Issuing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that are too complex, too difficult to read, or ambiguous means they will be inefficient in achieving the outcomes you desire for your organisation. SOPs need to be clear, concise and correct. They need to achieve 3C status without being too verbose ie, not containing unnecessary waffle. The following tips will help you improve your documentation:
1. Identify Your Audience
Knowing who is going to use the documents and how, is essential. Documentation for people in highly specialized occupations will be written in the language they understand and with which they are familiar. Conversely, documentation for administrative workers will use terms with which they are familiar.
Jargon needs to be minimized and documents should be written at an appropriate level for the target audience eg, manual workers in a factory could be expected to have a lower level of literacy than professionals in the finance department. Where multiple groups are using documentation, it is better to write using simple language, short sentences etc.
2. Analyze and Identify Your Information
Analyze your information and separate it into what employees must know, should know, and what is nice to know. Try to focus on the first two, identifying essential information and only include nice to know information where it is necessary to explain procedures.
3. Organize Your Information
Once you have analyzed and identified the information critical for your documentation, you need to decide how you will organize it. Typically, SOPs are organized in relation to the process they address. For example, the five steps to changing a vehicle tyre.
The topic will determine how you organize your information.
4. Use a Common Method of Documentation
Decide upon a style and layout for your SOPs and other documentation and produce all guidelines and manuals using the same corporate style and layout. That way, employees become accustomed to how to use them and can identify them among other booklets or folders that might be found in their workplaces.
Using flow charts, advance organizers and other visual enhancements can aid in comprehension and increase use by employees.
5. Maintain Document Currency and Usefulness
A guideline, SOP or user manual that is out of date is of little use. Make sure someone is responsible for ensuring the documents are amended or withdrawn when necessary. Amend them as soon as possible after it becomes necessary and implement some way of advising everyone who uses the documentation of the changes.
Where amendments are required, ensure the responsible person removes the old materials from the documents and replaces it with current materials. In some cases eg, legally important matters, it may be necessary to obtain a signature confirming that the amendment has been done.
6. Review Documentation at Least Annually
Unless you have a team responsible for writing policy, updating guidelines, SOPs and other manuals, get someone to do an annual review so that you know the documentation is still current and being used. Employees will stop using documentation that is obsolete or incorrect and this can lead to informal development of procedures that impede productivity, increase safety risks, and otherwise detract from efficient and effective operation of a business.
7. Use “Real” Documentation for Training
Using the off-the-shelf SOPs, manuals and guidelines for training means that lower costs are incurred preparing training media and that employees being trained are familiar with the media when they return or move into their workplaces.
8. Use Technology Support
With technology advancing as it is today, there are increasing opportunities to apply it to documentation development, distribution and control. Consider issuing mission critical documentation to employees on laptop computers, iPods and iPads or delivering it electronically instead of hard-copied media.
The significant advantage of online documentation is that it can be updated globally once and appear instantly on every device that uses it.
User manuals can step employees through procedures on a just-in-time method where complex procedures are involved as is the case in, for example aircraft maintenance or medical procedures.
9. Make Sure Employees Use Documentation
Managers and supervisors at all levels need to reinforce the need for employees to use the documentation available. They should set an example by referring to documentation when doubts or uncertainties arise and also referring junior employees with questions to appropriate documentation. This reduces the need for supervisors to spend time answering questions that could be answered by referring to documentation and also ensures employees are familiar with the standard documents used within their organization.
10. Hire a Professional if Necessary
If you don’t have the time or people to develop your documentation, consider hiring a professional to do it for you. If you do have the resources, set up small teams in workplaces tasked with the responsibility. If employees are required to follow procedures they have written, there is ownership and a better chance that they will adhere to them rather than cut corners.