How to write great SOPs and declutter systems

The art of tidying up your SOPs

When was the last time you thoroughly sorted through and updated your laboratory’s standard operating procedures? Perhaps

procedure-writing, how to write great SOPs
Procedural clutter weighing you down? It’s time to Marie Kondo your SOPs!

you have some great procedures buried in long-winded prose that should be converted into a flowchart or diagram and proudly displayed around the workplace? 

Likewise, perhaps it’s time you finally culled those overly complex multi-page procedures and instead replaced them with visually clear and useful working documents. Below are our top tips on how to write great SOPs and declutter your documents (Marie Kondo-style). 

What is an SOP?

An SOP refers to any of the routine steps staff carry out. The how-to’s, the contingency plans, the checklists. We may also call them procedures, methods or instructions. These critical documents are not just there to cover the organisation when it comes to the bare minimum of compliance, output and OHS. They exist to streamline and thus improve the way individuals and departments carry out their tasks, minimise errors, identify opportunities and communicate with each other. Not only that, when SOPs contain information that makes the procedure relevant, i.e, linking it to an overall quality outcome, staff are more autonomously engaged in continual improvement. 

Decluttering paperwork to find procedural gold for your laboratory

Just as having a tidy home free of unwanted parafernalia brings more “joy” (as the famous decluttering expert would have it), having slick, relevant, visible SOPs can bring more sanity and productivity to the workplace. 

Many labs have SOPs that were written by previous managers or years ago and have out-of-date or excessive details. Or they might have been written by a consultant who doesn’t really understand what SOPs laboratories need. These are often just “official” documents for accreditation purposes, not prominently shown around the workplace as an ever-present prompt and check on quality. Or when they are displayed, the information is poorly communicated and out-of-date, resulting in the key point of the process being lost. 

If quality systems are key to your organisation’s business model, then you can’t afford to acquire the equivalent of procedural paperwork “junk”. For an SOP to achieve its aims of ensuring service quality and staff safety, minimising risk and conflict, and boosting efficiency, they must be:

  • Frequently reviewed and updated. Organisations and accreditation requirements are frequently adapting and with them, requirements for their processes. 
  • Up-to-date 
  • Visible
  • Goal-oriented. It should be clear why a certain procedure is required 
  • Addressed to a specific team member or members

“Tidy” SOPs are critical when it comes to systemising and documenting your processes, and they improve your organisation. 

Consider the value of each SOP

While we won’t dare to recommend holding each procedure and asking yourself “it is bringing the workplace joy?”, we do suggest the systematic approach of the “KonMari method”. Take an inventory of your SOPs and really consider their relevance and quality to ensure your lab is free of distracting procedural clutter.

While it’s tempting to jump straight in and start updating those SOPs you know are out of date, some planning will lead to lasting improvements. Put your SOPs through the following tests to assess whether it’s time to make changes to them or even let them go! 

  • Is it on high rotation with front-line staff? 
  • Do staff value it? Ask if they really need and appreciate the content. 
  • Is the process described highly operator-dependent?
  • Does it describe a step-by-step process or just one aspect of a process (such as safety)
  • Does it make a complex process clear and easy to follow?
  • Does it contain key data that must be used in day-to-day testing?
  • Would bringing the procedure up-to-date be relatively simple and quick? 

Use the answers to prioritise how you spend your time. 

Plan a structure 

If you want your organisation’s SOPs  look slick (think handy visual charts), work effectively and achieve their ends, make the process  easier by planning out a structure based on your key processes. Using the process approach makes the path to decluttering SOPs so much clearer. It gives you a clear structure and a way to decide WHERE, WHEN and by WHOM each piece of information is needed.

  • Draft flowcharts of all your main processes and link ONE procedure to each step. (If there are multiple SOPs, you might have more than one process at work or you may need to combine some.)
    • This process may need to be repeated in each department or section if you’re part of a large laboratory.
  • Arrange detailed instructions and methods linked to the relevant SOPs.

Problem SOPs and what to do with them

  • The SOP is a total mess. It’s out of sequence, with an excruciating level of detail, and seems to have been written by multiple authors over time. Start again and just borrow lines from it where needed to fill in details.
  • It is a “must-have” procedure in accreditation requirements, but it’s rarely referred to. Try to deal with these in a high-level operations/ quality manual.
  • Rarely used, but important technical procedures. Write these in a good amount of detail and clearly reference them in other procedures at the point that the operator will decide they need to use the process/method.
  • SOP describes safety precautions or environmental measures only. Safety and environmental requirements for specific processes should not exist as stand-alone documents. Include the information on how to comply in the process document (SOP) at the relevant point in the process. Or even better, use official signage and provide the safety equipment at the point where the process is conducted!
  • Long wordy descriptions of times, requirements, decisions and options. See if you can extract data and put into tables that can be displayed in the laboratory.
  • Very long and wordy SOPs, with excessive amounts of detail for well-established processes. Remove obvious, superfluous or repetitious information, otherwise this detail distracts staff from the more important detail they may need to look up. Check with staff how much information they need.
  • Memo announcing a change in process issued as a controlled SOP, instruction or method. Find the SOP it belongs in and include at the correct point in that process.
  • Generic ISO9001 SOPs that, combined with all the test methods, forms, templates and quality manual, add up to an overwhelming number of pages. Get rid of the generic ISO 9001 SOPs and replace with a few lines in the quality manual, and/or add instructions to the forms.

When you’ve transformed your procedures / manuals from a huge pile of unrelated documents to a manual or set of SOPs that describes what you actually do, you’ll find it’s easier to update them when processes change and new requirements are introduced. You’ll find the internal audit program can focus on quality outcomes, rather than getting bogged down with out-of-date instructions.

Drawing on our combined experience with NATA and various fields of testing, our team has helped many laboratories to replace the proverbial “300-hundred page tome” gathering dust with 30 pages of relevant information that staff actually refer to! Contact us today for a chat about how we can help.