The SOP must die

The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is a concept which was slowly developed by management to create clear rules for employees to follow for a specific set of  circumstances. On the surface this seems like it could be a good idea, and for dealing with the most common situations it can be a good starting point.

However the SOP breaks down quickly if you are dealing with complex or unusual situations. If you have worked with the general public as I have, you understand how quickly complexity can build up and break the SOP. In an attempt to deal with increasing complexity people start creating exceptions or caveats which actually creates even more complexity and confusion.

As an example, for several years I worked with a major textbook company in their standardized testing department; I and about a thousand others.  During the school year we graded the parts of the standardized tests which the computer could not grade itself. Therefore we graded short answer, fill in the blank and essays. Some of these questions could be quite open or involved, depending on the grade level we were working on at the time.

For each section we graded, a rubric was given to us. This rubric contained the answers, or at least, a guide to the answers. During the training period where the supervisors went over the questions and possible answers, many people took notes on the rubric. By the end of the section, the notes on the rubric outnumbered the printed text sometimes more then 20 to 1 and the pages would be covered in scrawling notes front, back and sometimes with additional pages stapled or paper clipped. These notes actually made it harder for the graders like myself to keep track of all the ways that a single answer could vary and still be considered correct. What was even worse, sometimes the client would come back and tell us that a situation which had been acceptable suddenly is no longer acceptable, so we would all have to go in and find the relevant notes and cross them out. The next minute, the client might change their minds and then what do you do with the crossed out notes?

I have seen procedure manuals which were not much better. I have known people whose entire job it was to keep printed procedural manuals up to date. As rules changed, they would wander around their company exchanging pages from binders to replace outdated rules. There has to be a better way.

In fact there is, but it does not fit into the classical, top-down, managerial style adopted by so many large companies. This solution requires that managers stop micromanaging their subordinates. Micromanaging subordinates makes managers feel like they are doing their job and makes them feel powerful, even though they are actually harming productivity and morale. What these managers need to do is to step back and let employees do their jobs and give them better tools. These tools vary depending on the job which is being done but often break down into open-ended rules which allow for situational awareness on the part of the person executing them.

I go back to my experience grading the tests. During one section we were asked to grade a series of science related questions. One of the questions we were given asked what information could be gathered from an Earth-facing satellite. Most of the people I worked with had no idea about most of the technologies which could be aimed at our own planet and our employer did not give us much guidance. What we needed, and were not provided, was a list of what the students had been taught. Instead, the client just appeared to assume that everyone would be able to figure it out, after all, we all had Bachelors degrees. While this was true for some of the basic things like mapping, tracking population growth or deforestation/desertification, many of the English and Education majors knew nothing about how soil moisture and mineral makeup can be tested from space, or how we can use radar to find things under forest canopies.

At least some of the students knew this, and if we had a list of technologies that they had been taught about, it could have really helped. Having the list on the computer instead of having to scribble notes would have helped make the grading more standardized as well. This also makes me think of retail staff. You would ask one person if the store carried a product and they would not know, go to another and they would know and lead you right to it if you asked. Every employee should have, or have easy access to, the inventory. This brings me to my second point.

Lists are great if there is a set number of easily definable responses, like science curriculum or the inventory of a retail store. Some lists also need a layer of interpretation. Consider the satellite example above. Suppose that you know that satellites can be used for mapping. A general rule can be created that states that mapping includes all forms of mapping: city growth, migration patterns, traffic patterns and so one. So, must we list out every form of mapping there is? No. We can leave it up to the person grading to decide if the student’s answer fits into an accurate use of the category mapping.

General rules are open ended so they allow for freedom of interaction, but they can prescribe general behaviors. If I ran a retail store, my first rule would be that all employees treat any potential customer with respect. This does not mean that you always have to be cheerful and put on a fake smile, but if you’re approached with a request, try not to bite off their heads for asking for help or advice. My second rule would be to find someone who has the information that the consumer needs if you cannot provide it yourself.

What really makes me think about the failure of the SOP is when I call or text customer service. These people are not allowed to have any personality or flexibility. They are told exactly what to say and when to say it, regardless of the situation they are confronted with. It can be very annoying when you are dealing with an unusual situation or if you are just calling in to get a quick answer.

In short, I believe that the SOP should be burned. Give people the tools they need to find information and let your employees be people. If we wanted to talk to robots, there is an app for that.