SOP Best Practices: How to Manage Standard Operating Procedures Over Time

Lean ManufacturingConnected WorkforceLearning & Development February 22, 2019
This article outlines a few best practices and steps manufacturers can take for creating and updating SOPs over time.

Not only do SOPs help optimize line productivity and improve product quality. They keep the workplace safe and compliant, while reassuring employees what they need to do, making it a more structured and less stressful work environment.

But as with all document management systems, without proper management and regular updates, standard operating procedures and work instructions can quickly become obsolete and hinder employees’ ability to meet their operational KPIs.

This article outlines SOP best practices and steps manufacturers can take for creating and updating them over time.

Free SOP template for your manufacturing plant.

Step 1: Prioritizing Your SOPs

If you’re like most manufacturers, chances are you don’t have the resources to create or update hundreds of standard operating procedures all at once. So the first thing you’ll need to do is prioritize your SOPs. Below are three possible approaches to consider:

  1. Safety and Quality

    Since safety and quality are the most critical things to manage in any factory, you might want to focus on general or role-specific, work instructions that have an impact on these two areas. These SOPs ensure that workers follow internal controls and comply with industry and government regulations with regard to safety and quality.
  2. Line Performance

    If you are experiencing issues on a specific line, or need to create new lines due to expansion, you might want to focus on your line performance SOPs. These standard operating procedures would outline the most efficient and effective methods for setting up a line, switching between different products on the line, and operating and troubleshooting equipment on the line.

  3. Worker Performance

    If, on the other hand, you are experiencing performance gaps between shifts, teams or individual workers, or you need to quickly train new workers, you might want to make work instruction SOPs a priority. SOPs geared towards replacing a retiring worker would focus on the specific role and troubleshooting procedures, while standard work instructions aimed at training many employees due to high turnover, would focus on entry-level workstations.

Regardless of how you choose to prioritize your standard operating procedures, it is always better to focus on quality versus quantity. Dozens of high-quality SOPs that workers actually find helpful and use regularly will have a far greater impact on your operations than hundreds of poorly executed standard work instructions that sit on your shelf and collect dust!

Step 2: Creating the SOP

After prioritizing your SOPs, the next step is to assemble the right team of people to create the new work standard and job instruction training. In my experience, the most effective SOPs are done collaboratively between operators and support groups, like continuous improvement specialists, maintenance technicians and process engineers.

When operators are actively involved, they are invested in the SOP’s success and will push for their adoption as the new work standard on the factory floor. CI specialists and engineers are often needed to make sure the new steps are properly captured using terminology that everyone will understand and without going into too many unnecessary, non-value-added details.

When creating job instructions to train workers on the SOP, I highly recommend applying principles from Training Within Industry developed by TWI Institute. This requires you to identify the “one best way” to perform a task, and then consistently teach workers using this one best way (and only this way!) to create the new standard. Make sure to test the SOP with other operators from other shifts to ensure you’ve really captured the best standard method.

Another important thing to consider is the format of the work instruction training. To help workers apply and retain the information more easily, instruction should be delivered as micro-lessons of 1 to 3 minutes each and, preferably, in video or image format. Why? Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text and improve learning by 400%, according to research.

Also, don’t forget to include the time it takes to fully execute the SOP so workers have an idea of how much time they are expected to take to complete the procedure or task.

Step 3: Publishing and Promoting the SOP

Speed to insights is critical for maintaining smooth operations and responding quickly to any work interruptions. That’s why visual dashboards and indicators that provide easy-to-understand information in real-time are so effective. Aim for the same goal when publishing your standard operating procedures.

To help workers learn and refer back to SOPs at the precise moment when needed, make sure they are highly visible and accessible in real-time. You can accomplish this by publishing your SOPs and work instructions training on a user-friendly online portal, like Poka, that gives workers instant access to the same procedure every time they’re needed. What you want to avoid is workers consulting a co-worker who they believe knows the standard best, rather than use the published SOP.

The same online portal should also provide supervisors with visibility into workers’ skills development. This includes identifying which workers are required to master which SOPs, what progress they have made in their training, and KPIs to measure their performance.

And of course, don’t forget to let workers know that the new SOP has been published and stress the importance of learning the new standard during your daily meetings.

Step 4: Training and Testing Workers on the SOP

Training and testing workers on the new standard operating procedure are equally important. Just because workers have completed the training doesn’t mean that they have fully absorbed and retained the new work instructions.

In fact, only 5% of information is retained after a lecture-style training the next day and 30% after a demonstration! What the graph above shows us is that people retain information better when they are actively engaged and apply the information, whether that be through discussion, practice or teaching others.

Information retention rate after 24 hrs

Information retention rate after 24 hours per education method.

Source: Sousa, David A. (1995) How the Brain Learns

That’s why I highly recommend the “Tell me - Show me - Let me try” methodology used by Training Within Industry. It involves: 1) explaining what steps to take to perform the work procedure, 2) demonstrating the steps so workers can observe how to properly complete each step, and then 3) asking workers to perform each step.

To assess whether workers have a deep understanding of the standard work instructions and have mastered the skills, they are asked to perform the work procedure in four stages:

  1. Workers perform each step in the work procedure while a supervisor observes and corrects them as needed
  2. Next, workers perform each step again while also stating WHAT they are doing as if they were demonstrating or teaching the steps to someone
  3. Workers then perform each step once again while describing HOW they are performing each step to provide more details
  4. Last, workers perform each step one last time while explaining WHY they are performing each step to demonstrate their deep understanding

Another benefit of using this training method is that helps identify if there are any missing or unclear parts in the SOP that need to be improved and updated.

Step 5: Working at Standard

Releasing and training workers on a standard operating procedure is just the beginning. You also need to operationalize the SOP to ensure people are using it and to keep a pulse on whether the standard work instructions are effective.

A good practice is to socialize the SOP as part of your daily routine when doing a Gemba walk, answering a call for help, or other problem-solving or communications instances. Proper SOP management involves asking workers questions and gathering their comments and feedback:

  • Are you using the SOP?
  • If not, why? What problems are you experiencing with the SOP?
  • If yes, do you deviate from the SOP in any way? If so, how and why?
  • Do you have any ideas for improving the SOP?

Make sure to link any problems back to the work standard so that the SOP has an impact on your actual operations. This is especially important for your most critical standard operating procedures. You should not wait for that yearly notification reminding you to reassess the standard work instructions and make improvements. They should be made organically throughout the year to have an immediate impact on your operations, and also spread out the workload.

Making it Easier to Create and Update SOPs

Creating and updating standard operating procedures doesn’t have to be a burden thanks to modern tools like Poka. Manufacturers can easily publish SOPs as micro-lessons in a variety of visual formats to reduce the time to learn and properly execute the work standard. Further management and workers are digitally connecting at all times to enable real-time communications and sharing of ideas for improving SOPs.

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