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5 steps to implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs)

Jan. 22, 2022
Having SOPs in place is more important than ever. Here, Rebecca Boartfield and Tim Twigg detail why, along with five steps for putting them in place at your dental practice.

For years we've been promoting the advantages and benefits of policy manuals/employee handbooks, comprehensive job descriptions, and good documentation in the human resources arena.

The same can be said for standard operating procedures (SOPs), whether written or digital. In fact, SOPs represent an excellent companion piece, and absolutely should be part of your personnel management process.

Unlike policies, which are guiding principles used to set direction in an organization, SOPs detail the series of steps to be followed as a consistent and repetitive approach to accomplishing tasks. SOPs increase performance, improve efficiency, reduce confusion, and ensure quality delivery of services.

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SOPs first identify and summarize a task, describe its purpose, and specify when, where, how, and by whom it is to be performed, while simultaneously defining uncommon or specialized terms and addressing potential concerns (e.g., necessary equipment or supplies, health and safety cautions, etc.). SOPs describe the sequential procedures to be followed, often utilizing checklists and graphic illustrations (e.g., charts, tables, photographs, diagrams, etc.) to help ensure that the procedures are being performed accurately and expeditiously.

Today, SOPs are especially important in our lingering, postpandemic tight labor environment. In digital form, they provide a virtual means of effectively onboarding and training new employees, even for those with limited or no experience. As such, SOPs are an efficient way to develop the talent, knowledge, and expertise you need to be successful. And, like it or not, developing talent is now a consequence, need, and responsibility of employers.

Additional benefits of SOPs

  • Reduced training time for new hires
  • Better communication with employees about how to accomplish their job duties
  • Consistency of task completion
  • Holding employees accountable
  • Ensuring safety standards are adhered to
  • Avoiding knowledge loss when shifting duties from one employee to another or in the event of turnover
  • Easier integration of new employees at new locations
  • Quality control: meticulously followed SOPs ensure that your services are delivered in the same way from start to finish, consistently

Implementing your own SOPs: Five steps

To begin the process of creating your own SOPs, first make a list of your employees’ job duties. You may want to talk to your employees about this and get a better understanding about what they do every day.

Second, decide the format you will use for writing the SOP. The format may depend on the content—for example, a flowchart versus step-by-step instructions.

Third, ask for input to make sure the SOP makes sense to those who are going to adhere to it, as well as encompasses all tasks that are required.

Fourth, identify your audience. What is their prior knowledge? What are their language skills? Are they existing employees and/or new employees? 

Fifth, write the SOP. According to a document on preparing standard operating procedures (by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)),1 SOPs “should be written in a concise, step-by-step, easy-to-read format. The information presented should be unambiguous and not overly complicated. You should use the active voice and present verb tense. The term "you" should not be used, but implied. The document should not be wordy, redundant, or too lengthy. Keep it simple and short. Information should be conveyed clearly and explicitly to remove any doubt as to what is required. Also, use a flow chart to illustrate the process being described. In addition, follow the style guide used by your organization, e.g., font size and margins.”

This document goes on to say, “SOPs should be written with sufficient detail so that someone with limited experience with or knowledge of the procedure, but with a basic understanding, can successfully reproduce the procedure when unsupervised. The experience requirement for performing an activity should be noted in the section on personnel qualifications.”

Finally, review, test, edit, and repeat after you have written your SOP document at least every six to 12 months (or as necessary) to identify areas where it can be improved and to reflect any changes that have been made to current procedures. By all means, commit to keeping your SOPs up-to-date—they will do you no good if not kept current.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2022 and updated regularly

Reference

  1. Guidance for Preparing Standard Operating Procedures, EPA QA/G-6 from March 2001. Environmental Protection Agency. Updated May 25, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/quality/guidance-preparing-standard-operating-procedures-epa-qag-6-march-2001

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