Here are ten compelling reasons why you should review your procedure documents, or your standard operating procedures, now:
1. No one knows when your procedures were last reviewed.
If your organization is relying on one person’s diligence and memory to do that one task that ranks below virtually every other task – people would rather give their desks a thorough cleaning, inside and out, than review internal documents, especially procedures – document review hasn’t taken place since Paul Young was on top of the charts. The individual who wrote the procedure is no longer with your firm, either because they retired or they left for a considerably more attractive and challenging future than “tech writing”. The procedure appears in an obsolete typeface like Courier. The procedure consists of text only, because it was virtually impossible to render readable flowcharts on a deck of punch cards.
The process, as it is now executed, bears virtually no resemblance to the one that was documented however many years ago. Changes took place incrementally and since they were such small changes (or so it seemed at the time), no one bothered to check with other parties, internal or otherwise, to see if they were OK with those changes. No one thought, “Hey! We need to train people on this process and make sure the training is consistent. An updated procedure would be a great start.” Instead, training was conducted on the fly by the resident “expert”…unless that person was out sick, and then the next-best expert took a stab at training. Oral tradition is fine when you’re telling tall tales but it doesn’t do a damned thing to help consistency, reproducibility, or quality.
2. Your procedures are (still!) on paper.
As Benjamin Franklin supposedly said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.” With paper-based procedures, you normally don’t get to the “tell me” step.
Very few organizations work on paper anymore. The ubiquitous, cheap power of computing means paper procedures can easily be replaced with audiovisual, 3D files that can show trainees, or experienced workers who want to verify their knowledge, in great detail how to execute or perform the process. A test can (and should) be added throughout AND at the end of the training, to reinforce and verify what has been learned. Obviously, the training process is not complete without hands-on experience but audiovisual, interactive training sets up trainees for success much better than textbook “learning” does.
3. Your procedures describe straight line, or ballistic, processes.
In reality, nothing travels in a straight line (read Einstein’s theory of relativity when you have a free moment). So, why do so many procedures describe processes like so:
- Do this, then
- Do this, then
- Do this, then
- You’re done!
Or, to put it another way:
When experience tells us our business processes are really more like this:
In other words, they don’t follow the “Plan-Do-Study-Act” model. Deming’s PDSA model goes something like this:
- Plan the process, which means figuring out what your objectives are – what the results of the process are supposed to look like – and determining the most effective means of getting the results you want. It also means identifying roles and responsibilities, as well as determining how you know whether the process is successful.
- Execute (or do) the process. This should be self-explanatory.
- Study the results of the process. Now that you’ve been through the process at least once, are the results near what you expected? Why or why not? How would you change the outcomes? Are there flaws in your process, or your thinking?
- Act on those results. If the results of your process aren’t what you wanted, your options are to improve the process or discontinue it. If the results are satisfactory, you have the option of letting the process continue without changing it; you could also decide to make changes because while the results were more than OK, you think they could be even better.
The best-laid plans may sometimes go awry – no one can plan for every contingency. Laying no plans at all, though, means that success is a matter of blind luck. If you trust in luck more than planning, the odds are heavily against you.
4. Employees tasked with executing a process aren’t aware that “there’s a procedure for that.”
When a procedure exists but isn’t followed, it’s because the procedure is inaccurate, outdated, or difficult to follow. Or, there’s a subject matter expert who’s been around since Noah’s ark and that person imparts their accumulated wisdom orally because there’s so much to the process you couldn’t possibly get it all in writing before it changed again. So, why bother?
5. Procedures don’t exist.
Your key business processes are not – and have never been – documented. Change comes about so quickly that documenting what you do is an exercise in futility. People learn procedures by heart, which takes time and a good memory. Not putting procedures in writing allows you to separate the eager, intelligent, and talented from the rest. The cream rises to the top, right? People are supposed to figure things out for themselves, right?
6. People don’t know why the procedures exist.
If people don’t know why they’re doing something – what purpose they serve, what effect they have on the customer– they lose interest in the process. It’s all very well to write a procedure telling employees what to do and in what order to do it.
However, if your employees don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re not motivated to perform well.
7. You’re unable to use your procedures to train people.
If your procedure is so unclear that an experienced employee can’t follow it, you can’t expect a complete neophyte to read the procedure and commence to working on it. Well, they could but I can assure you they will encounter one problem after another. They may learn from their mistakes but their mistakes – and solutions – won’t be the same as everyone else’s. No two will be digging a trench, welding a seam, or writing code the same way. Without consistency and repeatability, how do you know the quality of your product will meet customer expectations?
Let’s say that in the course of doing her everyday work, an employee happens upon some task or method that would improve a certain process. Let’s also say that for whatever reason, she doesn’t get around to suggesting this process improvement to her supervisors or coworkers. (I’m not suggesting she has nefarious motives; a lot of times, you just get so busy, you forget.)
If that improvement isn’t written into the procedure and another employee has to be retrained on the “old” procedure, they’re a step behind. That’s not likely to help your organization.
8. Your head hurts after you read one of your procedures.
Find your quiet place, relax, and curl up with one of your SOPs. If you can’t get through it in mere minutes and understand clearly and completely what the procedure writer meant, you’re probably not the only one. If your eyes glaze over as you keep rerunning a paragraph over and over and over in your head before quickly nodding off…if you can’t readily diagram your procedure on a single sheet of “paper” after reading it…if the procedure’s author can’t explain it to you in under 30 seconds, you have serious problems.
Speaking of diagramming, a procedure doesn’t have to be text only. Most people comprehend a message better if it takes multiple complementary forms. For instance, words and pictures go well together. Many people prefer a live or recorded reenactment of a process (show them, rather than just tell them).
Procedures aren’t supposed to be arduous, dry, or lacking in style just because they’re business documents. Entertain and you inform better.
9. You’re continually fighting fires.
If you are, but you like the attention that comes from being a successful, reliable “firefighter”, or crisis manager, well, great for you! Job security is what you have, my friend. However, if you’re constantly dousing the same flames, only to see them come back again and again, a little bit stronger every time they reignite…
…and you’re thinking, “There has to be a better way!” Of course, there is! Continual firefighting on the business front is symptomatic of a poor problem-solving culture. Finding and implementing long-term solutions to your problems is good risk management.
10. Your procedure manual is gathering dust.
I recall, back in the IBM mainframe’s heyday, when I received the official Corporate MIS Procedures Manual in my first week of employment at a company that shall remain nameless. It was a set of three large 3-ring binders, literally stuffed with copies of copies of copies of management information systems’ that, I swear, looked like they predated Grace Hopper. Honest! There were references to assembly language! Modular code and the CMM hadn’t been invented when these procedures were released.
The set I received came precoated with a thick insulating layer of dust. The tops of many of the pages were yellowed and the binder was already in a state of mild disrepair, all of which told me no one had been using the manual. It was faster and easier to rely on subject matter experts, especially those who had a high degree of proficiency in standard conversational English.
Of course, that took a lot of their valuable time, training me on the fly. At one point, put off by this waste of space and time, I volunteered to modernize the procedure manual. I soon disappeared in a maze of bureaucracy and internal politics and was never heard from again.
People naturally resist change. They prefer to stick with what works, even if they know, deep down, that it really doesn’t. I could go on and on but…that’s for another article at another time.
These are just 10 reasons I can think of why you should review your standard operating procedures now, rather than continue to put it off indefinitely. The review (or “study”) part of Deming’s Cycle is the most important part, primarily because it is so often overlooked or ignored. It’s like what often said about history – ignore it at your peril.
 Which was about 30 years ago, close to the average review frequency at institutions that have somehow managed to survive that long.
 Read Einstein’s general theory of relativity when you have a moment.
 Children learn how to read faster and their understanding and retention are improved when vivid, colorful illustrations accompany the written story. Why do we think adults are any different?
 Major conflagrations, in some cases
 There isn’t any point in shaming that company because (a) none of the responsible parties is there any longer and (b) they weren’t unusual in that respect.
 If my memory is correct, they were 4 inches wide.