hen a new hire asks what they should do first, do you throw up your hands or hand over your up-to-date SOP manual? Smart print shop owners create standard operating procedures (SOPs), which are documents that contain clear, concise instructions on how to complete important tasks. In an SOP, every step of a process is spelled out, with every detail an employee needs to complete that task correctly.
“SOPs help your staff follow rules and steps to do their job. If you don’t have SOPs to guide them, then you lose full control of the standards you want for your shop.”
- Howard Potter, CEO of A&P Master Images
The problem is that many shops don’t create up-to-date SOPs – and leave employees floundering. “Buckling down and creating your SOPs gets rid of relying on group knowledge and guesswork, and sets the stage for easier troubleshooting and continuous improvement,” says Joe Zangrilli, co-founder and COO of Rowboat Creative. “If you can’t list out the steps to a procedure, you also can’t improve it.”
Why Do You Need SOPs?
The ultimate goal of your shop SOPs is to help your employees function more efficiently, with minimal oversight. “SOPs should be stored in a place where all employees can access them,” says Shawn LaFave, president and chief branding officer of NGA Promotions.
“An SOP gets everyone to complete tasks the same way, whether it’s inputting an order into your system or shipping a completed order out. They explain specific details on how something should be done and written in a way that everyone can interpret them the same way. The idea is that if everyone completes shop processes the same, they’ll get the same results.”
- Shawn LaFave, president and chief branding officer of NGA Promotions.
Here are five benefits of implementing SOPs in your printing shop:
1. You’ll cut down on training time for new hires and existing staff.
Of course, you’ll need to train employees and show them how to do new tasks. Using an SOP makes the experience more consistent across your shop, as everyone learns to do things the same way. An SOP also makes it easy for a new hire to refer back to the process, without waiting for answers from other team members or a manager.
“Since most shops do things differently, many employees come in previously trained,” Zangrilli says. “Laying out step by step how you do tasks in your shop sets expectations for quality control and employee performance. When an employee follows an SOP, they gain confidence that they’re delivering the expected quality and results.”
2. You’ll reduce errors and increase productivity.
Most shops experience bottlenecks in their order processes at certain points. Accurate SOPs help eliminate those frustrating backups because employees complete tasks properly the first time. Of course, mistakes will happen, but an SOP helps employees get things back on track more quickly.
3. Employees feel more confident.
Giving your team easy access to instructions for all the processes in your shop can help them resolve issues without going to their managers.
“Don’t just explain ‘how’ without including the ‘why’ it’s done this way to ensure quality control and safety. Your goal should be to train them to be as good or better than you, so they make your team stronger. As they help to produce more, you invest back into them.”
- Howard Potter, CEO of A&P Master Images
4. Customers stay loyal.
When buyers know what type of experience they’ll have with your shop – and it’s consistent – they’ll stick around and refer you to other people. SOP’s create that better customer experience by helping to reduce errors and maintain high quality standards.
5. You’ll keep your knowledge base intact.
If an experienced employee leaves your shop, an airtight SOP helps keep knowledge loss at bay. Since expert employees help create SOPs, it’s easier for you to onboard and get a new hire up to speed. It also makes it easier to cross-train your current employees, so they can help out with tasks when callouts happen.
What Should Be in Your Shop’s SOPs?
While you don’t want to create a cumbersome document no one wants to read, here are key elements your SOP should include.
In a short intro, explain why you’ve created this SOP. An important point to communicate is that you’re standardizing certain processes across your shop, so everything runs smoothly for your employees and customers.
This part should include your table of contents listing out all of the processes in the SOP. You can also recommend how often employees should refer to the SOP.
List which employees, roles or departments each SOP is for – and who to contact if you have any questions or problems with it. Each SOP should have an author or employee who’s authorized to update it when necessary.
This section will make up the bulk of your shop’s SOP. Plan to break down each process or procedure into a series of detailed, easy-to-follow steps that an employee must do before completing the process.
Order the steps in a way that makes logical and chronological sense. If an employee requires any safety equipment or other tools to complete a certain procedure, list those out in the beginning. Explain where to find those items and what to do with them when the task is complete. You’ve got a few choices for formatting this meaty section:
This is the easiest format to create, whether on paper or digital. Employees get the satisfaction of checking off tasks to complete a process as they go along. This is a great option for teaching basic jobs to new staffers. You can also review completed checklists.
2. Basic Steps:
Like the checklist, you list out basic steps to perform a task. This format is better suited to simpler processes, but you have more space to elaborate on each step than in a checklist.
3. Hierarchical Steps:
With this format you can expand each step into sub-steps or smaller tasks. You might do Step 1, and then Step 1a, Step 1b and so on. This is useful for tasks where employees need to do a lot of small things to complete one bigger step, like, “Start up your embroidery machine.” This format is also a good choice if your employees need to make certain decisions throughout the process.
Sometimes, a process in your shop might have a few different outcomes. In this case, a flowchart format, where you use arrows and boxes to show a few ways a process can happen, may be the best choice. Each separate outcome should lead to a different next step. While a flowchart isn’t as easy to follow as a checklist, you should choose this if you want to standardize a complicated procedure that results in different outcomes.
Some shops show images or videos with certain procedures, especially with screen-printing presses or other equipment. “The best way to clearly describe a step is with a visual representation, for maintaining and operating machines,” Zangrilli says. “We also include photos of our production areas to show what the work space should look like before the next shift arrives. The amount of time spent looking for a wrench or the tape measure adds up to lost productivity and frustration.”
Top Tips for Shop SOP Success
1. Have a process for creating an SOP.
When creating a new SOP, the Wear Your Spirit Warehouse team first records a person doing the job. Then, they write the SOP based on the video, without missing a step. Next, they ask the person in the video to review the steps. Finally, they ask a staffer who hasn’t done that particular job to follow the SOP. “If they can complete the job in the same manner, it’s a good SOP,” says Alison Banholzer, owner. “If not, we make corrections.” Then, the team produces a print and video version of the SOP, which are both easily accessible.
“We keep written versions of SOPs in binders near the workstations, with QR code stickers that link to the SOP videos.”
- Alison Banholzer, owner of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse
2. Create a template SOP form.
“That way, your team members can access it and use it to create SOPs for everything they do,” LaFave says, “Then, have another staffer follow that SOP to see if it’s effective. While this seems like a lot of effort, look at the ROI of creating SOPs vs. the cost of redoing orders, or having to stop production to confirm that something is correct. You’ll find it’s well worth the time and effort to write SOPs whenever possible.”
3. Plan to review SOPs regularly.
Your shop SOPs should be up to date. Whenever you change how your shop does something, like taking orders, update that SOP. Have your managers review their department’s SOPs regularly and update them. At the employee level, team members should feel empowered to revise existing SOPs or create new ones.
4. Make it easy to access your shop SOPs.
While SOPs are usually written documents, you can do more than hand out printed sheets. Your team can download written or video SOPs onto their laptops or smartphones, or even access them via an SOP app.
“We’re planning to document our SOPs in every area of our business. We’re using the Trainual app to document every process with video, audio and in written form. This app will keep everyone on track and speed up the onboarding process for temps or new hires.”
- Tom Rauen, CEO of Envision
5. Extend your SOPs to the order level.
In Potter’s shop, he expects employees to note certain steps on production orders for repeat customers, such as printing colors in a certain order or with so many hits of ink per color.
“If you don’t put that information on a production sheet to save it, the next order won’t be printed the same. Most likely, the customer won’t be happy and you might lose money.”
- Howard Potter, CEO of A&P Master Images
Make Time to Create Your SOPs
The team at Rowboat Creative built an online searchable knowledge base in Google Docs that includes all shop SOPs. As they continuously improve their processes, they update their SOPs.
“Our SOPs are broken down by department, so we can see how our shop functions as a whole, and then plug holes to avert future production issues. It’s a productive way for us to show an employee spots for improvement, like, ‘We need to work on step 6 on the SOP for this task.’”
- Joe Zangrilli, co-founder and COO of Rowboat Creative
Zangrilli says that while putting together SOPs might seem daunting, you’ll wonder how you ever worked without them when you’re done. “Then, take every step of every SOP into consideration, since there’s always room for improvement on everything,” he says.