Developing and writing effective standard operating procedures

Developing and writing effective standard operating procedures

 Part two: When Should SOPs Be Written?

Ken MacDonnellBy Ken MacDonnell, P. Eng.
Professor, Fleming College

Assuming you already have an SOP development program in place (see part 1), then it is a question of setting a priority for the SOPs to be developed.

A hierarchy of procedures will determine the order of development starting with procedures that represent an activity with a substantial risk of impacting either the health and safety of employees or the public. Even after all SOPs have been developed and implemented, there is still work to be done with respect to procedures:

  • New employees should be properly trained on Standard Operating Procedures (do not inundate them with all SOPs and expect full understanding).
  • Review of existing SOPs every three years (at a minimum) to ensure they are still relevant and reflect how the task is being done. Just like you need to update your MSDS sheets every three years, your procedures should not be any different. If changes are made to a procedure, don’t forget to document the change and make sure that all copies are also changed.
  • New equipment / chemicals / etc. may require a change in SOPs. If you make a change from Alum to PACl as your coagulant, it will likely mean that the operational set points will also change. This must be reflected in all SOPs affected by this change and this must be done immediately.

If you do not currently have a comprehensive SOP program, then it is imperative that you begin to develop a program.

Where Should SOPs Be Located?

In the past, SOPs were located in binders where staff could access and copy the SOP to take with them in the field. This was a paper intensive process where all copies had to be controlled copies, meaning that someone had to take the responsibility to ensure that the SOP was:

  • Present in the binder (not missing)
  • Current (most recent version)

This was a difficult and arduous task that often was not done satisfactorily and procedures were often missing or not current. With today’s technology and employees having near limitless access to computers or other such devices, SOPs are now digital, located in an easy to find database. This has certainly reduced the risk of not being able to find an SOP or finding outdated copies.

Why are SOPs important?

Apart from the regulatory or compliance requirement for having Standard Operating Procedures, having an effective SOPs program will you to have consistency in the final product/outcome. Furthermore, in the event of an accident or incident, the MOL / MOEPC / JOHSC or any other investigating body will likely ask for and review relevant SOPs. Therefore, the SOP becomes a legal document and, along with training records, is an important investigative tool to understand what happened and to prevent a possible re-occurrence.

That being said, one of the biggest mistakes in writing SOPs is to try to ensure that the procedure will find fault with someone who did not follow the steps exactly as prescribed. In other words, a tool to CYA in the event of an injury or incident. If you view SOPs in this way, then all you will get are very long and complicated procedures that possibly spend more time on telling what not to do rather than what to do. An example of this is the installation of a child’s car seat (see image, below).

Figure 3The installation manual for the car seat is 40 pages long with the first 25 pages telling you what not to do and warnings. It is a true CYA approach to SOPs and very difficult to follow and therefore ineffective. It is understandable as to why the car seat installation guide be set up this way. For work SOPs, this approach is not required as each SOP comes with training. During the training, the relevancy of the SOP and why steps are or are not included can be discussed.

The importance and benefits of having a structured SOP program with well written procedures and subsequent training are as follows:

  • To provide individuals with the information to perform a job/task properly;
  • Facilitates consistency in the quality and integrity of a product or end result;
  • Minimize the opportunity for miscommunication;
  • Identify hazards of a job/task and describe methods prevent (or reduce the risk) and/or mitigate any negative outcomes of the occurrence;
  • Help to assure the quality and consistency of the service;
  • Help ensure that good practices are always achieved;
  • Provide an opportunity to utilize the expertise of all members;
  • Help to avoid confusion for a job- especially relating to responsibilities;
  • Provide advice/guidance to team members;
  • Useful tool for training new team members.

One final thought as to why SOPs are important- through attrition and career changes, the water/wastewater industry is experiencing a very high turnover of personnel. With these frequent changes, it is important that the newly-hired individuals be provided a safe work environment. This environment should include well written standard operating procedures.

Who Should Develop/Write Standard Operating Procedures?

With respect to the developing and writing SOPs, this should be broken down into two categories:

  • Long-term planning for SOP development;
  • Writing individual SOPs.

The long-term planning segment will be covered in detail in future articles. Suffice it to say, that this deals with the “Big Picture” of your operation and deals with:

  • Determination of what activities / tasks require SOPs. This is a systematic approach that involves a team (operators, supervisors, maintenance, etc.) to brainstorm each job and thoroughly identify each task that is required to complete the job. Each task will then represent an SOP. Failure to do this properly may result in missing key tasks associated with a job or having too many tasks in one SOP (making the SOP long and difficult to follow). This component initially can be done by a facilitated process.
  • Developing an SOP hierarchy to prioritize which SOPs need to be developed first. The basis for this will consider the risks associated with the activity/task and the possible outcomes of failing to do the tasks properly. Outcomes include health and safety implications to staff as well as potential impacts to the public or environment.
  • Eliminate redundant SOPs and combine similar activities – for example, performing a circle check of your vehicle should be the same regardless of which department you work- having a variety of these SOPs can lead to confusion and inconsistency
  • Name and number the SOPs.

Once a detailed and prioritized list of tasks has been developed, it is now time to write the individual SOPs. In most cases, the best authors for SOPs are the subject matter experts- that is, the experienced operators/personnel who perform these tasks regularly.

A top down approach, where the SOPs are written at a management level may result in a challenging buy-in from the staff who will be using the SOP.  Allowing staff to actively participate in the process is a benefit that would be seen in effective and relevant SOPs where the precautions and steps for the task accurately reflect what is being done in the field.

This is not to say that there is no managerial or supervisory role in this process and that this is a “carte blanche” for the crew to do what they want. On the contrary, supervisors are ultimately responsible for the Health and Safety of their crews and subsequently the operation of the facility. Therefore, they must review and approve all SOPs to ensure that they do meet accepted standards. For example, if you are reviewing an SOP for personnel working at a height of greater than three (3) meters, you must ensure there is a requirement for fall protection equipment as required by the O.H. & S. Act.

Exceptions will occur as there are times when the staff will not likely be the subject matter experts. For example, a change in legislation that requires a subsequent change or development on a SOP;  or a new process/equipment (i.e. switching from gas chlorine to hypochlorite) that has been brought into the plant. In each of these cases, there will likely be no “subject matter experts” and therefore it will be incumbent upon the supervisor to develop associated SOPs. However, in these instances, when the SOP is required to be reviewed, evaluated, and re-written, the operators will once again be the subject matter experts and take responsibility for this process.

Having the work force contribute and write SOPs as part of their jobs might be a paradigm shift on how the process has worked in the past. This Participative Management approach to Standard Operating Procedures is extremely effective in achieving your objective of having well written SOPs that the staff will follow.

In the next article, we will go over the anatomy on an SOP and the SOP process for developing effective procedures.
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Ken MacDonnell is the Coordinator and Professor for the Advanced Water Systems Operation and Management Graduate Certificate program at Fleming College. He has over 20 years working in the water industry encompassing operational aspects of conventional water treatment and water distribution. Ken also has experience in management systems such as Health and Safety, DWQMS, developing Standard Operating Procedures, and Project Management.Ken has a B.Sc. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Guelph and is a Professional Engineer (PEO).

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