Developing and writing effective standard operating procedures

Part one: About SOPs

Ken MacDonnellBy Ken MacDonnell, P. Eng.
Professor, Fleming College

Over the years, and especially since the Walkerton tragedy, there has been a general shift for municipalities and other public entities to operate with a clear set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Whether it be as a requirement to conform to DWQMS, a compliance requirement for your ECA, the result from a visit from a Ministry of Labour / Ministry of Environment and Climate Change inspector, or you were ahead of the curve and understood that SOPs were a part of a Best Management Practice, the fact is that SOPs are here to stay.

The most critical component in the above title is the development and writing of effective SOPs. In order for SOPs to be effective they should:

  • Clearly define the purpose of the SOP (i.e. why is the task required);
  • Identify all tools and equipment required to perform the SOP;
  • Provide easy and concise instructions to complete the task.

Finally, the SOP must take into consideration and identify all possible hazards and safety precautions required to complete the tasks associated with the SOP safely.

This is the first in a series of articles that will cover W5 – the Who, What, When, Where, and Why for the development of SOPs:

  • Who should be responsible for developing SOPs;
  • What are SOPs;
  • When should SOPs be developed;
  • Where should SOPs be located;
  • Why are SOPs important.

Future articles will focus on the how. That is developing and writing effective SOPs including the components of a well written SOP, proper tone/language, and ensuring buy-in from staff.

What are Standard Operating Procedures?

In terms of technical definitions for Standard Operating Procedures, a quick search revealed two excellent definitions. The first is from the US EPA who defines Standard Operating Procedures as, “a set of written instructions that document a routine or repetitive activity. SOPs describe both the technical and administrative operational elements of an organization that would be managed under a Quality Assurance Plan or Quality Management Plan (ISO)”

The second definition is from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization whose definition of SOPs can be summed up as follows:

  • An important aspect of a quality system is to work according to unambiguous Standard Operating Procedures;
  • SOP is a document which describes the regularly recurring operations relevant to the quality of the process. SOPs allow for operations to be carried out correctly and consistently;
  • SOPs are compulsory instructions – if deviations are allowed, the conditions should be documented including who may permit the change.

In other words, SOPs are a set of unambiguous (clear) and compulsory written instructions that must be carried out correctly to provide consistency in results.

Sometimes, it is easier to clarify or define something by identifying what it is not. For SOPs this is also the case and provide guidance as to what they should be

  • SOPs are not copies of manufactures instructions manuals. Manufacture’s manuals are critical in developing the SOP, however they typically to not provide easy “step by step” process to follow in order to complete the task. Many aspects of the manual should not appear in the SOP, but rather be covered by a comprehensive training program on the procedure.
  • SOPs are not procedures from other sources (i.e. municipalities). Again, these might be a great resource and help you to develop your SOP program, but time must be spent to customize them into your own SOPs.
  • They are not verbal instructions or written instructions given to an employee(s) at the start of a job. The must be properly written and vetted to make sure they make sense and comply with both Health and Safety and Compliance (MOECC) legislation.

At its most fundamental level, SOPs are a form of communication. You are telling the user of the SOP what steps (and in the proper order) to complete an activity/job properly and with consistency. Furthermore, the job must be done safely. One of the main goals of a well written SOP is to ensure that the sequential order of steps, when completed, will provide consistent and desired outcomes whether the job is being performed by a relatively new worker or an experienced veteran.

As a form of communication, the SOP must meet the requirements of effective communication protocol as illustrated in the figure 1, below.

Figure 1

The key component for an effective SOP is the Feedback loop to make sure that the SOP was fully understood – both the sequential steps and the purpose or why it is important. In a well written SOP, the why is often not included or only briefly mentioned as to the purpose of the SOP. Trying to include all the why’s in an SOP will make them very long and insult the knowledge of experienced staff. The effective communication cycle for an SOP involves training.

During the training sessions, the SOP is explained to the users of the SOP and subsequently they are provided an opportunity for feedback or questions about the SOP. Having the knowledge that the SOP should conform to the above communications cycle will provide a proactive approach to implementing the SOP’s and ensure staff have a full understanding of the importance of the SOP and the requirements to complete it.

Conversely, a passive approach to developing SOPs is to effectively skip the training portion by only having a one-way communication diagram. That is, SOPs are typically written by management personnel and sent to the employees with expectation that they are both read and understood (see figure 2, below).

Figure 2

This assumption that your staff will understand the SOP without training often leads to misinterpretation and confusion regarding why the SOP is important and why all steps in the SOP are relevant. Furthermore, it is important for employees to provide feedback and have discussion on the SOP’s to make sure that everyone agrees as to how the SOP should be done.

This will be further discussed as we detail how to write effective SOPs, next article.


Ken MacDonnell is the Coordinator and Professor for the Advanced Water Systems Operation and Management Graduate Certificate program at Fleming College. He has over 20 years working in the water industry encompassing operational aspects of conventional water treatment and water distribution. Ken also has experience in management systems such as Health and Safety, DWQMS, developing Standard Operating Procedures, and Project Management.Ken has a B.Sc. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Guelph and is a Professional Engineer (PEO).

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