Forgetting The Purpose

We’ve all been there. The intention was to write out a simple process for some small tasks, and now things are turning into a project. Suddenly, we’re left trying to make sense of something far more complicated, like this stock photo of a monkey who has accumulated a bulk supply of restaurant-grade water cups.

Standard Operating Procedures can get complicated from time to time. When they do, the best way to move forward is to develop a procedure’s Purpose.

It’s not enough to simply scratch out a list of procedures, slap a title on it, and call it an SOP. And you might be a writer who sighs at the need for revision histories, verification signatures, responsibilities among other items, taking away from the lesson within the procedure. You just wanted something to get done! Get out training fast and tackle the next process, right? Well, consider this: there’s an opportunity here. An opportunity to provide readers and writers with a layout to move forward faster and more efficiently than before.

By allowing for an SOP’s Purpose to be defined at the start of the document’s creation, there is a meditation on writing. This small step can drastically improve your own understanding of what you are trying to write as well as facilitate better learning amongst employees.

runaway syndrome

When it comes to developing a new SOP, there is a subconscious instinct to just get down to writing everything out-

Get it all on paper.

Send it along.

Move on.

If you’ll indulge me for a bit, let’s look at a theoretical SOP, written without an initial purpose. Just getting the process on a sheet of paper and sent out for review/implementation.

In this scenario, we’re looking at a step-by-step walkthrough of how to run a simple process- such as reloading the syrup at a soda fountain dispenser. Without defining a purpose in the beginning there is a lack of acknowledgment of how this process fits within the workplace as a whole. And so, there will inevitably be an unforeseen moment where something new is realized outside of the scope of the original project. Maybe reloading the soda fountain will require bringing up stock from the basement. By taking the stock up from the basement, it has to be logged onto an inventory spreadsheet. While you are down there, its common practice to refill the cup dispenser too…

And presently, a monkey is tearing down I-94 with the company’s cup inventory.

As this SOP is being written out, a simple task such as a syrup refill could easily turn into instructions to shut down half of the restaurant and get animal control on standby, before working to the procedure that you set out to accomplish in the first place.

The lack of a purpose in an article becomes an easy target for this “runaway syndrome”.

Without taking the time to clearly define the intended training of the document, you’ll spin your wheels, and the document will draw itself out to a complicated, messy grave. Trust me- its worth the simple meditation.

All about the employees

If we would look at the aspect of an SOP’s Purpose form another angle- let’s put ourselves inside the employee’s shoes. Its not always easy to come into a new job and learn about an entire system of processes. There can be a lot to absorb.

Writing out a Purpose in the very beginning sets the tone for an SOP. This tone is subliminal and works in the background to define a document. When these SOPs (with a designed Purpose) are presented to an employee, there is a larger chance that the employees have a better grasp and context to learn.

I’ve dug my way through my fair share of SOP ecosystems, and the ones that fail harder in a workplace are the ones that are so complicated that nobody knows how to use them. Almost all of these are SOPs without clear and concise Purpose statements within the document. Here is what happens:

  • Without a Purpose section, the SOP becomes 10x harder to locate in a pile of other procedures (especially when there are multiple SOPs for a particular piece of equipment, titles start to sound very similar).
  • There’s no layout written to understand the documented procedure. At this point- how does the employee know if they truly understand the SOP in its entirety? Employees either forget or never understood what the goal of the document is, which makes it impossibly difficult to frame learning.

Having a clear Purpose, created at the start of writing and provided at the front of an SOP- lets employees find training on specific instructions. It builds expectations on what they are trying to learn, and this will allow for more effective learning. It helps them frame the process and how to use the document effectively.

Going forward

So if you want to write a Purpose for an SOP, how should you go about it? Here are a few tips:

  1. Think about the process you want to tell as one part in a larger array of procedures to learn. What comes before this process? What comes after? Are there other steps that must be learned before this procedure takes place?
  2. Write out the Purpose for the SOP in 3-5 sentences, in simple language, clearly defining the goals.
  3. Include the Purpose at the front of the SOP. It will guide expectations when learning, and allow for quick location of the manual (particularly helpful in times of emergency).

With these steps going forward, there will be a structure for writing out the document. Set boundaries will be in place to guide the procedure from getting buried in complexity, and employees will be able to learn much more effectively. These steps are critical if the SOPs you are writing isn’t just for show, but to actually impact the people they are being written for.

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