Writing Standard Operating Procedures
Putting company procedures down on paper can no longer be avoided. With increasing requirements for compliance to quality standards such as ISO 9000, companies need to document their operating procedures.
Executive Director, Center for Manufacturing Systems, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Putting company procedures down on paper can no longer be avoided. With increasing requirements for compliance to quality standards such as ISO 9000, companies need to document their operating procedures. The process of documentation can be either a dreaded burden, or if properly planned, just another task to be completed.
Unlike other forms of writing, standard operating procedures are written from a technical perspective. This means they must be:
- Clear and concise—getting directly to the point and avoiding wordy sentences. Standard operating procedures should be communicated in the fewest possible words, phrases, and paragraphs.
- Complete—containing all the necessary information to perform the procedure,
- Objective—containing facts, not opinions, and
- Coherent—showing a logical thought process and sequentially listing all steps necessary to complete the procedure.
Standard operating procedures can serve as benchmarks for performance reviews, training aids, or in the case of quality standards, a starting point for improvement.
You will find the following tips helpful when writing standard operating procedures:
- Always have a specific reader in mind. You should know the type of person who will be reading the procedure. When you know the level of experience of the reader, you can tailor the writing accordingly.
- Before starting to write, decide the exact purpose of the procedure. For instance, will the procedure serve as a detailed tool for training purposes, or as a summary to provide a periodic refresher? Once you have decided the exact purpose of the procedure, make sure everything you write contributes to that purpose.
- Use the principle: "Tell readers what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have just told them." Quite simply, this means starting with an introductory paragraph that briefly describes the procedure. This is followed by a complete description of the procedure, using the most appropriate writing technique (paragraphs, bullet points, and so on) to communicate key aspects of the procedure. Finally, a concluding paragraph should be written that summarizes the main points covered.
- Make an outline of the procedure prior to writing. The purpose of an outline is to establish an orderly relationship between a group of activities. An outline provides a framework for any documentation. When writing an outline:
Make a list of topics to be covered. The order is not important, just don't omit anything that you feel is appropriate to the topic.
Decide on major groups. Groups may include introduction, responsibilities, safety issues, operating characteristics, background information, and summary.
Insert the topics under the appropriate major group.
- Write the rough draft. Keep in mind that a good procedure is rarely achieved on the first draft. Write rapidly, ignoring spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Write as you talk so you can maintain a train of thought. Write the draft with the outline in front of you to serve as a guide.
- Revise the draft. Wait 24 hours before making revisions. Revising too soon is less effective because the writer often sees not what is on the paper, but what was meant. Examine what the sentences say, then be willing to rewrite every part of the procedure.
- Write the final draft. Incorporate all of the latest revisions.
- Watch for your own boredom. If you become bored as you are writing, there is a good chance that readers will also.
In addition to the preceding tips on writing standard operating procedures, there are pitfalls to avoid, including:
- Vague, meaningless words,
- Excessive words to describe an activity,
- Long, complicated sentences or paragraphs,
- Acronyms, abbreviations, slang, symbols, or other shortcuts of expression that are not clearly defined for the reader,
- Repeating the same points too often, and
- Assuming conclusions are obvious to the reader.
Many people do not like to write; however, anyone can write standard operating procedures if they understand the mechanics of the procedures and employ some of the tips previously discussed.