Incorporating SOPs

Using standard operating procedures to better your business.

Describing the graphics industry as “challenging” might be considered by many as a bit of an understatement. In my own company, we occasionally find ourselves bemoaning the difficulties of trying to meet our clients’ expectations in an ever-changing environment. Virtually every job that comes into the shop, we often complain, is completely different than the one before; plus, the custom nature of the work poses real challenges and calls for entirely different operating procedures.

But is that really the case? Is there really no way to approach your business in a standardized fashion? Perhaps what we all really do from day-to-day isn’t that customized after all – particularly if we utilize standard operating procedures.

Standard operating procedure (SOP) is a business buzz-phrase that has been used in the workplace longer than any of us have been around. While we all know what it means, many of us probably don’t use the application of SOPs nearly as much as we should. So where should we begin?

Implementation and accessibility
The first step in converting your shop to an SOP process requires an adoption of the philosophy among the entire management team. This isn’t as easy as it might seem. Breaking down the barriers with employees and managers who have done things a certain way for a long time can be a daunting task. It’s critical to help them develop an understanding of the tremendous benefits inherent in a standardized system of processes.

Begin the process by choosing one SOP in their department that will clearly make a difference. Pick something relatively simple to adopt and implement -- it could be related to productivity, accuracy, financial gains, or anything that will help them manage a better department and quickly see results. Once they see that the SOP can actually help, they will begin to look for other SOP-likely areas and as a result, improve their department even more.

In beginning the SOP process, there are a few key aspects to consider if you want the program to be successful. First, you must (and I repeat, must) document all SOPs in written form. You can do so electronically or via hard copy or, even better, both. The point is: Get them documented in a formal way. As you record the SOPs, make sure they’re branded with your company look so they appear to be official corporate documents. All of our SOPs, for instance, carry the Ferrari Color brand/logo so they resemble a document that might be sent out to a customer or a vendor. The benefit here is that your employees will treat them much more seriously if they are official company documents.

Second, it’s critical that your SOPs are accessible to all employees. If your SOPs aren’t available for use, they will never do you or any employee any good at all. Many companies spend countless resources establishing full standard operating procedures, document them, and then put them on a shelf somewhere never to be used again. Make sure they’re available for your managers and your employees to use regularly. For example, in our company we’re in the process of creating an SOP database with all the SOPs cataloged into departments and cross referenced to related SOPs. Allow employees to access not only their own department’s SOP, but the SOPs established by other departments, as well – this will help generate ideas and open doors to discussions regarding what’s working and what’s not.

The success of your SOP program will depend primarily upon your ability to train and implement the SOPs that you establish. Making them available, as I’ve indicated, is important. But it’s more essential to establish a program of training, implementation, follow up, and retraining. As soon as you develop the first SOP in a department, avoid working on any others before you train the employees on that particular SOP.

A scenario trio
Obviously, an SOP program will not cure all of the problems in your shop. Mistakes will still happen. So what should you do when something goes wrong under an SOP program? Ask yourself three questions:

• One, did the error occur due to someone not following an existing SOP?
• Two, did the error occur because there is not an SOP in place?
• Three, was this simply human error made by someone operating properly, in accordance with an established SOP?

Under the first scenario, take action by pulling out the documented SOP and retraining the individual, or perhaps the whole team, on the SOP. Review the procedure, ask questions, and offer clarifications to ensure that the procedure is both accurate and understood. Then, recommit the individual and the team to follow the SOP. If the issue is that employees are reluctant to accepting the new SOP, you should ask for employee input. While employees may be initially resistant to “someone telling them how to do their job,” when they’re involved in the SOP program you will have two advantages: the knowledgeable opinions from your skilled employees and an automatic buy-in to the program. Utilize some of the employees with more experience to train those with less experience.

If the issue is the second scenario, work with the team to create an SOP that will avoid the same error occurring again. Document the new SOP and train the team. Creating an SOP may require several trials and errors; push your employees to continue working together to establish the best practice.

Of course under the third scenario, you can only encourage an individual to continue to use the SOP as a guide for their activities and coach them to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Practice makes perfect, right?

Engaging the whole shop
Once you begin to experience success with your SOP program, be sure to engage all of your shop’s departments. We have worked for a number of years establishing SOPs within our various departments. Importantly, we’ve not restricted SOPs to just our manufacturing departments -- we have also challenged our other departments, including marketing, accounting, purchasing, and sales, to develop their own sets of SOPs.

And, recently, we’ve embarked on the next phase of our SOP program: developing inter-departmental SOPs. These SOPs are created by department managers to understand what one department expects from the other. For example, our prepress department has a set of SOPs specific to what the printing department needs for each job that moves from prepress to printing. Printing, in turn, will have their own set of SOPs defining what the fabrication department will need, and so on.

In reality, everyone in business applies the principles of standard operating procedures in some fashion. The successful companies are those that make it a serious program of creating, documenting, training, and retraining their employees regarding SOPs. By applying these ideas, you can remove the stressful perception that every job in your shop is a “custom” job and execute much more accurate and efficient production systems to ensure success in your business.

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