SOP vs Work Instruction: What’s the Difference?

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, having crystal clear processes and procedures is more important than ever before. That’s why many businesses choose to document their workflows using standard operating procedures (SOPs) and work instructions. While SOPs and work instructions are valuable tools for quality control and standardization, they serve different purposes. Read on to learn the difference between these essential documents - and how your company can use them properly.
Man doing maintenance on a machine, using a tablet, planned with preventive maintenance in a manufacturing company

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, having crystal clear processes and procedures is more important than ever before. That’s why many businesses choose to document their workflows in the form of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and work instructions.

While both SOPs and work instructions are valuable tools for quality control and standardization, they serve different purposes. In short, SOPs outline the steps that must be followed to complete a task, while work instructions provide more specific details on how to carry out each step.

Imagine that it’s your first day on the job on a manufacturing floor. You arrive to find a set of SOPs sitting on your desk. The SOPs tell you that you first need to change your safety gear and head to your workstation. You’re supposed to complete a series of tasks in a specific order at your workstation.

The SOPs give you a high-level overview of what needs to be done, but they don’t provide any details on how to actually carry out each task. That’s where work instructions come in.

Work instructions are much more specific than SOPs. They tell you exactly what you need to do and how you need to do it. In our example, the work instructions might tell you what kind of safety gear to put on, how to adjust your workstation, and what tools you’ll need for each task.

While SOPs focus on the bigger picture, work instructions zoom in on the nitty-gritty details. Both are important, but they serve different purposes. Let’s dive into what each entails, why each is important, and how you can write work instructions and SOPs for maximum efficiency.

The Need for Quality Instructions

The business world is more complex than ever before. In the past, a company might have only needed to worry about its products and services. Today, there are a myriad of other factors to consider, from regulations to supply chain management.

As businesses have become more complex, the need for quality control has increased. Quality control is the process of ensuring that products and services meet specific standards. When there is a reduction in quality, it can lead to all sorts of problems, from customer dissatisfaction to increased costs.

There are many ways to achieve quality control, but one of the most important is documentation. When workflows are documented in the form of SOPs and work instructions, it becomes much easier to ensure that they’re being followed correctly. This, in turn, leads to higher-quality products and services.

Not only that, but documentation can also help businesses run more efficiently. When everyone is following the same set of procedures, there’s less room for error. Tasks can be completed faster and with fewer resources. In other words, documentation can save time and money.

It’s important to note that SOPs and work instructions are just two of the many tools that businesses can use for quality control. Others include process maps, checklists, and audits. The key is to find the right combination of tools for your business.

What Is an SOP?

SOPs, or standard operating procedures, are a set of written instructions that outline the step-by-step process for completing a task. They are often used in businesses that have complex workflows, such as manufacturing, shipping, and healthcare.

SOPs are essential because they help ensure that general tasks are carried out correctly. When everyone is following the same set of procedures, there is less room for error. This leads to higher quality products and services – and a growing sense of capturing a company’s tribal knowledge that all can connect to.

SOPs can also help businesses run more efficiently. When everyone is following the same set of procedures, tasks can be completed faster and with fewer resources. In other words, SOPs can save time and money.

There are many different types of SOPs, but they all have the same goal: to ensure quality control on a high level so that any business process can be completed correctly by any employee.

The key is to find the right type of SOP for your business. Not all businesses need all types of SOPs. It all depends on the nature of your workflow.

What Is a Work Instruction?

Work instructions are similar in style and purpose to SOPs. They are a set of written instructions that outline the step-by-step process for completing a task. However, work instructions are much more specific than SOPs.

While SOPs focus on the bigger picture of a process, work instructions zoom in on the nitty-gritty details. For example, if an SOP outlines the steps for assembling a product, a work instruction would provide more specific details on how to carry out each step.

Work instructions are important because they help ensure that tasks are carried out correctly. When everyone follows the same set of procedures, there is less room for error. This leads to higher quality products and services. And when products and services are of high quality, it leads to happy customers.

While SOPs can give all employees an overall understanding of a task, work instructions are essential for employees who are actually carrying out the task. They provide the step-by-step details that employees need to know to do their job correctly.

When work instructions are implemented, workers can easily adapt to changes in the workflow. They will always know what needs to be done and how to do it. This helps to minimize disruptions and keeps work flowing smoothly.

Best of all, work instructions can be used in both paper and electronic methods. In fact, digital work instructions have become one of the most effective ways to quickly introduce employees to new processes in real-time.

How Work Instructions and SOPs Work In Tandem

While work instructions and SOPs serve similar purposes, they are not the same thing. In fact, they work best when they’re used together.

Let’s go back to our initial example of a worker arriving on their first day on the job at a manufacturing company. This employee is tasked with running an assembly line on the main floor where they assemble a particular product and complete quality control checks.

On the first day, the worker is given an SOP that outlines the steps for running the assembly line. The SOP might look something like this:

  1. Turn on the power switch.
  2. Adjust the speed dial.
  3. Load the raw materials onto the conveyor belt.
  4. Assemble the product.
  5. Perform quality control checks.
  6. Pack the finished product into boxes.
  7. Turn off the power switch.

While this SOP gives a broad overview of the steps involved in running the assembly line, it doesn’t give specifics on how to carry out each step. It is generic enough that it works for almost any employee on the floor, regardless of what product they’re assembling.

The problem comes when a fellow employee calls in sick, and our trusty new employee has to jump to another line to pick up the slack.

While they know the high-level expectations of the SOP (run the machine, check for quality, etc.), they might not know how to operate the specific machine they’ve been assigned to.

This is where work instructions come in. Each machine on the floor has its own set of work instructions detailing how to carry out each process step. So, if our employee is assigned to a different machine, they can simply consult the work instructions to learn how to operate it.

Work instructions are essential for ensuring quality control and standardization across all machines on the floor. They help to ensure that each machine is operated the same way, regardless of who is running it. And when machines are operated in the same way, it leads to fewer mistakes, higher-quality products, and employee efficiency.

SOPs vs Work Instructions: The Bottom Line

While SOPs and work instructions might seem similar at first glance, they serve different purposes. SOPs outline the high-level steps involved in completing a task, while work instructions provide more specific details on how to carry out each step.

Both SOPs and work instructions are essential for quality control and standardization. SOPs help to ensure that everyone is on the same page, while work instructions help to make sure that tasks are being carried out correctly.

When used together, SOPs and work instructions can help businesses run more efficiently and produce at your best level. So, if you’re ever feeling lost on the job, just remember to consult your SOPs and work instructions. They’ll help get you back on track. And if your company isn’t taking advantage of these quality control tools, maybe it’s time to upgrade your process to include them!

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