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Safety Culture - Pull your SOPS up

25 September 2017

From huge blue chip petrochemical and pharmaceutical groups to smaller distribution and blending companies, all will have standard operating procedures (SOPs). Unfortunately, they are all too often flawed in format, content and style, says Russell Page of HFL Consulting

Cut the waffle

Procedures all too frequently contain page after page of information irrelevant to the user when actually trying to do the task in question. The work instructions – when one actually gets to them – are open to enormous variation in interpretation and execution, often with key information hidden in an impenetrable layout. Is it really any wonder procedures are not adhered to and processes vary greatly? Even more worryingly, these are the procedures that contain safe methods of work designed to protect us!

Put the user at the heart of the message

Why does this occur? The problem is, procedures aren’t always written with the user in mind. Users should be provided with exactly what they need to know in a format that’s easy to use and navigate – anything else is just an obstruction. Procedures need to be easily accessible. Hard copies local to the workplace are best but procedures are all-too-often electronic and buried deep in a site’s intranet, accessible only via some slow computer with no easy access to a printer.

Is the author an expert?

Procedures should be written by those with the most knowledge and experience – the people who actually do the job – and not by a well-meaning graduate or technical manager.  If not, there is a tendency for a disconnect to exist between what is in the procedure and what occurs in practice. If the users are the authors (or at least involved in the process of writing them) then there is the opportunity for the procedure to incorporate knowledge and experience that would otherwise only ever reside in operators’ heads, and even to challenge the current practices to identify improvements.

Are you taking into account how people learn?

Not many people learn and become proficient by reading something. If you issue procedures with a “read this and sign” instruction it will result in poor understanding and poor adherence. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn”. We want our people to learn, so we need to involve them. We also want them to be proficient – to have skill and not just knowledge, so we must provide training in procedures.

Be a pro-active reviewer

Once a procedure is issued, reviews tend to only come in response to a problem, rather than as a preventative action. Failure to adhere to procedures, when discovered, often involves disciplinary proceedings...and then we wonder why users are loath to tell management what actually goes on. Instead, monitoring adherence to procedures should, on the shop floor, be a frequent, even daily, occurrence – a little and often approach. This is not to catch people out, but to reinforce good behaviours, to provide an opportunity to coach personnel to improve their performance. It is also an opportunity to discover issues, variations in procedure execution, and even new ways of doing things, that all need to be either addressed or incorporated into a procedure. This activity, a highly important activity so very often absent in workplaces, should primarily be carried out by the first line supervision, in a structured controlled and defined manner.

The four key elements of an effective procedures document

Procedures should contain four key types of information: What, How, Why and Pictures.  Or to give them their proper titles: Major Step, Key Point, Key Point Reason and Visual Aids.

The ‘What’ is present in all procedures, and typically takes the form of an instruction; “add solvent” or “heat to 175 degrees”. Factual errors aside, this part of an SOP is not usually a problem.

Making the most of ‘How’

The ‘How’ part of an SOP document is where difficulties start to occur. If present it is typically buried within large amounts of text and mixed in with the ‘What’, it very rarely gets its own platform. And yet it puts the accumulated knowledge of an organisation at the fingertips of the new user. This is frequently made up of top tips from experienced operators, often gained as a result of their own mistakes.  Typical nuggets may include been-there-done-it advice such as “crack open valve a tenth of a turn till pressure equalises over 15 seconds then fully open”, “give delivery driver map of site, mark location he needs to drive to”, “evenly tamp down product across filter bed”. This is all hands-on, site-specific stuff, probably learnt through hard experience that can prevent expensive mistakes from occurring and re-occurring.

Giving ‘Why’ room to fly

An effective SOPs document
An effective SOPs document

The third and most important category, ‘Why’, is hardly ever present. Yet this explains the reason behind the ‘How’ and creates a better understanding for the user, making them more likely to adhere to the procedure.  It needs to be specific, not generic, so comments like “for health and safety” do not count as a ‘Why’ as they do not directly educate the user. So, for instance, in line with the ‘How’ examples given above, wording should be detailed and along the lines of “to avoid water hammer which bursts joints”, “to ensure understanding of location, especially if a non-English speaker”, “to prevent rat runs of water through product which would stop product being washed properly”.

Seeing the bigger picture

Pictures are then used where appropriate to illustrate the points, save words and shorten procedures, to aid clear understanding and avoid ambiguity.

Other areas such as material hazard warnings, PPE requirements, pre-amble, title, should be kept to an absolute minimum. All too often they’re added in to protect management and not to inform the user. They can make the document bulky, which can be counter-productive, potentially causing the issues the author was trying to address in the first place, such as the user not referring to the procedure.

So what does good look like?

 A simple example of the format these procedures may take is given in the diagram. This type of SOP is adapted from the automotive industry, specifically the Lean toolkit (or Toyota Production System). It is successful in engaging the workforce by capturing their best known practice. As a result, it is pivotal in driving improvements in quality, productivity and ultimately safety.

Will it work for me?

Procedures in this or similar styles and formats are beginning to appear across the process industries. Sometimes the format is misunderstood, or the previous procedure and its format are shoehorned into the new format without much alteration or change in approach. Where this happens the benefits of the new procedure format are not realised. Frequently the reaction to the format is that it will increase the length of procedures, and will make them harder to write.

However, in practice when the format is understood and used correctly, the experience is that procedures become shorter, easier to write, quicker to navigate, and contain more information of relevance to the user, leading to fewer mistakes and deviations.

Now’s a good time to check your SOPs

If you want your company to have well written procedures which reflect the actual practices that occur onsite, ask whether the format and style are user friendly. Are they written by the people who actually do the tasks? And does the whole system have a complete and utter focus on the user throughout? If they do then you are well on the way to procedures that will underpin quality, productivity, and safety.

About the author

Russell Page is Principal Consultant at HFL Consulting, and previously worked at Bentley Motors Ltd and Corus. He is a Chartered Engineer with experience across the Process, Pharmaceutical, Food, Chemical, Automotive, Metals, General Engineering, Packaging and Healthcare industries.

 


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