Standard operating procedures

Standard operating procedures

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How To Write Standard Operating Procedures Into Your Business



“What would we do if you were hit by a bus?” (Or in our case….living in the Philippines…a Jeepney!) This is a question Joe and I ask often from both ourselves and the key personnel in our business. We say it jokingly, but it’s become the lexicon in our business that refers to the fact that we must not be the gatekeepers of information. We have to consistently pass on the keys to others as Empire Flippers continues to grow.

The success with which you are able to transfer talents, automate procedures, and successfully remove oneself from the machine makes the difference between a profitable freelancer and a prosperous enterprise. It's not as simple as it seems... Many of the successful freelancers we know squander a lot of time, energy, and resources trying to make this shift when they could have been better off staying put.

There are no guarantees in this situation, but your best chance for success will be to develop a set of guidelines or instructions that others in your organization can arrange and adhere to. This will help you to break the link between the intellectual property in your head and your team.

How does this work? By developing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), you can enable your staff to carry on with the foundation you've already laid while also enabling you to grow your empire. You can require a keyword research SOP or a backlink building SOP for an SEO campaign, or SOPs for paid social media or Amazon campaigns, in order to carry out marketing plans for your e-commerce business. In this post, we'll go through how to execute any processes you're seeking to document in your company from beginning to end using the methods below:

Before we get into the details of how we use SOPs in our online business, I wanted to give you a few warnings. We’ve had quite a few discussions recently with friends and peers regarding SOPs and thought I should point out a few cases where this will and will not work:

“Established Process”

You shouldn't bother about SOPs if you haven't ironed out many of the intricacies and don't have a successful track record. They can be beneficial for an established, expanding business, but they are frequently detrimental in the beginning. At a moment where your business strategy needs to be incredibly flexible, you risk shackling yourself. I would advise waiting till things have calmed down if your company is still experiencing fast change.

“Team Blowback”

Some workers (and even couples) think they do better in a dynamic, slightly chaotic setting. The dynamics of your corporate culture will alter when you create SOPs with work templates, directions, etc. You can encounter resistance. Making ensuring that team members are empowered and have buy-in is the greatest way to resolve issue. Later, more on this.

“No Quick Fix”

In fact, you’re likely to spend quite a bit of productive time in setting this up and you might feel that time could have been better spent. You have to commit to your SOPs for the long haul…if you’re not ready to do that, Stop. Now. The work is front-loaded and the value is in the long-haul here.

Breaking Down The Project Management Process

Ok, so I’ll assume that you already have a working process (either in your head or somewhat documented) that you’re working with. The important things to consider here are:

  1. Linear Vs. Parallel – Which pieces require a previous step to be completed? (Step A and THEN Step B) Which can be done independently and/or in parallel with other steps?
  2. Group By Skillset – Someone that’s particularly capable when it comes to coding may not be the most prolific content writer you have. Even if you have team members that have cross-skills you can utilize now, remember the “What if he/she got hit by a bus” question. Grouping by skillsets will be better for your process in the long run.

Consider the publication of podcasts. My podcast has to be modified before it is transcribed, though. It's a necessary action. Let's say I also want to commission original cartoon illustrations for each episode. That step will be added as a distinct, parallel action to the SOP.

Even if the same person uploads the information to my blog today and generates the image, I'll want to separate those activities because I know they require different skill sets and that this may alter in the future. I would classify "subjecting decision making" as a competence on its own and separate that out as a separate step if any of the phases required making decisions based on emotions or something much more subjective.

Visual Mapping

Once you have those processes broken down it’s usually a good idea to visualize them as well. I like to use a whiteboard in my office:

Podcast Standard Operating Procedures

But you can also use a virtual service like Bubbl.us:

Bubbl Podcast Visual

Don't be concerned that this is still really high-level or basic. Later, we'll get into the specifics. Simply making sure you comprehend the pertinent details and that you haven't overlooked anything is the objective here. In the example I'm giving you, this is rather simple, but I've done it for far more challenging projects that required 20 or more whiteboards, hundreds of stages, etc.

Tier 1 SOPs – 30K Foot View

Now that you’ve broken down the entire process and have the relationships straight, you’re going to want to document the higher-level steps required to fully complete the project. This Tier 1 SOP will include:

  • Overview – A few sentences outlining the overall scope of the project.
  • Goal – A brief description regarding the end-goal of the project and result.
  • Access Required – A breakdown regarding the various levels of access to systems, which can include Google docs and Skype, as well as passwords, etc. that are required to complete this task, start to finish. (Note: We use LastPass to manage access, but we have included login/password information in these documents in the past. Go with the security measures you’re most comfortable with.)
  • Responsibility – The person held responsible for keeping this SOP up to date.
  • Date Edited/Editor – Last date edited and the name of the agent or team member that last made the edit.
  • Project Steps – Usually just a few words, up to a sentence or two. Don’t worry, you can go into much more detail on the Tier 2 SOPs.
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) – Use this to answer any questions that come up from the team using this SOP. If there’s a major issue, you can adjust the project steps as necessary.

SOP Podcasts Tier 1

If you already have a team that’s been working on this project, this is a great step to involve your Team Lead, Supervisor, etc. You can use your Visual Map as a guideline and your Team Lead can help you double-check the overall process.

Tier 2 SOPs – Documenting The Details

You'll want to further break down each step in your Tier 2 SOPs once you've finished the Tier 1 SOP. You have the option to be as specific as you like at this point. I'd advise giving enough information so someone who is familiar with the fundamentals could figure it out on their own.

We covered the identical sections of our Tier 1 SOPs above for our Tier 2 SOPs as well, so I won't go over them again here. I'll only remark that, where necessary, the Project Steps can include sentences or even paragraphs and often go into considerably greater detail.

At this stage, Joe and I usually delegate responsibility for working with their teams to document the Tier 2 procedures, assign responsibilities, add the FAQs, etc. to our Team Leads, such as Greg Elfrink, who oversees our marketing team. We'll probably review it once it's finished, but we've worked with them on this long enough to believe they can finish it without our help. They are actually much better at this level of documentation because they are much more familiar with the process than we are because they are frequently more involved with the intricacies.

If this is your first time going through this with your team, you’re going to want to remain involved and see this all the way through. We’ve written about the skill transfer process in-depth and we also have an Empire Flippers podcast episode dedicated to the subject on our other blog and I’d definitely recommend checking those links out. Keep in mind that you’re going to be transferring two skills to your Team Lead or Supervisor here:

  1. The skill or ability to perform each Tier 2 process from start to finish
  2. The skill or ability to work with his/her team in creating the Tier 2 documentation

We’ll use our skill transfer process to ensure the Team Lead competently understands each Tier 2 document and then we’ll bring the rest of his/her team together to show the Team Lead how to involve the rest of the crew in Tier 2 documentation.

Quality Assurance

You should check over everything one last time after all the documentation has been finished to see if anything important has been missing. You can also incorporate spot-checks that the Team Lead can carry out after the process has been setup and has been running for some time to make sure the process continues to function well.

You should also plan frequent evaluations of the procedure in order to make adjustments, update documentation, etc. You might assign the person in charge of the SOPs a monthly or quarterly review schedule depending on the significance and adaptability of the process. If you want to make sure everything is up to date, you can and should incorporate quarterly, semi-annual, or annual evaluations yourself.

Additional Resources

There are a few mind-numbing resources for writing and implementing SOPs from the EPA and from the State of Maine, but they are overly-complicated, technical, and designed for much larger organizations. Here are our recommendations “for the rest of us”!

  • SOPs And Procedures For Startups – This is a podcast episode from our friends at the LBP where they delve into the “why” regarding SOPs for small businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs.  Definitely worth listening to.
  • How To Write SOPs – This article from BizManualz.com is fairly straight-forward and should give you a few tips when planning out your SOP procedure.
  • 5 Mistakes Made With SOPs – A helpful article from DigiCast on things to avoid and ways to improve regarding SOPs.

I hope you find this helpful as you continue to grow and build your business up to the next level and improve your skills as a business owner.  Have anything to add?  Do let us know in the comments below!

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