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Work Instructions vs. SOP: How To Pick One for Your Team

Work Instructions vs. SOP: How To Pick One for Your Team

work instruction and SOP side-by-side

What’s the difference between work instructions vs. SOP?

Work instructions cover specific steps, while SOPs typically include goals, a glossary, work instructions, and more.

Find us a high performing team that doesn’t have a strong culture of documentation. We’ll wait! 

Some jobs to be done (like how to onboard a new hire) need a comprehensive rundown complete with a glossary, roles and responsibilities, and related resources. This is where standard operating procedures (SOPs) come in. 

Other tasks (like setting up a new hire’s email account) just need a clear and chronological checklist with detailed steps to ensure success. In this case, you might only need a set of work instructions.

Scroll down to see the differences between work instruction vs. SOPs in depth, when to use each one, and how you can create great documentation that your team will actually use.

Work instructions vs. SOPs: Main differences

Since work instructions and SOPs can serve similar purposes (and many teams use them both), they’re easy to mix up. 

Here’s how to tell them apart, in 200 characters or less. SOPs are usually built out to communicate more context for a key process, while work instructions mainly stick to the steps of a task at hand. Whereas SOPs explain what needs to be done, work instructions explain how to do it. 

Want more of a compare and contrast?👇

Work instructions SOPs
What they’re used for Explaining steps and related details for one task Providing a detailed overview for a process
What they look like Step-by-step instructions A comprehensive guide
What’s inside Steps and important information needed to complete each step Goals, work instructions, glossary, roles and responsibilities, resources, and areas for feedback or questions
Who they’re for Team members completing the task Team members involved in any part of the process (execution, review, etc.)
Examples Work instructions to reset a teammate’s email password A phishing incident SOP
Biggest benefits Gives teammates a straightforward point of reference when completing a task for the first time Helps teams create consistent results by housing important process information in one place

What is an SOP?

An SOP is a comprehensive document that gives teams context and resources for a complex task or workflow. It paints the big picture, complete with points of contact and goals, and often includes work instructions.

SOPs aim to standardize processes based on collective experience, institutional knowledge, and best practices. They’re also a helpful resource if/when your team needs to follow privacy or security measures. 

Examples of SOPs include:

  • New hire onboarding SOPs may cover the roles and responsibilities of different departments when welcoming a new teammate.
  • International sales leads SOPs can go over nuances and compliance requirements a sales team needs to follow when working with overseas leads.
  • Site feature updates SOPs may tackle who is responsible for updating parts of your team’s website and how teammates can request new features.
  • IT support SOPs can explain how IT support works and what the process of requesting help from subject matter experts looks like.

What are work instructions?

Work instructions give your team a set of thorough instructions to complete one task. These straightforward resources only include details on each step.

If all goes according to plan, any new hire should be able to follow your work instructions in their sleep. 😴 (Not that we encourage sleeping on the job!) 

Examples of work instructions include:

  • New hire account setup work instructions can give IT teams the steps for setting up accounts for a new teammate.
  • International billing work instructions can provide accounting teams the steps for billing an overseas client.
  • Page redirect work instructions can equip the web development team with the steps for redirecting old pages on the website to new pages.
  • IT support tickets work instructions can give the wider team the steps to submit support tickets to the IT team.

When to use work instructions vs. SOPs

Choosing between work instructions and SOPs comes down to the level of detail and the type of information your team needs.

SOPs can help busy, cross-functional team members understand the overarching goals of a particular process and their role within it. Work instructions can help anyone responsible for executing a key task succeed with flying colors. 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when choosing between creating work instructions vs SOPs:

  • [Purpose] Do I want to help people understand a process in full or complete a specific task?
  • [Audience] Which would be most helpful to my end users—more backstory to explain what needs to be done, or more prescriptive instructions on how to do one thing? 
  • [Complexity] How much guidance will be needed to set people up for success? 

If you’re not entirely sure, the answer might be both! Especially if the process is completely new to your team.

Tips for creating work instructions and SOPs

Regardless of the format you use, stellar documentation shares lots of similar qualities. Is it easy to find? ✔️. Easy to understand? ✔️. Easy to implement? 🏆. 

Here are a few more tips to follow when creating work instructions or SOPs:

  • Partner with subject matter experts to create content to help the team follow best practices.
  • Establish the beginning and end of the process you’re documenting to avoid overlapping information.
  • Just say no to jargon (and include a glossary for any less obvious terms you do need to use!).
  • Include visuals and rich media to provide context and encourage engagement with your training materials.
  • Think ahead to how you’ll make documentation scalable as your team grows.
  • Find an easy-to-use documentation tool that helps people learn in the flow of work and reflects real-time updates.
  • Optimize your approach to knowledge operations to 1) promote your documentation and 2) streamline your team’s knowledge base to help your team find the answers they need—even as the business changes.
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The bottom line

Top-notch SOPs and work instructions can be the one-two punch that pushes your team’s impact up and to the right. 📈

Giving everyone the knowledge they need when they need it starts with good documentation. By proactively answering common questions (with the right level of detail), you can help people power through processes and tasks—and free them up to focus on more meaningful work.


What is the difference between an SOP and work instruction in ISO 9001?

In ISO 9001, procedures (like SOPs) cover how teams should carry out a process while work instructions describe the steps to carry out tasks within a procedure.

A process in ISO 9001 is a much broader overview of the process's goals, what teams need to get done, and other high-level information. The level of detail increases when going from processes ➡️ procedure ➡️ work instructions.

What’s the difference between SOPs and operational control procedures (OCPs)?

OCPs are processes in place to manage risks, while SOPs can be broader and refer to any routine processes on your team’s plate.

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