What are Standard Operating Procedures? What do they mean in a business and why should they be taken seriously?

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are a set of instructions for any particular operation within an organization. These instructions map out all steps and activities of a process or procedure, which, when followed with care, should guarantee a particular expected outcome. In the ERP world SOP is often used alongside or interchangeably with the similar term “best practice approach.” The idea behind this is that people have been working with a particular set of guidelines which they have determined to be the best way possible to get a particular job done: filling out a customer receipt for example, or completing a sales order. While each company is different, some of the broader processes and methods can serve as a model for other organizations with similar functions that need to be performed.

There are many benefits to having SOPs in place within an organization. In the first place, in documenting any function within an organization, you commit collective or even individual knowledge into something tangible: a document. Written procedures and practices then become part of the corporate knowledge base, and are no longer limited to one particular individual or group. Routine training of new employees can be based on the SOPs, and tasks across the company can be standardized. Performance of and adherence to set guidelines can be enforced.

In an environment where regulatory compliance is a requirement and spot checking is in place (pharmaceuticals, medical devices, chemical plants, etc.), SOPs are a must. According to some literature, one of the most frequently reported problems identified in regulatory inspections is a lack of written SOPs and/or the failure to follow them. In a manufacturing environment, SOPs are also imperative in order to insure uniform results, effective quality control, and ultimately, traceability. SOPs are not static documents, however, and they need to be reviewed regularly and updated to assure that they are keeping up with any new working procedures, developments and/or regulatory requirements that are put in place. Changes to the SOPs should be documented.

On a corporate level, SOPs are all about improving your business – be it striving towards continuity, or putting into action best practices for the long run. In the process of documenting and putting SOPs in place, companies may even discover better ways to complete tasks.

When deciding on whether to invest in an ERP system, before moving over to a new system, while in the process of implementing or even re-evaluating the way you do business: take the time to think about SOPs. To get real value from your software and your implementation, insist on working with SOPs. Make sure that the system you are having installed can handle the way you do business. And make sure that things are documented. The people that are involved in the work itself OR their direct supervisors should be consulted when preparing SOPs. If your consultant tells you this is not necessary – beware. The people in the trenches of your establishment are the ones responsible for doing the work documented in the SOP. The greater their involvement, the greater their sense of ownership, the greater their investment and ultimately, the greater the likelihood that they will adhere to the SOPs. Where this is impractical, at the very least the SOPs should be “owned” by the supervisor.

SOPs are proven to work. They can help you streamline processes, enhance performance, improve customer service and, ultimately, boost business. Investment of time in creating and maintaining SOPs will be well spent. In today’s economy, companies need to make the most of the resources they have. In creating SOPs you are not only using your resources wisely, but you ensure that hard earned knowledge and experience is shared, becomes tangible and is transformed into a corporate commodity.

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