SOP Writing – How Much Detail Is Required?

sop-level-of-detail

How much information do you need to include in your SOP? One of the dilemmas for procedure writing is working out what level of detail is required when creating SOPs (standard operating procedures).

  • Too little and the user can’t perform their tasks correctly.
  • Too much and the documents seem so dense that nobody wants to use them.

How do you get the right balance?

The golden rule is to give readers… the appropriate level of detail.

This means you need to outline the procedure in sufficient detail for the user to perform their tasks but not overwhelm them with superfluous information or text that distracts them from their objective.

Why Less is More in procedure writing

When I’m working with clients – for example refining an existing set of procedures – I ‘warn’ them that the final document will be shorter, not longer, than what they have today.

Why?

Because I distill the instructions, merge action steps and remove redundancies. The end result is a short, more useful SOP Manual.

SOP Writing Guidelines

What’s our aim?

To write procedures to a level of detail that aligns with the user’s qualifications and training.

How do you find this?

Use task analysis techniques to assess the level of information required.

You may also find that you need to write for several, not one, audiences. If this is the case, consider creating entry level and advanced procedure manuals.

Note: When in doubt, write to the lowest common denominator.

To provide the correct level of detail, examine the following:

  • Task Complexity – The level of detail increases as task complexity increases. In other words, as the task gets more complex, you need to provide additional information to explain how this part works.
  • Frequency – The level of detail decreases as task frequency increases, i.e. as the user becomes more experienced they don’t need to be reminded of the basics all the time.
  • Proficiency – The level of detail decreases as the user’s level of proficiency increases.

Next, examine if the amount and type of information provided are adequate for
intended users. For example:

  • Sequence – Can the procedure be performed in the sequence it is written? If not, write more action steps.
  • Equipment – Can the user find the equipment referred to in the procedure? Monitor a user when testing the SOP and see if they can perform this unaided.
  • Understanding – Can the user explain how to perform the instructions? Interview the user and ask them to explain how the process works without referring to the document all the time.
  • Independent – Can the user perform the procedure without getting help from other individuals or looking at other documents? If they have to ask for assistance, then identify where they’re getting confused and expand this section. Sometimes a process flow diagram is very helpful.

Conclusion

Your goal is to ensure that users have enough information to complete the procedure… without asking for help or looking at another document.

If they have to do that, then you’ve under-written the document or possibly assumed that the reader would be able to perform these steps.

One of the challenges for procedure writers is to determine the user’s skill-sets, experience and knowledge of the system. If it’s hard to determine this, then err on the side of caution and prove steps for all level of users.