An SOP Has Never Made Anyone Change The Way They Work

Wondering about that title pic? We’ll get to it.

I’ve seen this a lot, and to be honest, I did the same thing: You realize that quality and results in one of your processes aren’t good; what’s the first reflex you jump to, especially in young and growing companies? Let’s set up standard operating procedures to standardize how this task is done, and we should be fine for the future.

So you sit down (ideally with your team) and write down how things should be done, come up with a document structure (because you plan to write more of those in the future) and then announce to your team that this is the new way that things are done.

In the next few days, you indulge in watching the magic happen. Your team follows the new recipe, and the process stability increases, outcomes get more predictable, and things are just a bit less complex. 


A few weeks later, you haven’t thought about the standard operating procedure in a while, the old problems are back. When you dig into the cases, you find that the causes for the problems are the exact same ones you fixed with setting up the SOP.

What happened?

To unpack this, let’s question the way we look at the standard operating procedure. In a large corporation in a traditional industry, you can view an SOP like the printed sheet music for a philharmonic orchestra: Everyone has the right abilities, experience and tools to follow the guidelines to almost 100%. Everyone might add a personal note here and there, but everyone is doing exactly what is written down in the score.

For your younger company that might even operate in a very dynamic and volatile environment, you can’t view SOPs like printed notes. Why? Because your processes will be much more dynamic as you respond to changing market and customer demands, the needs of your growing organization and other input factors. The way things are done right in your business just isn’t set in stone, so having a static standard operating procedure alone will not help in most cases.

So, I don’t need standard operating procedures?

Well, you do. In your younger company, consider standard operating procedures the same as road traffic regulations. We all have studied them at one point, have a rough idea of most of the concepts and the dos and donts. But do we all drive the same? No. People drive too slow or too fast, don’t use their signals, overtake where there’s no overtaking, park where there is no parking. Sounds familiar? This is how day-to-day goes in many companies. But still, I think you will agree that we need road traffic regulations because they set the framework.

What can you do to actually make your team follow your SOPs more closely? As in road traffic, there’s a variety of different things that determine whether your team follows an SOP or not.

Give the bigger picture and make it absolutely clear what is expected from your team

Your team needs to clearly understand what is asked for them and why. That’s the first cognitive condition for them to follow your standard operating procedures. That obviously starts with writing great standard operating procedures, but it’s also important to explain why you want to have SOPs at all and to involve your team in building them. If you think back, road traffic regulations are in most cases super clear and easy to understand, and their purpose is understood by everyone – they make roads safe. To keep clarity and an easy to use structure, it might make sense to use standard operations procedure templates.

Account for your environment – it is never as unambiguous as your SOPs

One of the main reasons that traffic doesn’t look like in a driving school book is because things are dynamic and ambiguous. Can I overtake here? Who’s turn is it next? What’s the speed limit? Things happen fast, and drivers encounter a huge variety of new situations constantly. Your business surroundings will be the same. Two ways to account for that: 1. Give your team some slack within your SOPs. Don’t try to capture every single detail. Encourage your team to deviate from the SOP where it makes sense. 2. Feed this information back into the SOP. If you encounter certain deviations regularly, incorporate them into the SOP. This continuous learning approach will make your SOP a living document and prevent it from collecting dust on the shelf.

Disclaimer: Of course, there are tasks that are safety-relevant and need to performed 100% as defined. In those cases, no slack in the SOP, please.

Make your SOPs easily accessible

One big advantage your company has over road traffic is that your team can actually look up stuff as they go (which you can’t when standing on a crossing and wondering who is allowed to drive next). Use this advantage to its fullest potential by providing your SOPs in the most accessible format. A searchable, interactive format works best for quick lookups. And also, do proper training, especially on new SOPs. But also a refresher every once in a while might help. (And as with road traffic regulations, SOP’s are a great tool to onboard new hires. We all had to learn those rules, right?)

Use peer pressure in your favour

What’s the reason that you stop at the stop sign in a residential neighbourhood? Because it’s the right thing to do? Sure. Because you fear the police might be around the next corner? Maybe. But probably one important reason is that your neighbours might see you or the drivers around you will honk at you if you don’t. Use this peer pressure in your favour when introducing new SOPs. Identify who in your team complies best with the SOPs and make them your ambassadors. The bigger the group of the compliant people, the higher the pressure on the non-compliant to change their behaviour.

Reward compliance, make non-compliance inconvenient

This may sound obvious, but it’s not all that easy in practice. Consider the “green wave” in Germany, a special system for signal lights that will tell the driver via electric traffic signs at which speed he will be able to just roll through the next traffic light. If the driver goes faster, he arrives at a red light. This is a reward to comply that works tremendously well. A close sibling from the inconvenience side of the same medal would be a speed camera that will pose a fine or other inconvenience on a speeding driver. An even better example are speed bumps. Of course, you can go over them faster than the speed limit, but it’s just inconvenient. 

In your company, remove all friction for your team to comply with your SOPs. Make processes easy, provide all tools, and reward compliance in quick and easy way. E.g., if your team submits information for your approval, approve the ones first that contain all information specified in the SOP and put the ones that don’t to the back of the queue. This will serve as both reward for compliance and make non-compliance inconvenient. Also, you can use all types of structures to reinforce certain behaviour. The key is to make behaviour you want as easy as possible and undesired behaviour as hard as possible.

To sum it up

Standard operating procedures are necessary for your growing company. They define the most important processes and are a viable role in delivering high-quality work. But they are not enough. To make people work a certain way

  • Give them the bigger picture and clear instructions
  • Build slack into the SOPs to account for changing environments
  • Make SOPs easily accessible
  • Use peer pressure
  • Reward compliance, make non-compliance inconvenient

Then you have a great chance that people will follow your SOPs.

Let me know your experience in the comments section.



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