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The 2024 Guide to Standard Operating Procedures [+ SOP Templates]

The 2024 Guide to Standard Operating Procedures [+ SOP Templates]

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💡 What are standard operating procedures?

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are detailed documents that teach employees how to complete specific tasks effectively and efficiently. Think of them as the playbook for your company.

If you own a training program, knowledge base, or system—or determine processes and best practices for your team—standard operating procedures (SOPs) are as good as gold. 🥇

Think of SOPs as detailed documents that teach people how to successfully complete projects and tasks more efficiently—without needing as much time, attention, and oversight from you. 

Scroll down to see everything you need to know about SOPs, from why you need them to how to create them (in a few clicks!).

Already off to the races? Our free SOP templates are your free SOP templates.

The importance of standard operating procedures

Think of standard operating procedures as your company's playbook. They play a critical role in keeping everyone on your team in lockstep—and firing on all cylinders.

SOPs explain how to efficiently move from point A to point B and achieve a specific goal, like learning a new procedure or onboarding a new hire.  

You want everyone on your team (aka your most valuable players) to be productive. So you need to make each process as clear as possible to avoid interruptions and lingering questions.  

That's where standard operating procedures really shine, as they help reduce meetings and lengthy training by standardizing key processes.  

There are other benefits, too. Here's how creating an SOP can help your organization: 

  • Boost efficiency: They provide step-by-step directions that team members can easily follow to produce consistent and desirable results in less time.
  • Accelerate productivity: Team members will know exactly what to do. Because they aren’t spending time searching for answers to their questions, this helps them be more productive with their work. 
  • Standardize key processes: Every process will have its own set of steps and rules, which all team members can follow to complete tasks. 
  • Improve quality: With more consistency and productivity, team members will be able to provide higher quality work. 
  • Increase safety: Well-documented processes can help prevent accidents and equipment misusage. 
  • Create a culture of documentation: They help keep processes—no matter how small—documented and organized for any team member to access. 

As you can see, SOPs are key to operational excellence. They keep your processes running smoothly while saving team members time from meetings and interruptions.

What to include in standard operating procedures

Standard operating procedures can change according to the process being documented or who will be using it, but there are some key elements to include in your document to make sure everything is as clear as possible. 

An example of an SOP with annotations explaining each section.

Whether this is your first time writing SOPs or you’re improving your current ones, here are the main sections to consider:

  • Title: Include a page with a unique title that describes the content of your SOP. Add the date it was created and last updated and by whom. 
  • Purpose section: Add a section that clearly explains the goals of the SOP, including who should be using it and any background information about the tasks. 
  • Table of contents: For more extensive SOPs, make it easy for the reader to jump to the section they'll need with a table of contents.
  • Glossary of terms: List and explain any important terms readers might need to know before diving in—especially acronyms. 
  • Main content: Bring as much detail as possible into the main section, including step-by-step instructions, bulleted lists, and tips.
  • Roles and responsibilities: Assign who should be responsible for each step or task in the process. 
  • References: Add any important links, including other SOPs and relevant sources that may be useful. 
  • Feedback: Finish off with a section that allows users to add any questions or feedback to improve the document or process.

Keep in mind that, depending on which SOP format you choose, you may leave some of these sections out or add in others not listed.  

We know this sounds like a lot for a document that's meant to make things easier, but putting time into creating an SOP that's detailed will help avoid mistakes and improve your team's efficiency. 

How to write an SOP in 8 steps

Now for the fun part: creating an SOP. Whether you're looking to save hours of work every week or uplevel your whole team by sharing your expertise, following these eight steps will help you write an effective SOP. 

The eight steps to creating stellar standard operating procedures. 

Step 1: Determine your SOP goals

What is your SOP trying to accomplish? Whether you'll be going over specific instructions on how to use a software or sending customer invoices, you have to make sure the end goal is clear so readers know exactly what the process in question will help them achieve.

For example, if you're creating an SOP for onboarding purposes, your objective might be:

"To formalize the employee onboarding process and make it easier for managers to train new hires and for new hires to quickly become comfortable in their roles."

Here are a few examples of SOP goals:

  • Onboarding new hires
  • Getting set up in company payroll
  • Creating a campaign from a marketing automation platform
  • Sending customer invoices
  • Processing customer refunds
  • Posting new copy to a content management system
  • Categorizing transactions in accounting software
  • Drafting and sending sales proposals

When coming up with the goals, think about some common challenges your team experiences and how you can help them be more efficient.

Remember, you don't need to create SOPs for every task—for instance, it'd be a waste of time to create an SOP for something you could explain in a short email or with screenshots (or a 10-second Tango 😉). Instead, you should focus on tasks that are both important and complex.

Step 2: Identify your audience

Now think about the people who will regularly use the standard operating procedure. Who are they? And what does the SOP need to contain to serve them effectively?

Depending on who your audience is, you need to consider the language and type of SOP you'll be delivering to them. 

When choosing the audience, ask yourself: 

  • Who will be using this document?
  • Who needs to learn this process?
  • How can we most effectively deliver the content to them?
  • What are some common pain points they have?
  • How can we make it easy for them to understand the process?

Are you creating a document for salespeople? Then consider using sales-oriented language that will resonate with them. What about new employees? This group might not have a lot of company and/or industry knowledge yet, so be sure to keep that top of mind when writing your SOP. 

Step 3: Gather key information

Once you set the goals and audience, you'll need to gather key information to include in the standard operating procedures. This is an important step to ensure you don’t miss anything that should be covered in the document. 

To help gather this information, you'll need to identify the key stakeholders: the expert and the creator. 

  • The expert is the person who best understands the process you want to document. They are an invaluable resource when creating a standard operating procedure since they understand the process better than anyone. 
  • The creator is the person who will actually create the SOP—preferably someone with solid writing skills. They could also be the expert. 

Once the key stakeholders connect, they'll work closely together to gather the information needed for the standard operating procedure. 

This means understanding how the process happens, checking with employees who will be using the document, and reviewing current procedures to understand what needs to be improved. 

💡 Tango Tip

Ask for a shadow session with someone who regularly works on the process you're documenting. This way, you'll have a better idea of how you can effectively explain it to your audience.

Step 4: Choose a format

Once you have all the important details, it's time to decide how you’ll deliver it to your audience. 

This means finding the format that makes the most sense for the process you’ll be documenting. The main question you need to ask yourself is: How can I present this information to my audience in a way that will be most effective?

For example, if it’s a complicated process to explain in words, a step-by-step guide with images would make it easier for readers to understand. 

Once you have the format down, you need to come up with how to deliver it. Think about what platforms your team is already using, if it might fit in your policy and procedure manual, or if there's a tool that can keep all of your SOPs together, such as Google Drive or Dropbox.  

Step 5: Write the SOP (or use a template)

Now onto the fun part. Writing! Or taking screenshots, for the visual learners. 🙋‍♂️

With your format and delivery method in mind, start writing the SOP according to what needs to be included. This is the time when a standard operating procedure template comes in handy, as you won't have to create the skeleton of your SOP from scratch. 

Whether you'll be using a template or starting it with a blank page, here are some things to keep in mind when writing a standard operating procedure: 

  • Aim for simplicity: The best SOPs are simple and easy to understand. Use short sentences and small words (skip the jargon!) and keep readability top of mind. 
  • Add visual elements: Visual elements like screenshots and GIFs can make your SOPs much easier to understand. You can also add flowcharts, diagrams, and videos whenever possible. 
  • Ask for feedback: Want to make sure the process helps people get the job done? Ask for feedback during this stage to eliminate mistakes. 
💡 Tango Tip

Leave a section at the end of the SOP for any questions or feedback your team might have. Then update your document according to their suggestions.

Step 6: Review and test the SOP

Done writing the SOP? You're almost at the finish line. Taking time to review and test your SOP is key to making sure it will be beneficial to your intended audience. 

Review your SOP by reading it out loud and asking team members to review it too. Look for any grammatical errors and double-check that all the steps are easy to understand. 

Then test your SOP a couple of times. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and go through the document to see if you can achieve the end goal. This can help you find out if there are any steps missing or if something needs more clarification. 

Asking for feedback is hard, but it will make your SOPs much more valuable. So, take a deep breath and invite your teammates to weigh in.

💡 Tango Tip

To make sure your SOP is foolproof, have someone who doesn't know the process follow the steps in your document to test if they can perform it. Note any of their questions and troubles, then make adjustments.

Step 7: Make it accessible

Once you've created a standout standard operating procedure, it's time to think about distribution and discovery.

SOPs are inherently most helpful when they help unblock operators in their moment of need, such as training or their day-to-day work. 

Think: where in your existing systems would it be most helpful to discover, use, and reference what's been created? Do you have an existing LMS, Wiki, or space that functions as a knowledge base? Embed and link your SOPs there. If you don't, consider creating an SOP library that team members have access to whenever they have a question or run into an issue. 

Confluence, Notion, and Google Drive are all affordable options. Or you might compile SOPs into a Dropbox folder or Google Sheets file with items divided by topic.

It’s also time to get the word out. Circulate it via email. Drop a link to the document in a company Slack channel. It doesn't matter how you share it with everyone, as long as the people who need it most (or will need it most!) now know your SOP exists and where they can quickly retrieve it.

💡 Tango Tip

Organize your SOPs into folders divided by department, task category, and topic to help everyone find what they’re looking for, ASAP.

Step 8: Keep your SOP current

You've created and shared your standard operating procedure—now what?

Monitor the document to make sure your employees are using it and that it's helping them in their work. It’s equally important to make sure your SOPs are up to date.

Company processes change. You might find a more efficient way to do something or sign up for new software to complete specific tasks. When changes happen, make sure you update your SOP to match to avoid confusion.

Whenever you update your SOP, ask for more feedback from your team. Does the document still make sense to them? Is it still helpful? If not, make the necessary adjustments.

💡 Tango Tip

Every time you update your SOP, adjust the "Last Updated" date to reflect your changes. This way, team members will know they’re referencing the latest version of the document.


Types of SOP formats to choose from (with templates!)

As we mentioned, SOPs can be adapted to the process you'll be documenting. This means that there are a couple different types of standard operating procedure formats.

Choose a different format depending on the SOP you'll be creating. For example, if the process you're documenting is complicated, you might opt for a format that includes lots of screenshots or videos, or a combination of the two using a screen capture tool. 

Here's a list of common formats, along with templates for standard operating procedures to make creating them easier. 

The six different types of standard operating procedures formats to choose from.

1. Simple format

Or should we call it short and sweet? These SOPs are easy to digest and straight to the point. They'll usually include bulleted lists and short explanations of what's needed for the process. 

A simple format will usually include: 

  • Short steps
  • Less text
  • Bulleted lists

This type of format is best for less complicated tasks, like logging into a time-tracking software.  

Simple SOP Template

2. Hierarchical format

The hierarchical format goes over everything in the order in which it needs to be performed, usually with a numbered list with steps and substeps.  

When writing a hierarchical format SOP, you'll likely need to include: 

  • More sections with headings
  • Numbered lists
  • Steps and substeps 

These types of SOPs are most useful for longer tasks where following steps in a specific order is essential, like using software that's new to the company. 

Hierarchical Template

3. Flowchart format

Documenting a process that's hard to wrap your head around? A flowchart can help your team members better understand and visualize a complex task. 

To create an effective flowchart, you need to: 

  • Make it easy to follow
  • Create different scenarios
  • Spell out the outcomes 

Flowcharts are especially helpful for more complicated processes that lead to different scenarios, like how to log a new customer invoice. 

Flowchart SOP Template

4. Checklist format

Now, if your team thrives on checking off completed tasks, the checklist format can help create a sense of how far along they are in the project. 

This is beneficial for processes that require the user to complete different tasks (in order or not), allowing the user to have a more hands-on, interactive experience with your SOP. 

When creating a checklist format, you can include: 

  • Step-by-step instructions
  • Items that need to be completed
  • Who to report to when they’re completed

This format can help team members remember every task in a process, or tasks that need to be completed regularly, like a weekly reply to customer reviews. 

Checklist SOP Template

5. Course format

If your SOP requires lengthy training, the course format can help your team understand everything that's on their plate. 

With the course format, your SOP will usually include: 

  • Videos
  • Images
  • Quizzes

This format is best for when you have to implement an SOP for a large group of people, such as onboarding new hires

6. Visual format

We might be biased here, but this is one of our favorite formats. The visual format helps your audience understand the documented process without needing to read dense blocks of text. 

A visual SOP will usually include: 

  • Images
  • Short videos
  • Animations
  • Less text
  • More context 

Visual SOPs are not only more engaging, but they also help users easily understand exactly where to click and what to do. This SOP format works great in many cases, especially for an onboarding process and difficult-to-use platforms.  

Visual Template

💃 Let's Tango: Create an SOP in seconds
We get it—taking screenshots and documenting every step of a process is time-consuming.

With Tango, you can automatically generate how-to guides while you work. Click through your process on any website or software, and Tango will spin up step-by-step instructions with perfectly cropped screenshots, links, and annotations.

See it for yourself:

Mistakes to avoid when creating an SOP

When creating your first SOP, you'll likely run into a couple of bumps. This is normal as you get used to documenting all your necessary processes. 

If you want to simplify the process of creating your SOP, here are some common mistakes to avoid: 

  • It’s not accessible: Make it easy for people to find your SOPs. You can add them to a specific folder or platform that houses all of your training materials. 
  • It’s too extensive: Avoid dense walls of text and lots of pages. Use tip boxes and images to break up text, and include bulleted lists and checklists whenever possible. 
  • It’s outdated: Keep your SOP up to date. Make a habit of updating it whenever your company implements a new process and apply the feedback you receive from your team. 
  • It’s incorrect: Involve the right people in the development of your SOP so all the information is accurate. Review your document multiple times before sharing it. 
  • It has long videos: Add videos to your SOP only when needed, and avoid long videos, as they tend to lose your audience's attention. Instead, opt for images and GIFs. 
  • It has no images: Break up or replace walls of text with images to help explain a step better—after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

Keeping these common mistakes in mind and learning how to avoid them can not only help you create more effective SOPs, but also cut down on the time it takes you to create them. 

The bottom line

Creating standard operating procedures is essential to scale processes, increase knowledge sharing, and boost your team's productivity. But they can be time-consuming and tough to keep current.

Fortunately, SOPs can be easy to create and maintain when you have the right tools.


How long should an SOP be?

There's no set rule for how long your SOP should be, but it can range from 800 to 1,000 words or one to two pages long. Focus on including all the details and steps while keeping your SOP simple and to the point.

Who should create the SOPs?

SOPs should be created by the expert in that area or a specific person in charge of process implementation and training. Ideally, both would work together to create the SOP.

What's the difference between technical vs. management SOPs?

A technical SOP details how to complete a task or how to use a platform or software. On the other hand, management SOPs focus on outlining any processes and procedures within the company.

What’s the difference between an SOP and work instructions?

SOPs give overviews of a process while work instructions focus on step-by-step direction. However, teams can use SOPs and work instructions together for different types of projects.

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