9 Tips for Creating Effective SOPs

Keep your facility running smoothly with a well-written standard operating procedure.

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A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a guide that specifies the exact steps to follow to complete a task – from a routine daily operation to an emergency response.

Some argue seasoned crew members already know the procedures, and so a written guide is unnecessary. However, any time new employees are hired, SOPs are valuable tools for helping them achieve proficiency.

It is also common for employees to have different ideas on how best to complete a task. An SOP is the best way to ensure that task is done correctly, time after time, no matter who does it.

Writing an SOP might seem daunting, but if you follow some basic guidelines, you'll find it is not difficult and can even enjoyable. Here are some useful tips:

1. Be the expert
Be intimately familiar with the task you are writing about. That familiarity can come from personal experience, but don’t be too convinced that your way is the best. Talk with your crew and take notes. Decipher why certain steps are done in a certain order. If there are discrepancies, have an open discussion to find a consensus. You are all working together to compile a procedure that benefits everyone.

2. Identify the trigger
Identify a trigger that will set the SOP into motion. For routine tasks, this might be something like, “Calibrating the pH Meter,” or “Cleaning the Grinder Pump.” The trigger for a reactionary SOP might be, “Power Failure Response,” or “High Wet Well Alarm.” The trigger will be the title for the SOP.

3. Consider all risks
In the first part of the SOP, cover all safety concerns involved with the task and outline specific precautions to take. Consider all risks: electrical, physical, slip/trip/fall, confined space, atmospheric, biological, chemical, mechanical. List the safety equipment and personal protective equipment needed. Include copies of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for materials and manufacturer’s instructions for equipment that are a part of the SOP.

4. Make a materials list
List all tools, equipment and materials required. Don’t overlook something as basic as a valve wrench. An SOP might be triggered in the middle of the night during a storm, and it helps to have a comprehensive guide to everything you’ll need. In the interest of a logical format, list the tools in basic order of use.

5. Create step-by-step instructions
For the main body of the SOP, number the steps — or at least use bullets. Carefully consider the order for the steps to follow. You might make several changes to the order or wording of steps before you settle on the most comprehensive procedure. Consult with other employees, engineers and manufacturer’s instructions as needed. 

6. Make it clear and concise
Use simple, direct language. An SOP should be understandable to anyone with a basic, working knowledge of the industry. 

7. Remember the details
Include helpful hints to the steps involved — such as specific locations of valves and switches. Identify them exactly. If need be, make labels for valves and switches that you can refer to in the SOP. 

8. Estimate completion time
Tell roughly how long certain steps should take. For example, if you just say, “Let the pump run until the pit is empty,” an operator might become concerned if that takes two hours. Include a note such as: “This should require 1.5 to 3 hours of pumping.” Such notes are useful benchmarks for verifying the progress of the procedure.

9. Organize the final product
Assemble your completed SOPs in a binder and clearly identify each one with a tab. You can have separate binders for routine and reactionary SOPs. It is advisable to use page protectors.

Remember that an SOP is almost always an evolving work. Over time, you might discover a more logical arrangement of steps, or choose to refine a method. A new piece of equipment might dictate modifying a procedure entirely.

A collection of well-written, comprehensive SOPs is an invaluable asset. Knowing what to expect and how to react — in order and in detail — helps ensure a steady-state operation.

Marcel Tremblay is chief operator at the MCI Concord Wastewater Treatment Plant in Concord, Mass. He can be reached at MHTremblay@doc.state.ma.us.



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