Business Process vs. Standard Operating Procedure: What’s the Difference?

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One of the most frequently asked questions in the ProcessDriven Membership community is, what’s the difference between a process and a standard operating procedure (SOP)?

These related terms often trip people up. If you’re unsure about the difference, you’ll definitely want to watch this video where ProcessDriven CEO Layla Pomper breaks it down using several relatable examples.

No time to watch the video? Not a video person? No problem, we’ve got you covered. Just read on, and the answers will be revealed!

Process or SOP?

Simply put, a process is a series of activities or steps to achieve a defined goal.

On the other hand, an SOP is the instruction manual for executing a task or process. 

We all have processes, many of which we never think about. You likely have a process for grocery shopping, putting away laundry, or making spaghetti. 

For example, your process for checking the mail might be to walk to the mailbox, sort the mail, toss the junk mailers in the bin, go back inside, and put the remaining mail on the hall table. 

An SOP tells someone how to replicate your process. This might look something like this:

  1. Open front door.
  2. Walk to end of driveway.
  3. Open mailbox.
  4. Retrieve mail.
  5. Identify junk mail.
  6. Toss junk in recycling bin.

And so on. 

Suppose you were writing an SOP for someone who had never checked the mail before. In that case, you might add more steps or even a second SOP on identifying junk mail, such as removing items addressed to the Occupant or from commercial sources or saving coupons instead of tossing them. 

SOPs are more than simply capturing step-by-step instructions for how to complete a process. They allow us to delegate and bring on new people to help run our business while feeling secure that tasks will be completed accurately and in line with our standards. 

You can’t ask a new employee to simply “submit payroll” (the process) without providing clear instructions on how to succeed (the SOP). Otherwise, it’s left open to interpretation because someone else’s idea of performing a process might differ wildly from ours. 

Maybe at their last job, they submitted payroll by stuffing forms into a pneumatic tube to be carried to accounting, but since you don’t have this, they are stuck and unable to complete the process. 

An SOP doesn’t have to be a long-form written document. It could be a video, a series of screenshots, or a flow chart. Regardless of format, SOPs should be short, concise, and detailed.

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How to Handle Process Variations

You should create multiple SOPs when process variations are likely.

SOPs and processes are not always 1:1 (timestamp 07:40).

You might have one SOP for creating a social media post, another for creating a social media post with video, and another for creating a sponsored social media post. All the SOPs outline different paths you can take to complete the process and achieve the shared goal of posting to social media.

You can save time by networking SOPs together or referring to other variations. For example, if you have an SOP for submitting regular payroll and another for submitting payroll for a termination, steps 1 through 5 may be the same, but steps 6 and 7 differ. You might instruct team members to follow SOP #1 until step 6 and then refer to SOP #2 to complete the task. 

When Are SOPs Unnecessary?

Not every process needs an SOP. One example of when you might not need an SOP is when a process is automated or doesn’t require human interaction. Essentially, SOPs are used to communicate outcome pathways to humans. No human, no SOP! 

If you enjoyed this video, please visit the ProcessDriven YouTube channel for more free content on workflows, productivity, and tips for working smarter, not harder. Give us a “like,” and drop your thoughts or questions in the comments. You may even inspire a future video! 

Until then, enjoy the process! 

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