Lean Tools: Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs)

To ensure that your quality standards—in terms of consistency, effectiveness, efficiency, product quality, and others—are realized, you are required to document the step-by-step process that defines how you need to do the work you need to do. An SOP provides a baseline to answer the question: How do we do that? (It can also provide an answer to the sometimes-more-difficult question: how did we do that?)

SOPs should be used wherever a work process is (or should be) documented. Verbal instructions change over time, from person to person, and are easy to forget. We provide a documented procedure as a baseline to assure a stable, controlled work process. Good SOPs can be represented with pictures, words, tables, symbols, colors, and visual indicators that communicate a consistent message to a diverse work group. By providing a stable, baseline process, SOPs make it easier to manage people and control change for process improvement—which then makes continuous improvement possible and sustainable.

SOPs must be simple, user-friendly, and helpful, not burdensome. Take inputs from all areas of the organization and collect information from everyone so that your SOP is most correct and helpful for everyone, and thus conducive to doing a job correctly the first time. Remember that the ultimate goal of an SOP is to document the best way to perform a job for your situation, materials, equipment, location, and people. The SOP should be written specifically for you, the people using it and referring to it. This will assure that you really are doing the work in the best way—at least until the next improvement comes along.

As a corollary to using SOPs: be sure your records and record management methods are up to date and properly safeguard all vital records. Vital records would include any records that are difficult or impossible to replace and are essential to continued operation of the organization. SOPs and vital records should be near to one another because SOPs will help to fill gaps and describe day-to-day operations along with those vital records and recent data. They also provide a permanent record of procedure (and any changes to it), negating the unreliability of memory and verbal record. When it comes to managing the risk to the business, SOPs help to protect the business.

In any organization, the most difficult thing to impel is substantial change: change to people, change to products and services, changes to management systems, and even changes to whole organizations along Lean practices and principles. The complexity level of any change is significant, more than you initially expect, but SOPs give us simple tools to implement for gain and maintain the gain.

SOP Checklist

  • Easy to read (take into account the language skills of your workers)
  • Visually understandable (large clear pictures or drawings)
  • Only includes the provided tools and materials
  • Has been tested and approved by workers and management
  • Meets safety and quality standards

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