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How Clear Are Your Standard Operating Procedures?

Mark Galley

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are used within many organizations. Their purpose is to capture how the work should be done. But the objective isn’t to have an SOP. The objective is to perform work safely and effectively, which actually gives us additional latitude beyond a standard operating procedure. SOPs, which are usually broken into different sections like purpose, scope, roles, definitions, etc., typically explain:

  • hazards associated with the task,
  • how the hazards should be mitigated,
  • the tools to be used,
  • the required personal protective equipment (PPE),
  • the steps of the job, and
  • the different situations that do and don’t apply.

Using written sentences with numbered steps for SOPs is one way to organize information, but 5,000 words in a 20-page procedure may not be the most effective format for the person working in the field. While written SOPs are the normal approach for documenting work within most organizations, we have also found documenting the steps of a task as a workflow (also called a work process, process map or flowchart) to be beneficial.

The first step of a work process should match the first step the person performs in the field. Some SOPs may not provide a specific work step until the sixth or seventh section. Most people think of a procedure as a lot of 8.5 x 11-inch pages stapled together—numbered 1.0 through 6.8.3. The information within an SOP may be important for the overall job, but it may not be presented in the sequence that the work is performed in the field.

Diagramming the steps of a workflow can make a task significantly easier to follow. For example, it may be a bad idea to write the following as sentences: piping and instrument diagrams (P&IDs), electrical diagrams, network diagrams, mechanical drawings and construction drawings. Visual tools, like diagrams and flowcharts, are a useful way to display an incredible amount of content in a simple and intuitive format.

Work Process vs. Procedure

We encourage companies to separate work process from procedure. Procedure is defined as the established way of doing something, but a work process is a series of steps to follow to perform a task. A process can be explained at basic, mid- and detailed levels. A work process aligns with a procedure, but it has broader applications.

For example, the process for a capital project may be appraise, select, define, execute and operate. There are five basic steps, but the entire project may consist of thousands of different tasks performed by dozens of different roles. The capital project process is five steps, 50-steps and 5,000 steps—and all of those steps need to be done effectively.

Details and Decisions

The people performing a task always work at the detailed level. Many of the “procedure not followed” investigations we conduct can be attributed to a work process that lacks clarity. For example, if you need to get nine items at the grocery store, you don’t put five on the list. You write down all nine. But companies routinely skip detail because of the concern that a task will become too complicated. They’re thinking procedure, not work process.

Every job is not identical. Unusual and unanticipated situations occur while performing tasks. The work process should capture the reality of how the work is done, not how it should be done. If the job is routine, then the work process remains simple. And if unusual circumstances arise, the work process can accommodate those decision points in the field.

Procedures are usually documented at only one level. While procedures have warnings and notes in special call-outs, they are conditional statements (if-thens) that need to be part of the normal sequence of work. In a process map, these are designated with a diamond shape and contain a question with different paths depending on the situation. These decision points are an important part of how work is done. Those decision points need to be captured and refined each time the task is performed.

The military calls this capturing and refining process a “debrief.” Many companies do a pre-job, but they may not be doing the post-job evaluation where the frontline shares what went well, what didn’t go well, what was clear and what was unclear. When an organization makes an effort to capture this insight as part of their work process, it become available for posterity. This work process approach aligns procedures, training, pre-jobs, debriefs and audits into one workflow. Refining a work process should makes tasks clearer and more reliable, not more complicated. Or, they can be treated as separate initiatives--whatever the organization finds more effective.

Your Solution Source

When developing or refining the work process, it’s essential that you involve the people who perform the work in order to get their insights. Ask, “What could we do to make this task clearer, simpler, safer and quicker?” The people working in an organization, like employees and contractors, should be viewed as vital resources for ideas and solutions. They know what’s unclear. Unfortunately, many organizations view people as the source of error in their operations without realizing their work processes are a key opportunity for improving communication between frontline and management, and establishing a prevention culture. Companies want to change their culture, yet they frequently undermine it by increasing the disconnect between management and labor. Get your people involved in problem solving by including them in the process, and the process becomes clearer.

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