What is an SOP? 16 Essential Steps to Writing Standard Operating Procedures (+20 Templates)

What is an SOP? Writing standard operating procedures

Ever wondered what an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) is? Whether starting a business or trying to improve an existing one, you have to understand how things will get done. Writing standard operating procedures can seem complicated on the surface. Nevertheless, with some thought, the process can be easy.

What tasks do you need to do? Who needs to do them? What are the best ways to approach these tasks?

It would be best if you first worked out how to answer the above questions. It is also your first step toward systemizing your business. Consequently, creating processes and workflows will define how your day-to-day activities function.

The aim of standard operating procedures

One popular approach is the creation of standard operating procedures. For example, the simple definition provided by IBM for standard operating procedures is:

  • Instructions describing the steps and activities of a process or procedure

Simple.

But how do we create these SOPs? We need standard operating procedures for creating standard operating procedures – and some standard operating procedure software. And that’s what we’re going to give you.

We’ll look at:

  • How to create a set of standard operating procedures
  • Some advanced techniques for improving your SOPs
  • Why Process Street is a valuable tool for both mapping and following your standard operating procedures

Read through these sections to get clued up:

Writing standard operating procedures: A quick how-to guide

Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) Template – Writing standard operating procedures

Step 1: Understand how you are going to present your SOPs

You can choose from several formats when defining how you’ll structure and present your standard operating procedures. In fact, the international standard you probably use if you work in a large company is ISO 9000, or some variant of that.

You don’t need to follow international rules to create a suitable procedure. Here’s a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) Template Structure for writing a single procedure with all the benefits of being compliant with the highest international standards for big businesses while also being simple, easy to edit, and collaborative.

You can use ISO 9000 for serious procedures

ISO-9000 Structure Template – Writing standard operating procedures

As we go forward with the article, we’ll be keeping things broadly in line with ISO 9000, but we’ll also build on that foundation. A solopreneur might want something a little different, and as good as the ISO method is for documenting SOPs, it has limitations regarding how actionable it is. Although this may be true, we’ll look to improve on that using tools and tech!

For anyone who wants to stick as closely as possible to the ISO 9000 structure, I’ve built this ISO-9000 Structure Template that you can start using right now to create a procedure manual.

The template adheres to the ISO 9001:2015 Quality Mini-Manual standards.

If you export the ISO 9000 template, it will appear with a title at the top. Henceforth, each section will be presented individually in full. The image below explains how standard operating procedure documentation is submitted.

writing standard operating procedures ISO 9000

Use a BPM (business process management system)

Using Process Street to help you establish SOPs according to ISO-9000 allows you to follow those procedures interactively. Two birds, one business process management system.

Which format you choose to work with will be dependent on several factors. In particular, if you work for a large multinational, you’ll need to have standard operating procedures which adhere to the company’s internal policies and standardizations. For instance, if you’re a solopreneur, you may want to have a much simpler layout of your SOPs for your reference.

There are three main approaches to take:

Create a simple checklist

You can write a simple checklist that outlines the different tasks involved and looks more like a to-do list than a report. This approach benefits the solopreneur, or small teams, who don’t require detailed instructions. In fact, this approach offers a speedy option. It allows people to create standard operating procedures when they perform new tasks – rapidly noting down the steps they took for future reference. As a result, this flexibility can aid startups in trying new things regularly.

writing standard operating procedures checklist

The burden of this approach is that the lack of detail results in problems when trying to analyze the process. In other words, optimization and improvement are harder to attain without recorded facts.

Create a complex linear checklist

It doesn’t have to be too complicated, but this should be like a beefed-up version of the above. This checklist should record as much detail in the process as possible. You can consider whether a single task requires a sub-checklist of other tasks to spell it out. You can understand how you will document workflows when tasks involve multiple people and how they will fit together? For one thing, including detail means you have more variables to iterate when optimizing the process.

Watertight processes

This approach is the one favored by us at Process Street. Our goal is to have processes so watertight that anyone could take over the task and be able to complete it. For this reason, we improved our customer support process using this method. When we hired new staff members, we gave them this checklist with detailed instructions and explanations and gave them level one support in their first week.

If they found something difficult or couldn’t understand it, there was a problem in the process. This system built optimization into the execution of the process. Without a detailed process – to begin with – it wouldn’t have been possible.

writing standard operating procedures flow diagramMap out a process flow diagram

A flow diagram is a valuable means of visualizing your standard operating procedures and understanding how the constituent parts come together to form a coherent whole. In other words, flow diagrams are less actionable than a linear structured checklist. However, flow diagrams are handy for the communication of processes. A process flow chart will help you explain your process structures to others while easing the analysis of a process when you come to iterate and improve.

This article will discuss the methods to construct a detailed checklist. This approach results in well-documented processes while also providing highly actionable instructions. In particular, it’s great for remote teams and those working on the ground.

Step 2: Gather the relevant stakeholders

We’re firm believers in the power of collaborative creation. Suppose you create standard operating procedures for particular tasks, processes, or workflows. In that case, you should probably contact the people who will be or are already responsible for those duties.

If you’re a manager and have a team of people working each day on a set of tasks, you’ll want to understand the thoughts of your team in regards to best practices. After all, these are the people you pay to perform these recurring tasks daily. Teamwork is vital for any business.

writing standard operating procedures teamwork

Building processes collaboratively results in more:

  1. Expertise
  2. Scrutiny

It also provides a sense of ownership – over the process – for the people following it. By working in this manner, the process feels like less of an order and more of an agreement.

Check out the video below to see how Mainline Autobody uses Process Street to build and follow their processes collaboratively:

Step 3: Work out your purpose

5 Whys Checklist Template – Writing standard operating procedures

What are you looking to achieve as you build these standard operating procedures?

Are they brand new? In which case, you’re trying to create systems that function. But you also want them to perform well. That is to say; the SOP priorities must align with the business’s priorities.

Consider a few more points if you’re looking to produce standard operating procedures covering existing processes and workflows.

What are your pain points?

writing standard operating procedures pain points

Where are your existing processes letting you down, and what can you do to change that? Maybe you don’t know, so to investigate – you start documenting. Or, more likely, you’ve recognized that the current system is too slow or the final product is not consistently high quality. Moreover, you have a pain point that you wish to target.

A case study

We spoke to one of our Process Street users who runs a chain of healthy restaurants across Canada called iQ Food Co about how they approached process management. He told us a story about a process-related pain point he had experienced. Payroll kept going wrong, and there were always mistakes.

He created a detailed process breakdown of the tasks involved to tackle this. As an illustration, he had the tasks followed in order every time. Consequently, he responded to the poor quality with clarity and detail – making the process longer if necessary.

Displaying a sense of humor, he told us: “We have eliminated 100% of mistakes.
writing standard operating procedures iq food co

If you’re having trouble figuring out the root cause of pain points and why these pain points are occurring, try the 5 Whys Checklist Template.

Step 4: Determine the structure of your SOP

A large company’s standard operating procedures will be in a formal report.

The typical approach includes a cover page in the report with the title and relevant reference details. In addition, before starting with the processes, there should be a list of chapters inside.

If you work in a startup or a small company, this level of formality isn’t needed. Although this is a common-sense approach, following the set structure is sound.

We’ve constructed our export features within the Process Street platform to deal with this and present the online processes report-style when exported to Microsoft Word. This way, we can operate our processes with the platform’s flexibility while also giving clients who need it the ability to save processes as PDFs for reference purposes in line with ISO-9000.

Step 5: Prepare the scope of the procedure

If you’re forming a set of standard operating procedures for a particular aspect of a marketing content team’s work, you should be focusing on them and their needs. Similarly, learn where to draw the line to stop you from wandering into other groups or departments.

You can discuss how a workflow may span multiple teams, but you should know from the beginning whether that is the case or not. Likewise, define the limits of your investigation, or you’ll end up with mission creep.

With what are you dealing? What action initiates the process on which you’re working? What action finishes the process on which you’re working? With this in mind, define your scope.

Step 6: Use a consistent style

writing standard operating procedures writing style

Again, if you’re working for a large multinational, everything you do will be more formal than Gary and his startup of one.

Whether you’re going to be using formal language depends on your professional setting. For this reason, we’ve built up some tips and tricks over time, broad suggestions applicable in all scenarios.

  1. Start with action commands. Always use a verb at the beginning of a statement for a task.
  2. This kind of language clarifies what you must do and packs a punch.
  3. Be concise. Convey vital information only in your SOPs report. To clarify, talk to the air rather than the reader.
  4. Make it scannable. Usually, this might be considered blog writing advice. But when listing detailed instructions for a particular task within the workflow, put the actionable sections first and follow with the explanation. In addition, don’t make readers sift through paragraphs of text every time they want to follow the SOPs.

Step 7: Use correct notation, if applicable

writing standard operating procedures BPMN
If you’re at a large company, they may have a system that you have to learn and follow. Some of these systems are a little idiosyncratic and tied to the company. Most, however, will use a standardized form of notation like BPMN.

No one says you have to use BPMN or any variation thereof, but systems like that are helpful if you’re in a corporate environment or one where you have to work closely with people from other companies. Think of tools like BPMN as universal languages, the Esperanto of business process management.

You may be able to employ some of these mapping techniques and methodologies later in the process if they’re visual rather than textual.

Step 8: Work out all the necessary steps of the process

Now it’s time to put in the hard graft.

Collaboratively walk through the process from start to finish, noting every step taken along the way. Equally, allow for input and discussion across your team. Furthermore, try to record any suggested actions.

Then, once you have the foundation of the process, go through and look at each task. Additionally, consider if you should add sub-tasks to give more detail.

This extra detail is essential to make an easy-to-follow process. Within Process Street, you can create subtasks within tasks to tackle this need. To clarify, subtasks provide a simple way to make a process appear straightforward while adding actionable detail.

Step 9: Try to assess potential problems in the process

writing standard operating procedures process problemsConsider whether things can go wrong once you have your process on paper. And if they can go wrong, where would that failure likely happen?

You can run the calculations if you’re using your SOPs to govern a manufacturing process, which can be accounted for easily by numbers. For instance, maybe your process results in high output in terms of production but puts a strain on distribution? You know your business better than I do and can make those assessments.

Our case study

We noticed that in-depth articles created a degree of risk in our content creation process. For one thing, the most significant threat we faced was that we would miss a deadline. We would likely make the deadline, but this would cause other problems. For example, there might be minor editing and rewriting, which would pose a risk of reducing quality.

Regardless, we tackled this by simply attaching earlier submission deadlines to articles. In effect, the whole team can work one or two weeks ahead of schedule, minimizing risk. Sometimes the most effective changes to a process can be some of the most simple.

Step 10: Determine metrics against which the SOPs can be judged

writing standard operating procedures process analysisTo know whether your process is performing well or poorly, you need metrics against which to judge it.

Generally, it is not enough to assume the process is working. We need to understand how it is performing to optimize it.

If you’re constructing SOPs for a sales process, you may be looking at metrics like:

  • How many generated leads are there per week?
  • What is the average length of a sales call?
  • How many conversions are we getting each week?
  • What are our sales totals per week?

Once you’ve established what questions you’re asking, you can act upon them. For example, how were you performing against these questions previously? Has the new process improved these numbers? Towards what long-term targets should your staff work?

Once you have the metrics defined, you can assess the performance of the process and evaluate the performance concerning the company’s broader goals.

Step 11: Test the process

writing standard operating procedures testing

It’s time for the moment of truth.

Now that you’ve defined your standard operating procedures, you can put them into practice. How you implement them is up to you, and it depends on your available resources.

Maybe, to continue with the sales example given above, you have a sales team of ten, and you set three people on the new process. Specifically, this controlled test of the new potential SOPs will allow you to gather comparative data on the performance of the two models – existing and new.

Test to perfect

If you’re happy that your new business process is better than the previous one and want to implement it immediately to start iterating, you can test other areas.

For example, we have an internal customer support process I’ve previously mentioned, which we run every time we deal with a customer question.

This process – perfected over time – now functions smoothly and efficiently. One of the methods we used to test how easy it was to follow was to put new hires in the company on level one support in their first week. To clarify, the new employees were given a process and asked to help our customers. This idea was a baptism of fire – not just for the new hire but for the process. The job would be well done regardless of experience if the process were good enough.

Step 12: Send the process to superiors

If you’re running your own company, you may not have any superiors to send your SOPs.

Namely, it’s more about having someone with experience review the standard operating procedures to give you feedback. Furthermore, someone not involved in the collaborative creation process can look for flaws with fresh eyes. If you’re a small business, this could be an investor, someone from your network, or even a valued customer!

If you’re working in a large company, this will likely be a mandated part of your writing SOPs process to seek approval on the work. Under those circumstances, send the results of any testing you have undertaken and the draft SOPs.

Step 13: Clarify the method of optimizing the process

The Process for Optimizing a Process – Writing standard operating procedures

Optimizing the process over time is a crucial step in creating it in the first place. For this reason, the process should be considered a living document.

No process is ever perfect, and nor can it be. However, the processes can be as good as we make them.

We have a simple checklist that can help direct you. Try The Process for Optimizing a Process Template.

Get optimized

Optimizing a process involves a number of the steps we have already covered. Moreover, it’s important to remember that we work as a team. Therefore, the people who follow the process and its weaknesses might find the strength of the process each day. In this case, stay collaborative in the optimization process at all times.

Your key metrics will drive where you’ll optimize. To explain, metrics are how you measure performance and will guide your pursuit of the perfect process.

One of the critical steps to improving the process is to consider integrating other tools and automated components into your workflow. Workflow software that integrates with other platforms can supercharge your operations!

Additional examples

You can check out a few more articles and ebooks related to business process automation here:

Step 14: Run a risk assessment on your process

A risk assessment is an essential part of finalizing any project.

If you’re a software firm, you’ve probably already covered this in one of the above sections where we look at where things go wrong.

However, the risk assessment is even more critical if you’re in manufacturing, transport, or other industries. Explicitly, when you direct people doing something, it’s your responsibility to ensure no one gets hurt during the process.

Don’t overlook safety in favor of speed.

writing standard operating procedures safety first

Step 15: Consider creating a flow diagram

Flow diagrams or workflow maps – or whatever terminology you prefer – can be helpful in many ways:

  1. Visual overviews: Sometimes, it’s helpful when presenting information to give visual aids. These aids can scrutinize information from the beginning, improving the clarity of your more detailed written explanation.
  2. Help employees understand their role: Flow diagrams give employees a visual understanding of what to do. They also make sure that your employees understand their position. In other words, flow diagrams improve the process and improve employee accountability.

Step 16: Finalize and implement the SOPs

Congratulations!

You’ve completed your new standard operating procedures. In fact, if you’ve followed the process from beginning to end, your SOPs are guaranteed to improve performance. To illustrate:

  • You tested your SOPs.
  • They have optimization strategies built in.
  • You’ve made sure they’re safe.

Using Process Street to implement your SOPs into daily business, you use easy-to-use and trackable practices. In fact, you are also putting provisions in place to tackle any hidden normalization of deviance or any poor processes that may have slowed the company down.

As a matter of fact, I’ve got you covered if you want extra insight into how other SOPs can look.

Examples of Process Street’s fully-written and usable SOPs

As can be seen, below are SOP templates for different industries and sectors. In particular, you can:

Even more resources

If you like the look of these SOP templates, sign up for Process Street. Accordingly, you can add the templates below to your free account and start using them – or make similar ones yourself!

AB Testing (SOP Template)

Client Onboarding for a Marketing Agency (SOP Template)

Client Data Backup Best Practices (SOP Template)

Construction Progress Report (SOP Template)

Construction Proposal (SOP Template)

Creating a Newsletter (SOP Template)

Daily Store Opening Checklist (SOP Template)

Diversity Hiring Process (SOP Template)

Ecommerce Product Listing (SOP Template)

Email Server Security (SOP Template)

Enterprise Password Management Checklist (SOP Template)

FHA Inspection Checklist (SOP Template)

Holiday Leave Application (SOP Template)

Leave of Absence (SOP Template)

Performance Review Checklist (SOP Template)

Retail Employee Onboarding Checklist (SOP Template)

There you have it.

In summary, I promised you a thrilling guide to SOPs. I’m pretty sure I delivered.

Ensure your SOPs adhere to ISO standards

With Process Street, you can create and write incredible SOPs – easily.

At the same time, if you want to make sure your SOPs are genuinely the best they can be, adhere them to ISO standards. Not to mention, you’re internally and externally certifying them as reliable, high quality, and effective.

Need a helping hand to get them up to the caliber ISO demands?

In summary, I’ve got you covered.

Additional reading materials

Read through the following ISO posts published on Process Street’s blog:

I can’t wait to see the incredible SOPs you’ll write.

Has this guide been helpful for you? How do you approach standard operating procedures in your business? Write down your thoughts in the comment section below. 👇

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Adam Henshall

I manage the content for Process Street and dabble in other projects inc language exchange app Idyoma on the side. Living in Sevilla in the south of Spain, my current hobby is learning Spanish! @adam_h_h on Twitter. Subscribe to my email newsletter here on Substack: Trust The Process. Or come join the conversation on Reddit at r/ProcessManagement.


42 Comments

Thank you for all of the great information! I know I need to create SOPs for all of the tasks in my practice but it was difficult to find the time to even read this blog let alone create the SOPs. And I can guarantee you my staff will not read this whole thing. One thing that I will say, I have definitely taken away from this article is to make it a collaborative effort. What I do is have each of my team members to write a staff training on one of the tasks in their job description or one of our office’s “pain points”. This helps to clarify to everyone how this particular task should be run in the office. By doing this, I’m hoping to take your 16 Essential steps, apply them to the individual staff trainings and eventually have SOPs for every job in our office. Again, not an easy feat but your great article I do believe will definitely help. Thanks again for the info!

If i rewrite my SOP, do i need to change the year of that SOP?

Example : my previous SOP 16/01.. Do i need to rewrite my SOP to 18/01/01?
hope you can explain to me.
Thanks

You shouldn’t change the date of origin of the sop instead insert a revision date so that you can have traceability on what has been changed

Very good article. Thank you. My question is around SOP’s and their approval signatures versus the effective date. There seem to be two schools of thought. 1. Effective date is the date of the last signature 2. Effective date is about one month, dependent on the business, from the last signature in order for staff to be trained prior to the SOP becoming effective. Thoughts?

Wow! Brilliant article. Everything in one pill. I’m sending to my people, hoping they understand and implement…

Thanks a lot, your have done a great job. I currently have an SOP and am doing a review, i have learnt the need to do a measurement (To test the performance) and risk assessment.

Hi Alvin, it depends on your own internal standards. I would take a relaxed approach and suggest that it would be fine to use them. For me, the most important thing about SOPs is that they can be followed. So I wouldn’t mind too much what the language was within them.

Just a heads up, Step 6 #3 has a typo “Don’t make readers sift through paragraphs of text every time they way to follow the SOPs.” – Is “way” supposed to be “want?” “need?”

Also, under Step 12, maybe there can be an explicit suggestion for small business owners such as “An investor, customer, or anyone else you trust can review your SOPs for clarity and completeness.” after this sentence, “Someone who was not involved in the collaborative creation process, and can look at the flows with fresh eyes.” It just seems to jump into the suggestion for larger organizations abruptly as it currently reads.

Great article! Thanks for all the details.

Great catch!

And I’ve also added in a little suggestion for small businesses based on your comment.

Happy to hear you enjoyed the post! 🙂

Hi there! Are you an editor? I’m asking because you provided amazing feedback for the Process Street “16 Steps for Creating a SOP” article. I am currently working on one now and wondering if you’re open to reviewing the work once complete.

Hi Krystal!

I’m not currently an editor but I blog a bit and write technical documentation. (I’m actually hoping to get into editing on the side since reading is a hobby of mine.) I’d love to give input on your article! I won’t post my email here publicly, but you can reach me on my contact form on my site (https://megabyterose.com) and we can exchange emails. 🙂

Hi all,

I am a SOP’s writter noobie, and kind of get confused with the following:

I’ve been instructed to create SOP’s for an specific procedure, which involves several departments; what I am confused about is the fact that, should I write the work instructions from starters on each department (as I’ve instructed to do 1 work instructions for each department), instead of the individual steps that are related to specific procedure I want to write about.

Hi Rodrigo,

It depends on your organization really and what standards the company operates by.

One way would be to write out the linear flow of the procedure from start to finish including all the departments, then also write out the specific instructions for each department as separate documents. People want to see what is relevant to them, not a huge manual. But it’s still important to be able to understand the overall procedure and for each team to see how their actions fit into that procedure.

The other way would be to use a tool like Process Street where you could write out the whole procedure and then use a feature like Task Assignment to assign certain tasks on a process to one team and other tasks to another team. This way you only create one overview of the whole process, but it’s very easy for each member of each team to see where they fit into that process and what they’re responsible for. Because you would be using software, people would receive notifications when they are needed to complete a task. So it makes it easy for everyone.

Let me know how it all works out!

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the feedback; and you were correct all along, I’ve completed the documentation providing the specific steps for each department, in a linear kind of way, and it worked out per the need of information my director had.

I’ll check out the tools that you mentioned, sounds like it can help a lot with big tasks.

Thanks for all the suggestions and recommendations given on SOP writing.
could you pls send me some samples on SOP writing to have clear understanding ,
Thanks

Excellent article . It helps me to understand the concept of SOP. Thank you so much for your great efforts.

This is such an exhaustive list of steps. They are great for people involved in project and process management. There are detailed steps and it is well thought out. The steps covers all the necessary tasks that are done in and out of project management. Thanks for sharing this.I am going to use this a lot.

Hi Brother…..
Thank you so much for your good work for us i really find very hard a complete information about SOP..its very helpfull for all of us….Stay blessed brother

Share suitable templates for Super market, Apparels and Kids shops Business.
Business Process Management steps also need to be shared.

Hi Adam
You have done justice to the article. Great. Do you have anything on Human Resource SOP particulary for a non banking financial company.


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