Why paper-based Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) fail to do the job

As paper-based work instructions or SOPs are getting outdated, solutions such as the Proceedix platform offer the perfect solution for operators and technicians to follow step-by-step digital work instructions.

09.25.2020 | By Mark Speyers


  • Paper document are fine for reading, but cannot be combined with executing a job.
  • Most frontline workers or field technicians are not in a comfortable of safe position to read a paper document.
  • Paper-documents are not compatible with mobile, wearable devices and smart assistance technology.


Documents are fine for reading, but most humans are not capable of concentrating on two things simultaneously. Deskless operators either read or do the tasks at hand. Besides, most frontline workers or field technicians are not in a comfortable or safe position to read. This is why they often print standard operating procedures and work instructions, but rarely truly read while working.

Why do SOP and work instructions fail to do the job? Are we acting “pennywise, pound foolish” in our efforts to create, maintain, and enforce these procedures and instructions?

Processes, procedures, instructions,… what’s the difference?

To avoid a Babylonian confusion, we need to align on definitions first. Once this path is cleared, we can debate the use and usefulness of standard operating procedures (SOP) and work instructions (WI).

A process converts certain inputs to an output with the help of resources. For example, a filling process will convert a bulk liquid from a tank into individual beverage cans. Each time this process takes place for a specific beverage, the line might need to be cleaned, and subsequently, the filling is started. A (standard operating) procedure specifies how a process or a series of activities is to be executed.

Using the framework of the 5-W “what, who, when, where, why,” can be an excellent guide to formulate a procedure. One or more procedures can be tied to this filling process: how to carefully clean and how to start the filling. A work instruction focuses on the procedure’s particular tasks and elaborates on how these should be executed. In other words, a work instruction is a sub-component of a procedure. In the filling process example, the work instructions detail the specific sequence of opening and closing various valves before flushing water through the pipes as part of the cleaning procedure.

Most companies are familiar with descriptive procedures as a cornerstone of their quality assurance (e.g., ISO) program. Many companies, however, do not apply a clear differentiation between SOP and work instructions. SOPs, quite often expand the sequence of tasks with extra information like attention points and visual indications that can be labeled as basic instructions. Fig. 1 shows a typical format of a SOP “enriched” with instructive indications.

Paper SOP

SOP and Work instruction: doing things right the first time

While Standard Operating Procedures, Work Instructions, and their hybrid formats all describe what needs to be done, the instructions focus on the details of how to do things. There are many good reasons to spend time and resources on making clear SOP and Work Instructions, it:

– Captures knowledge to allow us to share it and provides a basis for training people.

– Allows us to formulate the best way of doing things

– Formulates the standard way of doing something and therefore assures execution consistency

– Draws the exact path for doing and therefore is the starting point for execution compliance

In short, SOPs and Work Instructions are the key contributor to making sure things are done right the first time (DRIFT).

SOPs and Work Instructions do come in many formats and flavors. Traditionally both are created as a document (Word) and distributed by paper print or as a pdf.

5 Reasons why SOP’s and work instructions fail to do the job.

Think about all these hours process engineers and experts spend to formulate and document the best way of doing things throughout thousands of Standard Operating Procedures and Work Instructions.

In industries like chemical production, aerospace, or pharma, meticulous processes enforce the creation, the approval, the update, and the distribution of this content. The efforts to enforce can easily double the original time and resources spent on the content’s initial creation. And yet, despite the great efforts to create and maintain all these numerous SOP and Work Instruction documents, their real impact is quite limited.

“We print tons, but they read grams.” Hence things are not always done right, neither consistent nor compliant. Why do SOP and work instructions fail to do the job? Are we acting “pennywise, pound foolish” in all our efforts to create, maintain, and enforce these procedures and instructions?

Here are three reasons why it doesn’t fly and 2 more reasons why it will get worse in the years to come.

  1. The content format causes the first and most important issue. Whether distributed on paper or as an electronic pdf, the traditional procedure or instruction is a document. Documents are fine for reading. However, most deskless workers in the field are not in a comfortable position to read. They don’t have a desk, neither a chair. Many of them have greasy hands or carry tools and equipment. They can be standing in the pouring rain or hanging 200 feet high in the sky on a wind turbine. It’s great to spend a week creating a 10-page lengthy procedure or instruction in the most beautiful lay-out, telling precisely what should be done and how. The problem is that your audience is not able to consume your content when they need it.
  2. The second problem is that a document does not provide an execution trace. Yes, you have distributed your content to the operator or technician and even made them sign for receipt. But did they read it? Did they follow all your steps while doing the job? You simply don’t know, and they know that too. So given their physical position at work and their inability to comfortably read while working, they might assume that they more or less know how it should be done and leave the document where it was…in their car or on their desk.
  3. The traditional standard operating procedure or instruction is “one-way-communication”. This is the third problem. It tells me how to do a cleaning process or task. But it has no room, neither a channel for me to communicate back how things went. Did I encounter issues? Do I think that some steps could be done better? Maybe we tuned the machine, and a specific task no longer adds value? Moreover, the Standard Operating Procedure or Work Instruction formulates the theory and assumes the “happy path”. Reality can be different or at least quickly change. As there’s no room for feedback on the document, I just leave it. There’s a good chance I don’t report back to a supervisor and don’t use the document next time as I believe it’s outdated.
  4. We would like to point at two interesting new technological evolutions that are about to make the situation even worse. The traditional SOP and work instruction documents might inhibit an organization from fully leveraging the power of these technologies. Vice versa, broad adoption of these technologies will render the traditional SOP and work instruction documents useless. Smart glasses bring information directly into the field of view of the wearer. Head-Mounted-Devices like the Google Glass, Iristick, Realwear, and Vuzix therefor, enable hands-free consumption of content. Many deskless workers out there need their hands to do the job. This new technology could allow them to call for remote assistance or guide them with instructions while doing the job. Putting the traditional SOP or instruction document on the small display of the smart glasses is technically possible. The result will be a disaster. If the wearer’s eye needs to look for the information in a traditional document on the display, it will look like they are staring in the abyss. The only result will be a headache for the wearer.
  5. Smart assistant technology like Cortana, Siri, or Google Assistant can turn passive reading into an interactive dialogue. Imagine you start a cleaning task and ask your digital assistant what tools you need to collect to do the cleaning. Before opening the valves, you could ask if there are any risks or precautions to take. Traditional procedure or instruction content in a document format is simply useless for this type of technology.

Are you depressed by now and ready to stop making another document-based instruction? You shouldn’t give up yet. There’s one thing worse than a traditional SOP or instruction document: no SOP or instruction at all.

Hang in, help is on its way

Let’s go back to the source. The SOP or work instruction tells us what to do or how to do it step by step. The DNA of an SOP and a work instruction is not a document but a workflow. We only need to build them as a workflow (see fig 2) and not as a document to read.

Imagine a digital workflow specifying the tasks that you should do, just like a routing formulates the manufacturing steps of a product. Rather than extensive descriptions for each task, you need to formulate visual instructions that are “snackable” in the blink of an eye. This type of task flow can be processed on a mobile phone and on a small display of smart glasses. If the device automatically records the operator’s activity and feedback, you have undisputable proof of execution. The structured data logs can be exploited by business analytics and act like a perpetuum mobile for continuous improvement. This is the structure and mechanism of a digital workflow execution platform like Proceedix.

Want to know more about our digital work instruction platform, please click here and schedule a demo.

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