In our writing workshops and on consulting projects, we often get asked whether SOPs and work instructions are the same thing. Both types of documents are common in the workplace to ensure that work is carried out correctly, consistently, safely and efficiently. But they’re not the same.
Let’s have a look at what sets them apart.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs)
Think of SOPs as the parent document. They are the guides that describe how essential activities are carried out consistently in the organisation. They outline the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the main processes and show how a particular process relates to others.
Key characteristics of SOPs are that they:
- offer a broad overview of a process
- define the scope and applicability of the process
- set the benchmark for best practice
- may include roles and responsibilities, and
- may include quality standards and metrics.
When to use SOPs:
- for standard, complex or high-risk processes
- to give an overview of a series of activities, or
- when consistency and compliance are critical.
If SOPs are the parent documents, work instructions are the children. They provide step-by-step instructions for performing a specific task within a larger process.
Work instructions are:
- task-specific and detail-oriented
- aimed at the person carrying out a specific task
- subordinate to SOPs (one SOP may link to several separate work instructions).
When to use work instructions:
- to show each step involved in completing a specific task
- the task is carried out by a single individual, and
- the steps to carry out the task are linear and sequential.
The main differences between SOPs and work instructions come down to:
- Level of detail and specificity: SOPs are like the bird’s eye view, while work instructions zoom in on the detail.
- Scope and applicability: SOPs have a broader scope and cover processes or activities at a higher level, while work instructions focus on specific tasks.
- Purpose and audience: SOPs are for a wider audience, from managers to people on the shop floor. Work instructions are for individuals doing a specific task.
- Variability: SOPs tend to remain relatively stable over time, while work instructions may change more frequently because of system changes or process improvements.
Keep ‘em apart!
So, when should you use SOPs and when work instructions? The answer is that most organisations need both: SOPs for the overview and context, and work instructions for the detail.
The important thing is not to mix the two types of content in the same document. Remember that they serve different purposes and are used differently. Don’t bury work instructions inside an SOP. You’ll end up with long and confusing documents that are difficult to navigate, use and maintain, and where important information is lost.
But get the balance right between SOPs and work instructions and you’ll have the best of both worlds: comprehensive process guidance and detailed task instructions that people can find and use. Together, these two types of documents help build the foundation for successful and efficient operations.
Disclosure: This article was written with the help of ChatGPT. We have described the process and the prompts, as well as what we changed to make it our own, here.