We all have compliance obligations that require us to have standard operating procedures (SOPs). These may be part of a quality management system, workplace health and safety, some other form of accreditation, risk management or other form of compliance.
Do we just create these for compliance purposes or do they actually help us to run the business more effectively and efficiently? In theory, SOPs embody best, most-compliant practice. Yet very few organisations can attest that they consistently follow SOPs.
If this were so, why is there frantic activity when an audit is due? Why is there a need to update documentation to meet the compliance standards? What happens to SOPs for the three years between compliance audits? Do they sit on the shelves gathering dust or are they actively used, maintained and improved?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that in many industries, SOPs are not used and the most common reasons are:
- The right SOPs cannot be located
- Not knowing that a SOP exists
- The SOPs are not accurate and up-to-date
- SOPs are not presented in the context of the job
The most conventional way SOPs are managed and presented is to have these in stand-alone documents that are written for a specific purpose and maintained individually. Due to the number of documents, often exceeding 1,000, it is startling to think there is no duplication of information across the documents.
How can we possibly ensure consistency, accuracy and currency across all these many documents? So, how should we address this significant issue other than undertaking a major initiative to achieve accreditation? Some of the common approaches are:
- We need a document management system or we need to replace our current document management system.
- We need to structure the SOPs using approaches such as information mapping to make them more readable and fit-for-purpose.
- We need an intranet that better suits the needs of employees so they can more easily find the right document.
Each of these solutions addresses part of the problem and each of these initiatives should be undertaken. But, none of them solve the underlying problem. Back to the original question: how can we ensure consistency, accuracy and currency in SOPs?
A fundamentally different approach is required, one where there is only a single source of information that at the same time preserves the many forms of delivering information to the workforce i.e. documents.
An effective approach to creating SOPs is to build and maintain an operating model of the business. The model should include the processes, procedures, use of systems and compliance obligations. This then provides a single source of truth where every process, procedure and work instruction is maintained as a separate item and is defined once and once only.
From this model, SOPs are generated in the most appropriate form for the individual employees. Because they are in a model, they can be generated for on-screen navigation via an intranet or through conventional controlled documents that can be read on-screen or printed. This contrasts greatly to the maintenance of this information in scattered documents where the same information needs to be duplicated across different departments of business units which are each destined for different purposes, are impossible to maintain and cannot be relied upon.
Developing a comprehensive model of the business’ operations will allow you to clarify responsibilities and link all compliance obligations to the related operational processes and systems. It will also allow you to see the relationships between employee roles, business operations, strategies, objectives as well as compliance obligations. The system that results from this work is a business management system.
SOPs can be used as a powerful business tool to help drive productivity, manage costs and ensure compliance. For this to happen, SOPs need to be accessible to all employees, kept up-to-date and consistent across the entire organisation. By using a modelling approach combined with a central repository or business management system, SOPs can be made more useable and relevant for your workforce.