Yes, You Do Need to Write Down Procedures. Except…
近代工芸の名品― [特集展示] 棗
Several weeks ago we went to an art exhibit about “tea caddies” at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art. Although it might seem silly, these kitchen containers are a fixture of Japanese culture. In Japan, drinking green tea is a cornerstone of daily life.
It was about 2 in the afternoon, and we had checked out of our hotel at 11. Wandering through the center of the city, we stumbled upon the museum. Since we didn’t have to meet our friends for several more hours, we decided to check it out.
Confession: I’m not a huge fan of art museums. Caveat: I usually enjoy them to some degree or another when I end up in them. But I didn’t think tea caddies could possibly be useful to me. I was wrong!
When to Write SOPs
One of the features of the exhibit was a Book of Standard Operating Procedures. It described how to create a new lacquered tea caddy from paper. (Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for this piece in particular.) The book was open, laying flat, showing a grid of characters on the right hand side. The grid described a particular process step in great detail. On the left page, a picture of a craftsman performing that step was attached. The card describing the book of SOPs explained that each of the 18 process steps was described using exactly the same format. This decision was made to ensure that the book would help accomplish certain things:
- Improve Production Quality. Even masters sometimes need to follow instructions, or to be reminded about an old lesson learned, especially if the process is one you only do occasionally. SOPs promote consistency over time, and from person to person.
- Train New Artists. Even though learning the craft is done under the supervision of a skilled worker, it’s impossible to remember every detail (unless you have an eidetic memory, which most of us don’t have). The SOP serves as a guide during the learning process.
- Enable Continuous Improvement. The SOP is the base from which adjustments and performance improvements are grown. It provides “version control” so you can monitor progress and examine the evolution of work over time.
- Make Space for Creativity. It might be surprising, but having guidance for a particular task or process in the form of an SOP reduces cognitive load, making it easier for a person to recognize opportunities for improvement. In addition, deviations aren’t always prohibited (although in high-reliability organizations, or industries that are highly regulated, you might want to check before being too creative). The art is contributed by the person, not the process.
When Not to Write SOPs
Over the past couple decades, when I’ve asked people to write up SOPs for a given process, I’ve often run into pushback. The most common reasons are “But I know how to do this!” and “It’s too complicated to describe!” The first reason suggests that the person is threatened by the prospect of someone else doing (and possibly taking over) that process, and the second is just an excuse. Maybe.
Because sometimes, the pushback can be legitimate. Not all processes need SOPs. For example, I wouldn’t write up an SOP for the creative process of writing a blog post, or for a new research project (that no one has ever done before) culminating in the publication of a new research article. In general, processes that vary significantly each time they’re run, or processes that require doing something that no one has ever done before — don’t lend themselves well to SOPs.
Get on the Same Page
The biggest reason to document SOPs is to literally get everyone on the same page. You’d be surprised how often people think they’re following the same process, but they’re not! An easy test for this is to have each person who participates in a process draw a flow chart showing the process steps and decisions are made on their own, and then compare all the sketches. If they’re different, work together until you’re all in agreement over what’s on one flow chart — and you’ll notice a sharp and immediate improvement in performance and communication.