What is SOP?

Carlo Atienza-Sui Generis

WHEN I talk to friends about how they are doing in their work, there would always be a story or two about how one of their coworkers did not follow a certain process, and how they lost time and resources because of it. Too often, there are standard operating procedures (SOP), or protocols, in departments or groups within their organization that are not documented. It is up to the new employee to learn them on their own, especially in a big organization where SOPs are established between departments over time among different people.

Most of the time, people do not know these protocols because they are not written down. Documented workflows provide a ready reference for commonly used processes and, at the same time, ensures work quality is sustained. This also guarantees that groups within the organization continue to be reliable and the results are consistent. When protocols are not documented or poorly articulated, leaders have difficulty sustaining their team’s efforts or even working with other groups. These protocols help ensure better working conditions among team members and other departments.

Aside from maintaining work quality, having clearly delineated protocols helps make it easier for the group to onboard new employees. Just about anybody in the team can onboard new hires and explain the common procedures, and walk them through what to expect and what to avoid. Onboarding reduces downtime for new hires and reduces their learning curve. A word of caution though: these protocols need to be updated regularly and reinforced to old and new members so that everybody is apprised of new protocols.

Having clearly defined protocols also ensures everybody knows what to do in different scenarios. Protocols help everybody understand the common processes involved in doing their work. At the same time, such understanding helps others in the team pitch in when one of the members becomes sick or unavailable. When protocols are clear, everybody is on the same page. However, protocols can also become too restrictive when they do not allow for people to think creatively, or provide opportunities for improving existing procedures.

To improve the quality of work, especially when protocols are not working as intended, or people have discovered a better way of doing things, a periodic review of protocols helps to avoid making them too restrictive. Once they are reviewed and revised, everyone in the group needs to understand and use these new procedures. Be warned that overly changing the SOPs, to the extent that people become confused, can be counterproductive.

To avoid this, set regular reviews and carefully consider existing conditions to ensure smooth implementation. Also consider that there might be other factors that were not thought of when the protocols were drafted and make allowances for team members to decide on their own. They should be able to understand the spirit of the protocol without being too literal.

Draconian wordings and implementation of protocols can result in more harm than good. To avoid this, teams should understand the principle behind the protocol and adjust their implementation as long as it follows its basic principles.

Another benefit of having well thought-out protocols is the guarantee that the group complies with the minimum requirements of regulatory laws. Certain procedures are mandated by law to avoid a company being placed in a compromising situation, and to assure the public that the organization is compliant with established rules. The danger lies when organizations implement their protocols with the same rigor as if they are regulatory laws. It would help an organization better by complementing these regulatory measures with protocols that are tailor-fit for their group.

Having protocols also reduces the risks involved in doing work by helping employees avoid dangers. Occupational and safety hazard protocols and data information confidentiality guidelines are examples of protocols meant to safeguard the well-being of employees. These are in place to ensure nobody gets hurt and sensitive information is amply protected.

But there are also protocols which delimit people’s ability to make decisions on their own because the punishment is harsh, or which make them too afraid to commit a mistake. Either there is punishment for not following procedure, or the protocols do not contain any provision to address a novel situation. When I was a teacher, mobile phones were not allowed for students and the protocol was to confiscate them if used inside the classroom. I caught one using his mobile phone during class and promptly confiscated it. It turned out he had a special pass for a medical condition which required him to be in touch with his parents. That incident resulted in students being given special passes for those needing their mobile phones.

Which brings me to my last point: documented protocols also help in identifying weaknesses in the process and help the team fill in those gaps with what has worked for them in the past or the best practices from other groups. You end up improving your workflows and giving multiple opportunities for your team to troubleshoot and diagnose processes in order to get the work done in the most expedient way. A word of caution though: the entire team must understand the reasons for the new set of protocols and how they will implement them.

A clearly articulated and prominent set of protocols goes a long way in ensuring your team understands the nuances of your operations, and helps new members acclimatize to their new working environment. But at the same time, they should be easy to follow, and should allow team members to think critically when they encounter new issues. After all, protocols are meant to make their work simpler and faster.

Image courtesy of Campaign Creators on Unsplash

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