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SOP Procedures: 5 Ways to Orient Readers

What do we mean by the location in procedures? It’s WHERE the user performs the actual task. Inexperienced procedure writers often assumes the reader will know where to perform the action. But this is not always the case. Often readers are starting cold. How can you fix this?

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages

Procedure writers need to put themselves in the reader’s shoes, for example:

  1. Location – identify where in the application the procedure is performed, for example, [this task] is performed  on this [tab] on [this] window.
  2. Prerequisites – highlight if it’s necessary to perform any tasks, for example, selecting a checkbox on another window in order to make another window appear. Another consideration is if this window needs to be specified in a configuration file or selected from a menu bar if it’s not displayed out of the box.
  3. Location in user interface – identify where in the application the task is performed. Provide directions to the exact location where the procedure is performed, for example, if the window contains several panes, then highlight either with a graphic or state the name of the pane. Likewise, if the window has tabs, highlight which tab to use.  Use the same convention to define the location path in other procedures.
  4. Position in Procedure – decide to add these directions, for example, directly after the first lead paragraph, so the reader can identify the location immediately. Remove any frustration for the user by orienting them in the application. This helps them perform the procedure without having to go to other pages to determine the location.
  5. Links – if linking to the page, for example, in online help, use the same phrasing in your links. Instead of saying Click Here, provide more useful information, for example, to create a report, see the Report window, and then link Report window to the appropriate page.

What else would you add?

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Procedure Writing: How to Create ‘Action’ Steps

Action steps are the individual steps performed in a procedure. Most procedures are performed in a sequence, however, you also need to consider other factors, such as multiple choices when performing a task, its secondary tasks, and other related procedures. To round off the procedure, it helps to put it in context – where does this occur in the larger scheme of things – and also things the user should do before getting started (prerequisites) and warnings (things to avoid or).

Learn more about this Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) template

Download this template – MS Word

Download this template – Apple iWork Pages

Procedures: How to Create Action Steps

  • Summary sentence – open the procedure with a short summary sentence that explains what performing the procedure will achieve. This helps orient the reader, so they know at a glance if they’re on the right page. For this reason, keep it short, concise, and avoid waffle.
  • Main task – Identify the main task in the procedure heading. This defines the starting point for the procedure and should usually be written using a gerund, a verb that ends in ING, for example, printing, deleting, changing and so on.
  • Sequence – Write the procedures in the sequence in which they should be performed. Number each step.
  • Sub Steps – If the procedure offers that user a series of options, then, instead of continuing with the numbering, create sub steps, for example, 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3. This helps the reader see these steps occur under the 7 step. Indenting the sub-steps highlights this.
  • Secondary tasks – Identify secondary tasks, for example, tasks they need to be performed either in parallel with the main task, or if the procedure is rather complex, a second series of steps. This clarifies to the reader that the procedure is really two parts, and prepares them for what’s coming up.
  • Prerequisites – what should they do before they start? Is there another procedure that should be performed first? Is there a setting that should be turned on? Don’t assume the reader knows everything about the product they’re using. Instead, help them by highlighting the type of issues they are likely to encounter so they can perform the procedure without having to stop and start.
  • Warnings – similar to above except these highlights potential risks (e.g. you may lose data if you do X), security, or physical risks, for example, if the user is using dangerous equipment, is there some risk they should be aware of? Highlight these and use icons – small warning images – to make them stand out from the text.
  • Related Information – procedures are not islands that stand alone. Instead, they are usually part of something larger, usually a set of procedures. For that reason, at the end of your procedure, create a For More Information section and list all related procedures. Use the same phrasing and be as specific as possible.
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How to Prioritize SOPs When Controlling Documents

sop-prioritize-procedures
What’s the simplest way to control numerous SOPs documents, especially if you’re managing a team across different business units?

How to Prioritize SOPs? Keep It Simple

My first suggestion is to keep it simple.

I’ve used some very complex Document Control software. The problem is that larger systems are so feature rich that you can spend more time learning how it works than actually managing the procedures.

I prefer to use an Excel spreadsheet. This is something I can share with colleagues, has no learning curve, and is available on most all PCs. Expensive software locks out many users and also requires training, which is more time gone.

Create an Excel Spreadsheet

In the Excel file, create rows for all the items you want to track.

  • SOP #  – assign a unique number assigned to each procedure. It never changes. Its status or version may change but, like a car registration number, it never changes even when it goes from one owner (writer) to the next.
  • Date Issued – enter the date when the document was officially released.
  • Assigned To – for example, the writer been assigned to write the document, or the reviewer whose job it is to review it.
  • Role – Writers, Reviewers, Tester, Or Project Manager.

Low, Medium or High?

Again, keep it simple and use Low, Medium and High for each procedure.

L/M/H – in one column, enter Low, Medium or High next to each procedure. This helps you capture each SOPs as you write them and also make sure that the most important ones are done first. Some SOPs are more critical than others.

Give it Status

When I’m reviewing and/or controlling documents I usually assign a status to the document depending on its level of importance.

These three – L/M/H – help me prioritize those that need to be actioned first, whereas others can wait a while.

Also, I use this field to highlight to other writers which documents need to be completed first and also highlight what’s most urgent.

What have I missed? How do you prioritize your SOP documents?

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Stage 7. How to Test Standard Operating Procedures

sop-how-to-test-procedures
In Part 7 in our series on writing Standard Operating Procedures we look at how to test the Procedures.

How to Test Procedures

The first question is who tests the procedure?

One of the risks of testing your own procedure is that you’ve become snowblind to how the process actually works and fail to see steps that need to be captured. Also, you may take things for granted which the reader needs to be aware of, such as security precautions or items that need to be in place for the procedure to work.

  • Print out the procedure. Try to avoid reading the procedure from the screen. Many users will have it in their hands when reading the instructions so put yourself in their shoes and see if it makes sense.
  • Start at the top and sequentially through the steps. Don’t lose patience and skip down to the next section.
  • Check who does what. Let’s say the procedure has a column (usually far right) for the person or IT system performing the action.For example, in Step 1, the user may enter a credit card number into the ATM. In Step 2, the ATM checks the card. Make sure that this column is correct for each step, especially if there are handovers between people and/or between IT systems.
  • Check off each step as you test the process. Make notes where there are conflicts or ambiguities that need to be clarified.
  • Check that the steps in the procedure agree with what should happen. Also, if the IT system generates a message, such as, ‘Enter your PIN number’, then check that this is captured correctly in the procedure.
  • Note any errors in the margin and add it to the procedure once you’ve finished.
  • Check every exceptions, warning or and multiple choice presented to the user. When users are offered choices, make sure you capture each choice is a separate section.
  • Check that the cells in the If Then tables present such material correctly. It should work like this; if the user does this, then he these step 1. Or, if the user does this, then follow these other steps.
  • Another way to test your procedure is to start at the end and work your way backwards. While this may not be practical for all procedures, try it where possible. It forces you to pay attention and uncovers errors that you may have overlooked when following the ‘logical sequence’ of events.

Getting Others To Test the Procedure

Finally, if possible, get someone who will perform the actual procedure to test it.

  • Sit down with them and observe how they perform the task. Things you took for granted or assumed the user would know, may stop the user in their tracks.
  • This could be something minor, such as a small font size (which the web designers think is trendy) but which makes the text almost unreadable.
  • Once the procedure has been tested, return it to the writer for them to accept the changes you have made. If there are a high level of errors or exceptions that warrant attention, schedule a meeting with your colleague and walk them through the points you’ve raised.

Using the Track Changes feature in MS Word is a simple and effective way to enter comments. To turn this on, click Tools, Track Changes. The recipient can accept or reject the changes and then save the final version with the correct text.

PS – If you’ve missed the other six tutorials, sign up for the newsletter and the whole set of tutorials will be sent to you automatically.

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Stage 6 – How to Write Standard Operating Procedures

sop-write-first-sop

This is Part 6 in our series on writing Standard Operating Procedures. If you’ve missed the first five, sign up for the newsletter and the whole set of tutorials will be sent to you automatically.

How to Write Standard Operating Procedures

Next up, write the procedure. First, let’s take a deep breath and see where we are.

So far, we’ve:

  • Shared our vision with the Management team so they understand how all Departments, Business Units, Customers and Staff will benefit from this activity. Getting support from Management is crucial as their support will give the project the attention it deserves especially when you hit bottlenecks.
  • Defined a writing process for the procedure writers and those involved in all associated procedure-related activities, for example, testing that the procedures work as per the instructions. Note that some procedures can only be tested in a live environment and need to be managed with care.
  • Gathered the documents, process maps, flowcharts, and other material we needed to assess the procedure
    Interviewed those who use the procedure in a working environment, for example, the Call Centre staff if you’re writing Technical Support procedures.
  • Interviewed those who prepared the current procedure and asked for their recommendations on how it could be improved.
  • Collated all the material on the shared server (maybe password protected if you’re concerned that others are too curious about works in progress.)
  • Updated the Project Stakeholders every week with Status Reports.
  • Sent reminders to other parties that you will need time with their staff in the coming weeks. Always give advance notice. You’re colleagues have their schedules too.

Structure the Writing Project

Large companies have libraries of SOP templates for such projects. They will also have invested in Style Guides, Writing Manuals and other materials to assist their writing teams.

If you don’t have these, buy some professional Procedure templates on the web so you can hit the ground running. Make sure the templates work on your PCs, are easy to modify and within budget.

Of course, you can always create your own – choose whichever is most cost effective. Time lost is money lost. Use common sense and get started.

How to Write Procedures

This week we’ll look at how procedure writing at a high level. In the coming weeks, we will drill down and show you how to write procedures from scratch.

Before you start writing, do the following.

  • Naming Convention – Establish a Naming Convention for the documents. Think ahead. If you have 200 procedures to manage, what naming convention would work best to track the documents.
  • Web Friendly – Remember, SOPs may also be published to the Internet, so use a system that is intuitive and easy to follow. Don’t get too esoteric!
  • Share – Create a Shared Drive where all the writers can post the documents. Password protect the drive, if necessary.
  • Style Guides– Invest in Style Guides and other support material. Make sure there are enough copies to go around. Some will hog the guides and resist sharing.
  • Templates – Develop a set of easy-to-use templates. Don’t make them so complex that writers need to be trained to use them. Keep it simple and assume that others (non-team members) will use the same templates to update the procedures.

Tip: Number each procedure. Use Excel to record and track each procedure.

Tell me more about Naming Conventions!

Instead of calling the document, Health Procedure.doc, give it a more meaningful title. For example, ACME-Pharma-F-SOP-05052009.

ACME refers to the name of the company or client or project
Pharma refers to this division within the company
F refers to Final. D can be used for Draft.
SOP refers to the document type.
05052009 is the date the document was signed off.

Using a naming convention will allow you to retrieve documents faster, especially if you have multiple versions of the same document all with different sign off dates. You want to avoid making the reader open each document to determine the version numbers.

If you use MS Word, use the File, Properties option to add further information, such as keywords, Author name, and other comments.

Writing Your First Procedure

Procedures are instructions. So, put yourself in the user’s shoes and write from their perspective. In other words, unlike other types of documentation, you don’t need to give the reader very much background details.

Do the following:

  • Write in the Present tense. The user is performing the task NOW. Don’t write in the past, conditional or future tenses unless you have good reason to do so.
  • Avoid Ambiguity.
  • Be concise.
  • Use short words. This isn’t a romantic novel you’re writing. Keep the words short and get to the point.
  • Move from one step to the next in a logical manner. Steps should follow each other in a logical order.
  • Highlight Exceptions. Use a symbol to flag that this is an exception and how to handle it.
  • Highlight Warnings. Again, warn the user that caution must be used in this scenario. Warnings MUST stand out. Use a larger font or a warning icon.
  • Reduce the word count where possible without altering the meaning of the text.

Do Not:

  • Introduce acronyms without explaining what it means. What does OLA mean to you? I know but most folks don’t.
  • Be Vague. Don’t use the work ‘may’ if possible as it implies that the user can do something under certain conditions. Instead be positive and tell them what to do.
  • Get the sequence wrong. Steps have to be in the correct order.
  • List steps that should be numbered. What I mean is that some items can be listed, for example, a list of ingredients when cooking. But, you need to number the steps in the correct order so the cook can prepare the dish.

Finally, the process of writing a SOP requires the writer to consider all steps in the procedure and perform a risk assessment before work begins. The best approach to writing a SOP is to perform the procedure, write it and test it, write it again.

Number Each Step in the Procedure

Every procedure lists the actions that the reader must take. To keep things simple, we list the actions (aka steps) is sequential order. Start at 1 and work upwards.

Note that some Business Analysts prefer to start at 0 and continue from there. Starting at 0 is used in Project Management documentation and often crosses over to other business documents.

Which is Right?

What’s important is that you choose one style and be consistent. Don’t change styles. Make sure your co-writers also use the same numbering system.

Also, if you’re using MS Word to write the documents, you can take advantage of the automatic numbering system. If you opt to start at 0, create a unique Style for numbering the steps and use this instead.

One word of warning: if you share writing duties, you may have to remind the other writers to start at 0 instead of 1. I prefer to keep things simple and start all lists at 1.

Why Number Steps?

There’s a few reasons for this:

  • It ensure that the reader starts at the correct place.
    It removes any ambiguity or misunderstanding that could arise if the steps were not numbered.
    It ensures that the reader does not ‘interpret’ the procedure as he/she understand it and makes errors when performing the task
  • It ensures that there is an agreed way for all staff to perform the same task. While this may seem intuitive, in smaller companies staff may performs tasks in different ways as per their understanding, training and preferences. How you backup files may be very different than how your colleagues do it.

How About Exceptions?

There are different schools of thought on this. Number the steps starting at 1 and

Continue upwards, e.g. 2, 3, 4, etc.

Or

Use 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 for sub-steps.

Or

Use If Then Else tables for sub-steps.

If Then tables let you present information is a nice, attractive manner and lets the reader see the different options available to them in a grid format.

How do It Then Tables work?

A simple example is applying for a bank loan.

If Then And
If the value of the property is less than $500k Deposit 10% of value Minimum deposit is 50k.
If the value of the property is less than $700k Deposit 12% of value Minimum deposit is 70k.
If the value of the property is less than $900k Deposit 15% of value Minimum deposit is 90k.

The advantage of using an If Then table is that the user can drill-down and find the EXACT piece of information they need. For example, they need to know there is a 50k minimum deposit.

The alternative is to present the information as a list. While this may be easier for you to write (i.e. you don’t need to create tables) it is harder for the reader to locate the specific piece of information.

  • If the value of the property is less than $500k, you must deposit 10% of value and the minimum deposit is 50k.
  • If the value of the property is less than $700k, you must deposit 12% of value and the minimum deposit is 70k.
  • If the value of the property is less than $900k, you must deposit 15% of value and the minimum deposit is 90k.

They have to scan the entire sentence until the locate the information and then read the next line to compare one piece against the other. Not easy to do when you’re tired or in a crowded bank branch with small children running around.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll drill down and look at other ways to write your procedures.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how to test the procedure.