5 Unexpected Ways to Test Your SOPs

By: Virginia Shram

6. September 2022

desk with various charts and a notebook titled Standard Operating Procedure

So you already know about the importance of creating and maintaining SOPs for your manufacturing operations, but do you know how to regularly test your SOPs for continued standard communication?

It’s unfortunately easy to find yourself using outdated SOPs – most day-to-day procedural changes are incremental and barely noticeable, and then one day a new team member is trying to follow a list of actions using resources your company no longer has!

The solution is easy, albeit boring: revisit SOPs often to raise them up to the expectations of your evolving operations.

Ugh… Boring, right?

A few more iterations of the same thing and your brain just might tune out SOPs altogether.

So shake things up with these rewriting maintenance strategies, which will reinvigorate you and your team when it comes to SOPs.

1. Explain It to a Child

five children work together to assemble electronics

No, we’re not suggesting you invite scores of children to tour your busy factory (if you happen to have an inquisitive child with a penchant for manufacturing nearby, then sure, but Willy Wonka has already monopolized that tactic).

What we are doing is tapping into the idea of memorization through teaching.

Task yourself to explain each step of the process at a fifth grade reading level – don’t assume any specialized knowledge or difficult phrasing. Alternatively, pretend you are writing a picture book about the process you are trying to standardize?

How much detail will you give before attention (memory, in the manufacturing analogy) wanes?

Are you remembering to explain how rather than what? For example, are your instructions “twist cap counterclockwise until pressure release” or the vague “pressure release”?

You may begin to realize that your SOPs could give less or more information depending on what takes the most time to explain succinctly.

How It Helps: This really tests your ability to use analogies and memorize through teaching.

Read more about constructing creative analogies for instructional purposes with our Guide to Manufacturing Work Instructions in Simple Terms

2. Schedule a Disaster

supervisor monitors factory operations while on the phone

Step away from the fire alarm! Or…

In most schools, children prepare for a potential fire by undergoing scheduled fire drills, where there is no real danger, but everyone goes through the motions – or, SOPs – of handling a sudden emergency.

Sure, once. But why several times a year? It’s not that children have the brains of goldfish – it’s that muscle memory and physical standardized practice can take over when other faculties are frazzled in the heat of the moment.

Ever been in a sudden situation you’ve practiced for, but it takes a second to snap into the moment and reach back into your memory in order to perform? Maybe you get so nervous that you overthink and forget a crucial step. This is why practice makes perfect.

So, don’t exactly set fire to anything, but DO introduce several evacuation drills and emergency response practices per year.

If you think about it, the productivity lost doing a semi-frequent amount of practice drills is far below the risks to total productivity, your workers, and your machinery if an incident took place and you were unprepared.

It doesn’t even have to be a total threat requiring evacuation, like a fire. The “disaster” could be a stop in production due to poor machine setup or breakdown, for example, where a team lead walks workers through SOPs made for emergencies.

How It Helps: Tests the awareness and response time of your team in regards to safety.

Read more about preparing your SOPs for suboptimal conditions with How Your Machine Setup Affects Quality and Performance

3. Do It Backwards

worker cross-references assembled product with blueprints

This approach is best understood conceptually with simple math:

“Doing it backwards” is like saying 9 + _ = 17, instead of saying 9 + 8 = _

It’s the same function, but the perspective is different, so flipping SOPs and practicing them backwards helps users think outside of the box.

It also brings more awareness to the other moving parts outside of their direct workstations or individual tasks.

Take an assembly line, for example. After a while of working there, it may be easy enough to assemble using muscle memory when given the correct parts in order. What’s infinitely harder is to get the user to list all the required parts, or to ask them to identify which small part is missing from an almost-completed product.

It’s more difficult, sure, but when someone is aware of the list of requirements – and potential workarounds in case of low resources – then each cog in the machine spins smoothly and influences surrounding cogs to roll with them.

What elements or items do you need to complete a task? What is missing?

How much time do you need for the task? Is there a final checklist to determine that everything has been completed?

This tactic is great for defining the scope of a task and its intermediary aspects, like passing a product to the next station with the tools necessary for further processing.

Everyone is more involved and understanding of their process within the whole.

How It Helps: Orients team members towards optimal outcome through retroactive planning.

Read more about process flow in linear and non-linear formats with Use the DMAIC Approach to Continuously Supercharge Your SOPs

4. Play Charades

five colleagues play charades

This surprising tactic strengthens inter-communication for many SOPs. While it may not make sense to teach a beginner a machine operation through miming, it can be worthwhile to take a more casual approach to SOP-building.

Try guessing the guidebook or job type by getting operators to clearly act out the process. Not only will this give you insight into workers’ expended energy, but you can also better understand general workflow.

For example, maybe the first step of an SOP requires “alerting” another team member of a completed sub-task. While this “alert” may come automatically via the company software in day-to-day operations, how does your team communicate this without verbal cues?

Does a team member signal with a thumbs up to a recipient coworker? Or is that recipient even aware of where the alert comes from, and is instead waiting for a visual cue from another area.

You may discover that many communicative links are assumed rather than explicitly understood.

Remember that this tactic is not to perform identical physical hand gestures to those needed on a machine operation – this tactic is crucial to identifying and strengthening the interdepartmental communication of your team members.

It’s tightening the net so nothing falls through the cracks.

How It Helps: Encourages broader process understanding through teamwork

Read more about building communication through interactive teamwork with What Are Interactive Work Instructions?

5. Ask a Non-Expert

two production line workers high-five

Occam’s razor is a philosophical rule that between two or more competing theories or explanations, the simpler of them is the correct answer. This rule is helpful because it reminds users to avoid unnecessarily complicated solutions.

Think about the common saying: if you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the details or potential deviations that we forget that the simplest way out is the one directly in front of us.

Luckily, you don’t need to have a PhD in philosophy to use Occam’s razor – a quick cheat is to ask someone who is a non-expert to identify the problem and solution you are attempting to work with.

Ideally this is someone who has good critical thinking skills but is otherwise not in your niche, or even your industry.

Perhaps the answer you’re seeking is deceptively simple, like switching two workstations instead of outsourcing to another warehouse, or just reusing scrap instead of sourcing new material – and you won’t see it though it’s two inches from your nose.

Shake up your perspective!

How It Helps: Humbles the vision of the ideal solution in order to break through SOP writer’s block

Read more about thinking out of the box in your manufacturing strategy with How KonMari Modernizes the 5S of Lean Manufacturing

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