Standard Operating Procedures: Do you feel a yawn coming on?
Or maybe it's a shudder. You know SOPs are important, but summoning the organizational will and the time to tackle them feels like a job all by itself.
We won't pretend that creating or updating SOPs is fun if you just have the right attitude. But the task really doesn't have to be horrible, either.
We've developed a set of resources that you can use to:
Create new SOPs
Implement SOPs that you've written
Evaluate and revise SOPs to keep them up-to-date and meaningful
In this first article, we'll cover the SOP basics: what they are, what they should contain, who benefits from having them, etc. And we give you a couple of strategies (pizza party, anyone?) for getting them written and ready to use.
An SOP is a particular way of accomplishing something: a series of steps followed in a definite regular order. It's purpose is to ensure a consistent and routine approach to actions.
Who Benefits from SOPs?
Supervisors: SOPs make it easier to ensure things go well, and easier to hold staff accountable to expectations.
Staff: They know what is expected of them. Instead of just being told "no, you are doing it wrong," there's an impartial source for how to do it right. SOPs empower staff to excel.
Animals: SOPs provide a predictable routine. Health, care, sanitation, etc. are all the same day to day, which results in a happier, better cared for animal population.
Community: SOPS offer consistency in message, and program. The answer to "Do you perform owner-relinquish euthanasia?" is the same on Monday as it is on Wednesday.
What Happens Without SOPs?
Injuries to people and perhaps animals
Outbreak or spread of disease
Mistakes, including lost-and-found mistakes, or even the wrong animal euthanized
Procedures based on folklore, not fact, or "Bob's way of doing things"
Staff frustration and confusion
Staff or volunteers creating their own policy because they do not like how organization is doing things, or they feel there is no direction (this can be ugly!)
Decrease in agency credibility
What Kinds of Tasks Should Be Included in SOPs?
Hours of Operation
Lost and Found Procedures
Animal Feeding Protocols
Animal Handling Techniques
Handling the Media
Vehicle Maintenance Schedules
SOPs are NOT personnel policies, such as pay schedules, sick leave, vacation, work rules, employment agreements, etc. (Your organization does need to document these policies, too. Typically, policies such as these belong in an employee handbook.)
Do SOPs Have to Be Written Down?
Having written SOPs enables you to:
Communicate consistently about the procedures with a staff of 2 or 70
Use them as a tool for teaching
Ensure compliance with regulatory agencies such as OSHA and DEA
Help ensure that supervisors are fair and consistent with staff
Also, when the staff know what is expected from them, the annual review is not full of surprises for them—or you. Instead, you can focus on individual staffers' strengths and identify weaknesses and strategies for improvements.
Information to Include in an SOP
Here are the basic elements to include in every SOP:
Procedure name, general description, and purpose
Staff who perform (by job title rather than name)
Step-by-step instructions for completing the task (more on this a little further on)
Date the SOP was written or updated
The level of detail, especially in the step-by-step instructions, may vary depending on the complexity of the task.
Getting Supervisors and Staff Invested in SOPs
Your supervisors need to know how writing or updating SOPs helps them and their staff.
Meet with supervisors, and explain the why behind need for SOPs (education, effectiveness, consistency, performance measure, etc).
Explain the SOPs are just the first step. From the SOPs you create a training process based on the SOPs. You can then evaluate staff based on their ability to follow the SOPs and the training.
Review the steps in creating or updating your agency's SOPs with your supervisors.
How to Create (or Update) SOPs
Take your pick:
The Slow and Structured method:
Each department makes list of everything they do: clean, answer phones, receive animals, make bank deposits, coordinate adoptions, investigate cruelty, write tickets, perform lost and found checks, etc.
Combine tasks into logical categories: Office Administration, Animal Care, Animal Rescue and Control, etc.
Review the resulting outline.
Assign procedures to appropriate staff, and starting writing.
Pros: easier to track progress, writing can be done "offline" by designated staff
Cons: have to nudge/nag staff to get their SOPs written, other staffers may not feel they have input to the SOPs for tasks they perform
The Down and Dirty method:
Set up several meetings with key people from each department, from supervisors and line staff to volunteers.
Order in pizza. Seriously.
For each aspect of a department's job, the staff talks their way through each process, while a designated "scribe" types up the steps.
The document is then sent up the ladder of command. It is edited and tweaked along the way, with the director finalizing the final product.
Pros: This method allows for discussion (because there will be differing opinions), compromise, and faster results. This in turn encourages staff invested in the results.
Cons: This method needs time—at least 5 hours per department. Someone needs to keep the process moving and make final decisions when the staff cannot reach a compromise. And pay for the pizza.
If you are updating existing SOPs, see Part III: Updating SOPs for tips on how to determine when SOPs need to change.
Review Your Drafts
Regardless of the method you chose to create your SOPs, you'll need to review and revise them many times before they are ready to use. Here are some tips for handling the review cycles:
Identify the reviewers for each department's SOPs.
All department staff should have the opportunity to review their department's SOPs. This doesn't mean that all recommendations must be accepted. But staffers who actually perform the tasks often have excellent insight into how to do them more efficiently, more safely, etc.
Other reviewers include: medical advisers, director of operations and finally the director or leader of the agency. Some municipalities may need legal or other levels to approve the document. If you have a union, the union is typically involved all along the process.
Distribute printed copies to the reviewers, and request written review comments back by a specific date. You may want to include a cover page indicating the deadline and to whom the comments should be returned.
Most likely, you'll need to issue some reminders to get reviews completed on time.
You may also want to set up reviewing meetings in which the reviewers go through their comments page by page. This approach makes it possible to resolve questions and reach consensus when there is conflicting feedback. (Cookies and fresh fruit may be helpful here.)
Designate someone to compile the agreed-upon edits and revise the drafts.
Distribute the revised drafts for another round of reviews. Depending on the kinds of changes, you may want the same reviewers to see the drafts again, or you may choose to send them to a more select list of reviewers.
Compile the edits from the second cycle, and repeat this process as necessary.
Instructions for Reviewers
To use your staff's time efficiently, and to keep the review process focused, here are some guidelines you can distribute with the review copies. It's also a good idea to kick off review meetings by repeating the guidelines and encouraging staff to use their time well.
Draft #3001 is a keeper—now what?
The best SOPs in the business won't help you if they don't become "living" documents, integrated into your organization's every-day operations and kept up-to-date as operations change. Check out Parts II and III of the SOP story: