Effective Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) embody precision, detail, clarity, and accessibility. They are the uncluttered highway on which a smooth business procedure can cruise to success with minimal complications or failures. But what if a failure occurs?
All SOPs focus on a smooth process, getting from A to B just as the engineers or managers intended. However, we all know that failures happen. That console didn't work, that one component blocks another, the client demanded a change, and so on. I've seen countless business operations stopped in their tracks when such a situation arises that diverges from the current procedure's scope, and the technician can either throw the SOP over their shoulder – while changing the acronym to POS – or call you for guidance. And don't forget, the entire operation is stalled until you provide a solution!
A truly robust SOP will focus on what could go wrong just as intently as what should go right. But how can you possibly predict which links in the SOP chain are the weakest? Let's take a look at the steps you can take to do exactly that.
If your business is manufacturing, engineering, or technology-based, there will be plenty of designers nearby who know more about the product and process than anyone else in your organization.
Set up a meeting, ask them to run the numbers to find high-risk points, and identify the aspects of your SOP that are the most at risk. The technology industry is full of potential failure points from software to hardware. But, a well-constructed procedure that anticipates these problems and provides effective problem management steps is your ticket to a seamless business plan.
Once the designers have helped you identify where a failure may occur, you can work with that same team to implement a solution into the SOP. The result? If that particular failure occurs while following the procedure, the technician will have the fix right there in front of them.
What's more, that technician won't have to call the designers in a panic to find a solution to the problem. So the designers should thank you too.
Talk to the folks who will be using your SOP. The technicians putting the parts together, the team interfacing with clients, the data-entry techs, or whomever it would concern. They complete this process in some shape or form every single day, and you can bet they have a running list of items that always go wrong.
Therefore, they're the perfect people to run an eye over your procedure. They'll be able to spot weak points in an instant, along with any confusing or ambiguous terminology that should be ironed out.
Remember, any failure in a process, part, or assembly will grind your operation to a standstill if there is no procedure in place to deal with the problem. But that's exactly why SOPs exist, to mitigate those problems and smooth out the operation's wrinkles. So do yourself a favor and ensure your SOP is comprehensive and covers every risk and failure that the employees tackle on a daily basis.
Amongst the ocean of paperwork that managers and supervisors swim through every day are failure reports. If something didn't work, there's typically a paper trail that documents the problem, along with the implemented solution.
Now it's your turn to swim through the paperwork. Pull the reports and identify where the failures typically occur within your business and their frequency. In so doing, you'll be able to create robust and comprehensive procedures to reduce and respond to those exact failures. The result will be an SOP that's as effective as it is thorough, allowing your business to run like a well-oiled Rolls Royce.
Almost any organization on earth has employees who have been there for years, or from the beginning. These grizzled veterans have seen and dealt with it all and can tell you off the top of their head what the most common failures are, and how to fix them.
Use that knowledge, learn from their experience, and construct procedures that can respond to every risk your business or product faces. These SOPs will, in turn, reduce the risk of show-stopping failures from ever materializing.
Note: As tempting as it is to think that your SOP covers all the bases, remember to send it to your colleagues for feedback and critiques. More eyes are more likely to spot potential problems.
Not all risks and failures are reserved for the product itself. Consider this, a group of technicians is working outside using a paper copy of your SOP, and it starts to pour. The paper gets soggy and hard to read, and there goes your SOP down the drain – literally. Nothing is wrong with the product or the information within the procedure, but I call this a failure nonetheless.
In fact, I draw this particular scenario from personal experience. My past work in rocket research required one SOP after another, and the writer never took our location into account: namely rain central Florida. The procedures were thorough and precise. But then came the storms, and our important work screeched to a standstill until we could rig a rain shelter for our procedural work.
Therefore, think about what can go wrong with using the SOP itself. Is it accessible to those who need it? Is it suitable for the conditions where it will be used? This is another opportunity to connect with those employees who will be using the procedure on a daily or weekly basis, as they're most likely to spot a potential flaw – such as paper documentation in constant rain.
There we go. We've covered your best avenues towards creating a robust and comprehensive SOP. But sadly, the work doesn't end there. As hard as we try and as much as we plan, Murphy's Law will always be hovering over our work. For the uninitiated, this law states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. However, we still have a couple of methods to head off these inevitable failures before they seriously compromise your SOP.
Now, I'm not saying your work is doomed to failure no matter what you do. I am, however, suggesting that you monitor your SOP implementation very closely. Be on hand as the procedure is followed from start to finish, and be the rapid-response unit if a failure occurs. This attentiveness will ensure that the process goes smoothly even if a malfunction transpires, and allow you to revise and reapprove an updated SOP with minimal loss of time.
Finally, we've worked out all the kinks, minimized the potential for failures, and implemented solutions for any failures that could occur. So we should be good to go. Well, not quite.
SOPs are like needy puppies. Just when you think everything is calm and perfect and you divert your attention to something else, you'll be blindsided by a massive catastrophe. The point being, your SOP will need occasional attention to avoid a drastic increase in failures in the future.
Processes change, parts get updated, software improves, and so on. No single procedure is immortal, and your SOP needs to keep up with the times or it will start causing failures instead of solving them.
Therefore, organize occasional SOP reviews, especially after significant process or part updates. Use these reviews to identify the sections within the procedure that are either redundant or now inaccurate, and inject new and improved information. Keep it up to date, and your SOP will provide valuable guidance for years to come.
There you have it. We've covered how to make your SOP as robust as possible by identifying and planning for potential risks and failures. To recap, remember to:
It may seem to be a mountain of work, but it's worth it. Put in those hours on the creation end of your SOP, and you'll save yourself hours' worth of headaches and scrambling when the procedure goes into circulation.