How to Write Standard Operating Procedures: Experts Provide Tips and Free Templates

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

July 17, 2019 (updated July 19, 2021)

This article presents step-by-step instructions and expert tips on how to write standard operating procedures (SOPs). We provide free, easy-to-use Word and PowerPoint SOP templates, along with a checklist to prepare for and write SOPs.

Included on this page, you will find steps on how to write a standard operating procedure , detailed SOP templates , information on SOP formats , and and many more tips and best practices.

What Is a Standard Operating Procedure?

A standard operating procedure , or SOP, is a step-by-step set of instructions to guide team members to perform tasks in a consistent manner. SOPs are particularly important for complex tasks that must conform to regulatory standards. SOPs are also critical to ensuring efficient effort with little variation and high quality in output. 

Giles Johnson

Giles Johnston is a Chartered Engineer who consults with businesses to improve their operational processes and is the author of Effective SOPs . He defines SOPs as “the best agreed way of documenting the carrying out of a task.” 

business plan operating procedures example

To Charles Cox, a Principal at Firefly Consulting , a boutique consulting firm that specializes in innovation and operational excellence, and a featured contributor to the book Innovating Lean Six Sigma , “SOPs are fundamental to a company’s success.”

SOPs describe how employees can complete processes in the exact same way every time so that organizational functions and outputs remain consistent, accurate, and safe. “SOPs don’t exist in a vacuum. They come from somewhere, and it’s essential that their place in the system be identified. To a large extent, SOPs are the foundation of a company’s operations: If you have no SOPs or inadequate SOPs, your company’s processes are impaired; impaired processes lead to the inadequate execution of policies and so on,” says Cox.

In any organization, all departments — from production to business operations to marketing to sales to legal to customer service — should have SOPs. Defined procedures apply in almost all fields, including agriculture, manufacturing, insurance, finance, and more. 

SOPs may be required by regulatory agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Transport (DOT), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as government legislation like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). Standard operating procedures often fulfill voluntary best practices of standards like OSHA Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), Information Technology Infrastructure Library ( ITIL ), Six Sigma , International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practices), and ISO 9001 .

Why Do We Need Standard Operating Procedures?

Standard operating procedures, including procedures, workflows, and work instructions, enable good communication and promote consistency in processes and output. SOPs help team members work toward common goals. Managers, team members, and consultants can come together to build processes and document those processes. SOPs, in conjunction with regular training and feedback, guide teams to success. 

SOPs are important in clinical research and practice, such as in pharmaceutical processing. In these and other areas, SOPs bolster processes that require triage, segregation of origins, or tracking of cause and effects. In clinical settings, well-prepared SOPs can save an organization from FDA warnings and Form 483 sanctions. The international quality standard ISO 9001 requires companies to document manufacturing processes that can affect the quality of output. 

Standard Operating Procedures Remind You and Protect You

Cox explains, “Training requires consistency. We should not be training new employees based on our own idiosyncrasies.” According to Cox, machine-focused enterprises have less variation than human-focused tasks, such as in the insurance or banking industry, where processes center on manual effort, customer service, and human interaction. SOPs can help companies create consistency within procedures. 

Furthermore, SOPs provide reminders for people. “When people do things infrequently, they do not recall or do them well,” Cox explains. “For tasks you perform on a daily basis, you may not need a detailed SOP. But the things that are tricky and that you do infrequently may require work instructions. For things that you do infrequently, you may have to retrain every six months or so. When deciding what to add to an SOP, think about how often you do something, how difficult is it, how critical is it, and whether skipping this step leaves you open to problems,” says Cox.

Johnston thinks many people don’t understand the value of SOPs: “I think a lot of people see an SOP as simply a box that you check off to say that you’ve documented a process. They don’t understand that SOPs can be used to audit the process, to look at standards as training tools that ensure recruits are working in the correct way, or even just to guarantee uniformity in the way they conduct business.” 

Johnston continues, “People don’t compute that you write these things and actually use them in your business. People think an SOP is something you write and store on a shelf. Then they act surprised when they make mistakes.”

As an example, Johnston describes a client that he helped with instituting an in-person customer feedback process. “My client’s name is above the door of his company,” explains Johnston. “One time, I accompanied my client on a visit to his client. And it was really awkward. The woman giving feedback was embarrassed. She had red ears, a red throat. But she did a great job of giving feedback,” he says. 

Afterward, as Johnston and his client consoled themselves, Johnston fetched the company SOPs and showed his client that every learning point from the meeting had already been documented in their quality management system. “I said, ‘When are you guys going to use this document? And live and breathe it?’ My client thought and said, ‘It’s really straightforward, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, because you wrote this thing five years ago.’”

How Do You Write a Standard Operating Procedure?

Your task may be to update existing SOPs or to write new documents from scratch. In either case, creating SOPs involves more than just sitting down to write instructions. To write a useful SOP, it helps to have at least a basic understanding of the topic. However, you will also want to get input from others on the processes and on your written drafts. Here’s a step-by-step method to develop standard operating procedures.

What Is SOP Format?

SOP format refers to the way you structure your standard operating procedure documents. When selecting an SOP format, consider why you are creating the documents: Are they for regulatory compliance or strictly for internal use? There’s no right or wrong SOP format. Use what suits your documentation needs.

For greater ease as you research and write, create or find a template to work with. Your organization may already have SOP templates, or you can find templates online that match your purpose and industry. (To download free, customizable SOP template examples, see the link above to “Free Standard Operating Procedures Templates.”)

4 Structural Approaches to Writing an SOP

The length and format of an SOP depend on how much detail the document requires to clearly explain instructions and purpose. For example, packing instructions for workers in a book warehouse probably differ from those used by an FDA-compliant snack producer. It is crucial to clearly distinguish and label sections to help readers find what they need when they need it. After all, they may most want instructions when they are most agitated by a problem. There are four structural approaches to creating an SOP format:


A simple checklist looks like a to-do list, with precise, numbered steps that you can check off as you finish them. You can print a task list, store it online, or publish it in any format that is repeatable, reusable, or otherwise serves the team. Checklists are particularly powerful when they include measurable results. A simple checklist is a quick way to capture a process without taking on the burden of creating a full manual, especially if you are experimenting with processes that are not yet entrenched. Checklists may be good for small teams and for procedures with few or no decision points. They are also powerful documents for those who are unfamiliar with processes or for processes that require precise adherence to instructions. When a process includes more decision points, a detailed hierarchical checklist works well. Hierarchical checklists record main processes and the details of subprocesses. For formal documents in which processes may be audited, consider adding distinct, high-level steps that explain the process. As necessary, break high-level steps into individuals tasks that include separate sections for notes on equipment or other information. This way, you can avoid adding information that may obfuscate the processes.  

Organization Chart: For complex procedures or the standard operating procedure manual, an organization chart can help users understand the hierarchy of responsibility for processes.

Process Flow Chart: Flow charts provide a visual overview of entire processes and show how different processes relate to one another. Flow charts also supply context for detailed steps in a procedure. Flow charts are well suited to processes with many decision points. More complex versions include swimlane diagrams, referred to as SIPOC (or COPIS) diagrams. Use these for suppliers, inputs, processes, outputs, and customers.  

Steps: Common formats for procedures include numbered simple sequential steps or hierarchical steps . Simple sequential steps are ordered, numbered step-by-step instructions for simple tasks that have a limited number of possible outcomes.

Hierarchical steps describe procedures that consist of more than 10 actions, including branches at decision points.  

Document Structure

Although documents can be either elaborate or simple, depending on your organization’s needs, most SOPs use at least some of the structural elements listed below:

Standard Operating Procedure Templates

With templates, it’s easier to write SOPs because you can concentrate on content without worrying about formatting. The following free, downloadable templates are also customizable for your organization’s needs.

Pictorial Standard Operating Procedure Template

Giles Johnston Image SOP Standard Operating Procedures Template

This PowerPoint work instruction template from Giles Johnston emphasizes the use of pictures and short bullet points for instructions. The template includes spaces for two images and a short paragraph or a few bullets for each slide in the deck. You’ll also find additional spaces for author name, date, slide number, and slide title.

Download Pictorial Standard Operating Procedure Template

PDF | PowerPoint

Simple Standard Operating Procedure Template

Simple SOP Standard Operating Procedure Template

Johnston also offers this basic work instruction template. In addition to the meta information, such as author, SOP title, date, SOP number, and issue, this template provides a small space to describe the context of the procedure and a large space to fill with steps. As Johnston says of both templates, “They look pretty basic — until they’re populated!”

Download Simple Standard Operating Procedure Template

Document Control Standard Operating Procedure Template

Document Control SOP Standard Operating Procedure Template

When collecting work-related documents, you likely have to standardize a system for formatting, naming, storing, and archiving. This document control SOP template helps you decide what documents to control, as well as how to format, name, number, store, and archive them. This template includes space for discussing who is responsible for document control and for updating the document control SOP.

Download Document Control Standard Operating Procedure Template

Word | PDF | Smartsheet

Long Standard Operating Procedure Template

Long SOP Standard Operating Procedure Template

This template for a long SOP includes what many people think of as the SOP itself. In addition to identifying the SOP and describing its purpose, this template provides space to list reference documents, necessary supplies and equipment, troubleshooting information, quality control details, and an SOP distribution list. 

Download Long Standard Operating Procedure Template

How to Write Standard Operating Procedures

Charles Cox sums up the SOP writing process this way: “Take the de facto SOPs, come up with a standard, and write everything the exact same way every time. That way, people can get trained and refer to the documents with consistent expectations. Reduce text and increase pictures and graphic; add videos, if necessary. Whatever it takes to move from the world of de facto SOPs or de facto work instructions, do it.” 

Giles Johnston sees the need for visual support from another perspective: “A lot of people don’t enjoy writing these.” College graduates may feel more comfortable with writing duties, but most of the workforce does not have the same educational background. 

“Not everyone has the ability to translate activities into the written word. If people could get away from worrying about the style of writing and incorporate a few more images, rather than adding endless sentences, we’d probably get a lot more SOPs, written a lot more quickly,” Johnston emphasizes. 

Your focus should be on conveying as much information as possible in a small space; the PowerPoint slides and bullet points from the pictorial standard operating procedure template above are a good example of this kind of economical communication. “Short can be effective,” says Johnston.

And make sure that you include all necessary details. “That’s one of the things I see time and time again; people don’t include all the steps,” laments Johnston. “They rush it out, and no one can follow it.” He advises writers to prepare for the “nitty gritty” of step-by-step instructions.

Johnston continues, “I joke with my clients that you have step one, then some magic happens, and you have step two. In reality, there may be 15 steps across a process that you need to capture. People glibly move past them, so it’s crucial to understand all the steps in a process. 

“Before step one, maybe there’s a whole loading operation, and before that, maybe there’s a calibration and a maintenance check. You need to capture all that,” Johnston says. 

What else should you know to write SOPs with confidence? Here are some important elements to keep in mind: 

The Trouble with Classic Standard Operating Procedures

Sometimes, employees avoid SOPs because the documents contain difficult jargon and uninspiring layouts. Thick manuals full of obscure terminology were once staples of engineering and manufacturing environments. Although formal layouts may be necessary for certain standards, such as the FDA, that doesn’t mean procedures and work instructions can’t feature simple language and user-friendly design.

How Do You Write a Procedure?

After you understand the larger process and workflow, it’s time to document the individual procedures. Whether you are an enthusiastic or reluctant procedure writer, do not underestimate the amount of time you need to document procedures. Follow these steps for clear and effective writing:

How to Develop Standard Operating Procedure Manuals, aka Quality Manuals

A standard operating procedure manual , known in ISO 9001 as the quality manual in a quality management system, provides a method for collecting your organization’s many procedures in one place. A manual can be as simple as a collection of Microsoft Word documents that you organize into a master document or a traditional binder with pages. “The operations manual provides a handbook for how the business operates day to day,” explains Johnston. 

For Charles Cox, “In a very real sense, the information contained in the operating company’s documents impacts the ability of the personnel to meet and exceed expectations. If the documents are not well executed, the information will be difficult to access or understand. Then people will start making up their own approaches, which leads to needless increases in variability and a decline in quality.” Some fields, such as ITIL, have special names for their SOP manual. In ITIL, they refer to the SOP manual as a run book . 

Cox says that an SOP manual can stand on its own, but is usually included in a quality manual, together with policies, processes, procedures, and work Instructions. “How a company splits up these four elements is at the discretion of management,” he explains. “Sometimes, only a few policies that directly impact operations are included in the quality manual, and the remaining policies or all policies go into a policy manual that only upper-middle and senior leadership can access,” he adds.

Alternatively, the quality manual may include only SOPs, inspection procedures, and work instructions. “There are many ways of arranging the documents; the arrangement must fit the requirements of the people who need access to the information. You need a clear understanding of the operating environment before designing the documents system,” Cox emphasizes.

Johnston describes what one of his clients created for their franchises:

An operations or SOP manual can work well as a repository for procedures, but you must be sure to link everything therein. Johnston cautions against orphans (i.e., pages and procedures that lack linkage to the rest of the document system). Users can stumble across content by accident. “Good linkage is like having a compass. Anywhere you’re dropped, you can find your way back,” he says. 

Johnston warns, however, “If it’s hard to find a procedure and you’re busy, you don’t look for it; you just carry on as normal and run the risk of working in an incorrect manner.”

The Hierarchy of Standard Operating Procedure Documents

business plan operating procedures example

Procedures form a part of a management system by defining established or prescribed methods and processes. We build procedures from steps, which are the aspect of processes where individuals can introduce variation. SOPs provide the overall framework, while work instructions can change more often. "Procedures provide a description of who does what and when. An SOP characterizes relationships and control measures," says Johnston. Documentation is never a substitute for training. 

The following is a hierarchy of SOP documents: 

According to Cox, the human resource department stores various skills matrices, but for optimum efficiency, managers on the shop floor should keep this information. That way, when technical questions arise, the manager will know who is the in-house expert. In addition, if a team member calls in sick or goes on holiday, the manager will be able to identify capable individuals to perform specific tasks. 

“One of the things I find fascinating is that we bring people into a company, sort of train them, and then hope for the best,” laments Giles Johnston. “If we’ve written SOPs, then it makes sense to have skills matrices that refer directly to those SOPs. That way, when someone starts, they can learn the correct way to do things and be judged against that standard; they can know who to ask questions, and we can have effective members of staff that we can track,” he recommends.

What Is the Purpose of Standard Operating Procedures?

SOPs describe your unique business processes and the steps you require to finish those processes in accordance with industry, legal, in-house, and competitive standards. Procedures are step-by-step descriptions, whether predominantly text or graphics.

Standard operating procedures should form the basis of regular training and provide a structure of metrics for performance reviews. SOPs also help you achieve the following: 

Despite potentially providing rich sources of information, SOPs are often consigned to shelves or hidden in the labyrinth of a file share system. Giles Johnston encourages people to build references to SOPs into business activities: “Learn to tie SOPs to your meetings, not necessarily to training. Usually, some element of an SOP pertains to your meeting and should be reflected particularly in your process meetings to guide people’s thinking. Instead of the SOP being separate from and adjacent to what you’re doing, it’s actually synonymous with what you’re doing.” 

Johnston describes a company that included an SOP show-and-tell in its meetings. Senior managers were each given a separate SOP and four minutes to present a precis on how the SOP applied to the meeting. “It was fascinating what people brought back to the table, what they either hadn’t realized or had forgotten,” says Johnston.

He also gives an example of a company in which it previously took a new hire three months to become fully effective at their job. After the company updated its SOPs with enough imagery and clearer articulation and added a skills matrix, new employees became effective in about four hours.

What Is a Procedure Example?

A procedure lists the necessary steps to complete a task, particularly those in a process or cycle. You usually assign sequential numbers to the steps in a procedure (which may also contain substeps). In general, instructional procedures should contain no more than seven steps. Below, we use the example of a procedure for washing dishes in an industrial dishwasher:

What Is an SOP in Business?

SOPs detail procedures that you use in your organization to perform activities according to industry and statutory standards, as well as your internal specifications. Procedures include any documents that describe how to perform an action, whether in words or pictures, in print or online.

Why Do We Have Standard Operating Procedures?

SOPs are an important part of a quality management system. Standard operating procedures describe the recurring tasks in a quality operation. Written SOPs reduce errors by detailing the required manner for performing a task. When you update processes and training plans, you should also update the SOPs. When you follow this method, SOPs become a means for notifying employees of process changes. SOPs may be essential for processes that are critical to quality (CTQ).

Storing and Disseminating Standard Operating Procedures and Tools to Help

You need not only to format your SOPs, but also to store them, so everyone can easily access them. Software can help. Business process management software, for example, allows you to store procedures online and track usage from one view. The following are some of the different products you can use to create, review, update, and publish your documents:

Historical Grounds for Standard Operating Procedures

Standardization and SOPs are the outcomes of industrialization, specifically the effort to prevent major accidents. The 1856 train disaster in Pennsylvania occurred when railway engineers in two trains approaching an intersection acted on conflicting interpretations of the rules of the road. The public remonstrations led to the standardization of procedures and what we now know as SOPs. The dramatic example set by the accident showed that unconsidered processes and informal communication cause problems. The example also illustrated how step-by-step procedures clarify processes.

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How To Write the Operations Plan Section of the Business Plan

Susan Ward wrote about small businesses for The Balance for 18 years. She has run an IT consulting firm and designed and presented courses on how to promote small businesses.

business plan operating procedures example

Stage of Development Section

Production process section, the bottom line, frequently asked questions (faqs).

The operations plan is the section of your business plan that gives an overview of your workflow, supply chains, and similar aspects of your business. Any key details of how your business physically produces goods or services will be included in this section.

You need an operations plan to help others understand how you'll deliver on your promise to turn a profit. Keep reading to learn what to include in your operations plan.

Key Takeaways

In your business plan , the operations plan section describes the physical necessities of your business's operation, such as your physical location, facilities, and equipment. Depending on what kind of business you'll be operating, it may also include information about inventory requirements, suppliers, and a description of the manufacturing process.

Keeping focused on the bottom line will help you organize this part of the business plan.

Think of the operating plan as an outline of the capital and expense requirements your business will need to operate from day to day.

You need to do two things for the reader of your business plan in the operations section: show what you've done so far to get your business off the ground and demonstrate that you understand the manufacturing or delivery process of producing your product or service.

When you're writing this section of the operations plan, start by explaining what you've done to date to get the business operational, then follow up with an explanation of what still needs to be done. The following should be included:

Production Workflow

A high-level, step-by-step description of how your product or service will be made, identifying the problems that may occur in the production process. Follow this with a subsection titled "Risks," which outlines the potential problems that may interfere with the production process and what you're going to do to negate these risks. If any part of the production process can expose employees to hazards, describe how employees will be trained in dealing with safety issues. If hazardous materials will be used, describe how these will be safely stored, handled, and disposed.

Industry Association Memberships

Show your awareness of your industry's local, regional, or national standards and regulations by telling which industry organizations you are already a member of and which ones you plan to join. This is also an opportunity to outline what steps you've taken to comply with the laws and regulations that apply to your industry. 

Supply Chains

An explanation of who your suppliers are and their prices, terms, and conditions. Describe what alternative arrangements you have made or will make if these suppliers let you down.

Quality Control

An explanation of the quality control measures that you've set up or are going to establish. For example, if you intend to pursue some form of quality control certification such as ISO 9000, describe how you will accomplish this.

While you can think of the stage of the development part of the operations plan as an overview, the production process section lays out the details of your business's day-to-day operations. Remember, your goal for writing this business plan section is to demonstrate your understanding of your product or service's manufacturing or delivery process.

When writing this section, you can use the headings below as subheadings and then provide the details in paragraph format. Leave out any topic that does not apply to your particular business.

Do an outline of your business's day-to-day operations, including your hours of operation and the days the business will be open. If the business is seasonal, be sure to say so.

The Physical Plant

Describe the type, site, and location of premises for your business. If applicable, include drawings of the building, copies of lease agreements, and recent real estate appraisals. You need to show how much the land or buildings required for your business operations are worth and tell why they're important to your proposed business.

The same goes for equipment. Besides describing the equipment necessary and how much of it you need, you also need to include its worth and cost and explain any financing arrangements.

Make a list of your assets , such as land, buildings, inventory, furniture, equipment, and vehicles. Include legal descriptions and the worth of each asset.

Special Requirements

If your business has any special requirements, such as water or power needs, ventilation, drainage, etc., provide the details in your operating plan, as well as what you've done to secure the necessary permissions.

State where you're going to get the materials you need to produce your product or service and explain what terms you've negotiated with suppliers.

Explain how long it takes to produce a unit and when you'll be able to start producing your product or service. Include factors that may affect the time frame of production and describe how you'll deal with potential challenges such as rush orders.

Explain how you'll keep  track of inventory .


Describe any product testing, price testing, or prototype testing that you've done on your product or service.

Give details of product cost estimates.

Once you've worked through this business plan section, you'll not only have a detailed operations plan to show your readers, but you'll also have a convenient list of what needs to be done next to make your business a reality. Writing this document gives you a chance to crystalize your business ideas into a clear checklist that you can reference. As you check items off the list, use it to explain your vision to investors, partners, and others within your organization.

What is an operations plan?

An operations plan is one section of a company's business plan. This section conveys the physical requirements for your business's operations, including supply chains, workflow , and quality control processes.

What is the main difference between the operations plan and the financial plan?

The operations plan and financial plan tackle similar issues, in that they seek to explain how the business will turn a profit. The operations plan approaches this issue from a physical perspective, such as property, routes, and locations. The financial plan explains how revenue and expenses will ultimately lead to the business's success.

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    SOPs may be required by regulatory agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Transport (DOT), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as government legislation like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX).

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    Supply Chains An explanation of who your suppliers are and their prices, terms, and conditions. Describe what alternative arrangements you have made or will make if these suppliers let you down. Quality Control An explanation of the quality control measures that you've set up or are going to establish.