The Straight and Rocky Path

Michael Charles II3 min read

Write an effective Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that decentralizes siloed information to empower teams.

Long tenures can make an employee invaluable to an organization. These team members are often trusted, deeply integrated with the culture, possess an intricate understanding of processes or systems, and help maintain a sense of community. However, as with any single structural support beam, when they're gone, we realize we've not only lost a valuable resource but gained a giant sinkhole of lost legacy knowledge in its place.

Companies of every size are beginning to understand the importance of documenting processes as a path toward automation. This documentation, formally called Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), is critical to reducing single points of knowledge and helping organizations optimize their practices by allowing employees to standardize the mundane and instead focus on innovation.

But where do you start the documenting process? More importantly - how do we document the aspects of our jobs that seem impossible to standardize? SolutionsMET Business Analyst and Technical Writer, Samantha Foster, has spent over a decade building knowledge, process, and quality management systems for federal agencies. She and her teams manage the publication of thousands of reports annually. With so many varying and detailed reports published annually, she knows better than most that creating a set of standardized operating procedures that team members can easily follow is pivotal to achieving success daily.

Sam recommends beginning any SOP development process with the basics. Build a task's "straight path" by documenting all of the physical and digital tools needed for success, such as capturing login credentials needed, data to have handy, etc.

Next, actively walk through the process yourself, jot down each step, and ensure you've captured everything.

Pro Tip: You would be surprised at how many of the details are left behind when we leave documenting to memory. Be sure to take each step and document even the smallest of details.

Once you've jotted down the steps, begin building your document in a digital library that is secure and easily accessible to the people who will need regular access to it.

After developing a base for your process, the next step may get a bit tricky, says Sam,

"It's easy to write for the way things should be, you also have to write for all the variables."

Hence, the straight and rocky paths. It's important to capture what should happen, but also all of the scenarios that could veer things off of the straight path and make things rocky. For example, what would happen if they click a button and it doesn't give the expected response? Or, what's the process for effectively taking down an incorrect product? Make sure to capture more than just technological responses in these variables, and include IT support numbers, if relevant, or points of contact for remedying mistakes.

At this point, both the straight and the rocky paths have been built. The next step is to go through your new SOP and smooth things out. "The difficulty with a process that is as nuanced and varied," advises Sam, "is that a proper SOP can only dive so deep into each process. Detailed documentation could be well over 400 pages and crash your computer when you need it!" Not to mention the toll on the human spirit it can take to sort through several hundred pages of documentation per day. Build time into your process building schedule to look at the details and try to simplify and organize as much as possible. Make sure the document is easy to read and follow. Remember, your SOP is only effective if it's used and user-friendly.

Finally, understand that SOPs are living documents. They're organic and ever-changing based on the needs of your team as it grows or transitions. Don't be afraid to head back in there and create changes. The most effective SOPs exist as iterations; they get updated as your team experiences breaks in chains or new complications to the system due to a software update or expanded approval process. As the work continues to evolve, so should the documentation. If the company culture allows it, decentralize the responsibility of maintenance and empower team members to update SOPs as they see changes in the system. Sharing the responsibility could also support maintaining the most up-to-date versions of documents and make them the most effective.

If you're looking for a place to start capturing both the straight and rocky paths, begin with one of Sam's templates linked here. Use the template as a suggested format, but feel free to move pieces around, add or remove sections, and adjust to fit your organizational processes.