The problem with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s)

In a previous blog, I wrote about the origins and impact of the language we use in business today. The theory of business management started as an academic field during the industrial revolution when factories and the railway industry was seen as the pinnacle of innovation. This is still evident in the language we use in business. We call a middle-manager line manager and a good worker is said to work like a machine. A project has a timeline and a deadline. When things go wrong we say the project is off-track, or when all is well, it is on-track. Sales are in the pipeline and when things gain momentum, it is picking up steam, and will soon be working like a well-oiled machine, unless the project runs out of steam. Then we will stop in our track or are heading for a train smash. Even computers are said to go offline. To this day, when we talk about change, we speak of the need to change lanes. Studies have shown that our language dictates our thoughts and our thoughts dictate the way we work.

Following the same track, it is no surprise that Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) today are often still a line of instructions with steps that should be followed in sequence. Yet, in modern complex businesses, many business owners express their disappointment and frustration with SOP’s. A common complaint is that SOP’s don’t really serve the business, do not prevent non-adherence and employees don’t follow the process consistently. When questioned, even managers and owners acknowledge that even they need to deviate from standards at times to get the job done.

The reason why centuries-old methods no longer work is obvious. Modern businesses, even smaller ones, are complex. And complex systems behave differently from a train track or production line. When we operate our businesses with a set of linear instructions, we focus on different things than what we would if we treated it like a complex system. Systems Analysts and Complexity Theorists studied this in detail and believe there is a better way.

Let’s analyse a pen as a rudimentary example.

Analysing a pen from an SOP approach requires the analysis of the object. The pen will be taken apart, components will be studied, assembly procedures will be compiled. We “get into it”. In the end, we will have the best pen and know everything there is to know about the pen. The company will be properly geared for maintaining their pens.

But what is the point of knowing how a pen work if we don’t consider what a pen does?

To understand that, we need a systems approach and instead of getting into it, we should step away. Ask four questions:

  • What is the pen a part of?
  • What is the purpose of the system that the pen is part of?
  • In what way does the pen contribute to this system?
  • Is the pen fit for purpose?

With a systems approach, the pen is considered within the context of the containing systems. In this example, the pen is part of documentation and record-keeping. The purpose is to capture things that should be kept on record. What things? What happens to those records? We may have the best pen, but is the pen the best instrument for this system? Will pencils or computers not work better? Asking these questions open us up to new opportunities such as the possibility that a pen is not the right tool for an optimal system and we may, for example, phase pens out, automate the system and use laptops.

To understand and document a system, a tool like SIPOC can be used. SIPOC’s are taught at many universities and is part of frameworks such as Six-Sigma. There are many resources available online explaining what it is and how to use it. One example is this video:

This article does not propose the replacement of SOP’s with SIPOC’s as both are important. If no one gives attention to the nuts, bolts and pens of an organisation, the system will collapse. My advice is to consider your own role in your system. If your purpose in the system includes finding better ways of doing things and to be innovative, then Systems Thinking and SIPOC’s might be a great addition to your toolset.

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