP’s to only selected people (Ex: HR team got sensitive SOP documents), you can easily achieve it using Document360’s category level access right using security groups and reader accounts. Even though you can do this with Google Docs and Microsoft SharePoint it becomes a bit more tedious to manage it.

Separate interfaces for Editors and Readers. Editors will require a bit of sophistication while creating SOP’s like rich editor, analytics, category manager, etc, whereas, Readers only need a good interface to read the content in any device with a good real-time search. 

Document360 is a better choice to create Standard Operating Procedures.

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Saravana Kumar

Author

Saravana Kumar is the Founder/CEO of Document360, a SaaS platform that helps your team create, collaborate, and publish a self-service knowledge base for your software product/project with ease.

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