Encouraging renovation in a world of SOPs

When Laxman fell unconscious with an almost fatal injury, Lord Hanuman was tasked with getting Sanjeevani herb from mountain Dronagiri range in North. Not being able to identify the exact life-saving herb, he decided to carry along the Gandhamardan mountain itself. Having administered the medicine, Laxman gained consciousness. To accomplish this herculean task, Hanuman had no defined method or rulebook to follow. Getting medicinal herb from such a long distance & in such a short time was done for the first time. It was sheer resolve, unwavering focus on the deliverable and faith that helped Hanuman achieve this feat.

Centuries later, one research was carried out an experiment with 5 monkeys placed in a cage. There was also a ladder with bananas on the top. Whenever anyone monkey tried to climb the ladder, all 5 monkeys were sprayed with cold water. After a few cold showers, monkeys pulled down (and bashed) any of their cage-mates if/when he tried to climb the ladder so that cold water punishment is not triggered for them. The researcher then exchanged one monkey with a new one. To get the bananas, the new monkey tried to climb the ladder… immediately, the 4 senior monkeys pulled him aside and whacked him. After a few beatings, the ‘fresher’ accepted the standard rule of ‘do not climb the ladder’. Sequentially all 4 remaining first-batch monkeys were also replaced. The same ragging was religiously carried by seniors when the newly inducted monkey tried to climb the ladder in the experimental cage. By the end of the extended research, all 5 inmate monkeys were following the standard rule (do not climb the ladder), without any of them knowing why (cold water shower).

Imagine if there were standards, rules, approvals or exception-approvals to be followed by Hanuman? Certainly, the course of Ramayana would have been very different. At the same time, it is incontestable that standards and rules are important guide & guide-rails for the mere mortals, be it at workplace or in society.

As the new year 2022 rings in, it is an opportune time to examine if any of your SOPs have numbed the thinking ability & self-confidence of our people, and set them to work taciturnly only. Are your SOPs stifling, even a wee bit?

What is a SOP? A standard operating procedure (SOP) is a set of stepby-step instructions compiled by an organization to help workers carry out routine operations. SOPs aim to achieve efficiency, quality output and uniformity of performance, while reducing miscommunication and failure to comply with industry regulations.” (Source: Wikipedia)

I strongly support the need for SOPs for the following benefits:

  • Uniformity of performance : achieve the same output every time the process is performed.
  • Quality: Product quality is maintained/improved and better monitored/controlled.
  • Efficiency: speed and cost of doing the process are favourably improved
  • Reduced miscommunication: as there is ‘one truth’ (aka SOP) to be referred to in case of ambiguity related to correct steps or individual responsibilities. Also, SOP will have standardized steps when information exchange has to be done between involved workers.
  • Performance evaluation: SOP provides the standard scale against which the performance of individual workers may be rated in more objective manner.
  • Expansion of business operations: the SOP may be extended to new workshops, places of business where the process has to be replicated. The SOP can thus be followed (preferably with some customization) to the new work-location.
  • Right resourcing: SOP can help assess the workcontent (man-hours), which in turn can help proper workload balancing and improved productivity.

Effervescent Times, Demanding Customers, Volatile input costs

For last 2 years, we have seen ever-quick changes in… shopper behaviour, in the way we reach our customers (route to market), product design, packaging and customer service expectations. Most of these changes are here to stay and many more changes would continue to surprise us. In this VUCA world, organizations need to be nimblefooted, agile to respond to customer needs while ensuring achievement of growth and profits targets as promised to the shareholders.

Can we risk standing still on a moving treadmill? Fear of audits and punishment for non-compliance to SOPs (read cold water spray) sets people into a surrendered state of mind where fresh ideas rarely germinate.

It will be foolish to expect different results while doing the exact same process…thus a pressing need to review the SOPs at a higher frequency in consideration of the changing rules of the game.

SOP review guidelines

First, if a SOP describes a process that is no longer followed it should be withdrawn. All other SOPs should be reviewed and validated by a set of select people with appropriate experience and training in the said process. The team should preferably include persons currently working on the process and the one who are immediate recipient of the output of the process.

The draft of the revised SOP should be tested by a person who was not part of the team that drafted it. The final version of the SOP should be approved by the Quality team and other supervisory functions before being put into practice.

It is important to clearly communicate to the users the changes done and the reason for bringing in the changes in the SOP. Employee engagement and ownership of the new SOP is key to successful change (management).

People voice: key input for SOPs revision

Our employees need to be heard as much as our customers. They may bring to us more than just eye-opening ideas for improvement, progress and innovation. When not provided with a means or opportunity for being heard, good employees exercise their option to work elsewhere. It is needless to emphasize that lost talent, recruitment and training costs are significant.

I suggest that you start with employee feedback surveys. Coffee-table chats with teams, one-to-one meeting with skip level team members encourages flow of ideas and transmits confidence in both directions. Often, when asking for ideas from larger team you may hear things that you do not want to hear. “Ignoring complaints for a long time will not make them go away”. Managers need to be trained as well to receive tough feedback and not take it personally. Do invest in a culture of ‘fearless speech’ where one does not have to worry about the implications on her next increment, promotion or career growth.

Asking for innovative ideas, is like inviting the team to find holes in the current SOPs, IT, infrastructure et al. Some of these ideas may well ring a bell and find priority in your next strategy document.

This article by Shammi Dua, Lead – Supply Chain CSL, Distribution at Unilever originally appeared in the SCM Spotlight segment for the January 2022 issue of Logistics Insider magazine. All views expressed in the article are his own and do not represent those of any entity he was, is or will be associated with.

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