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How to Use Operating Procedures to Perfect Systems

When I owned a pharmacy, we delivered over 3,000,000 prescriptions in nine years — an average of 1 prescription filled every 30 seconds. From inventory to data entry, to billing, to product fulfillment, we had scores of repeatable processes. 

Would it have been helpful for a biller to adjudicate 3,000,000 prescriptions 3,000,000 different ways for the sake of variety or “art”? Of course not. Instead, Operating Procedures (OPs) were critical to ensure quality and drive costs down. 


OPs are the most essential operations tools for a successful business when they are used properly. OPs are the house’s foundation, and without well-written process instructions, a business stands on shaky ground, at best. 

There’s a phrase that goes, “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war,” which illustrates the importance of taking the time to perfect one’s system. To do so requires a lot of work, but companies that complete that work upfront avoid having to fix issues that might arise if there is no OP in place.

I won’t sugarcoat it. Developing a company-wide system of solid OPs is time-consuming and can be daunting, but once the work is done, you no longer have to worry about basic processes. Your company can coast to bigger and better things like continuous improvement and reduced costs.

Finding defects early for continuous improvement

Doing the hard work of developing OPs helps businesses define benchmarks for each one of their processes and uncover defects in their systems. Together, these capabilities promote continuous improvement. The company can go from a vicious cycle of errors, rework and frustrated Customers — plus pulling management’s attention to fire-fighting — to a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement, with more time to delight Customers.

Virtuous Cycle vs. Vicious Cycle

Toyota has a system to catch defects fast. Running above assembly lines at Toyota plants are cords like the ones on a bus that passengers pull to signal they want to exit the bus. If a factory worker spots a defect in a part, they can pull the cord, which calls attention to their position on the line and halts production progress. This system is called the Andon cord and is designed to remove defective product early in the manufacturing process. 

The Andon cord empowers workers on the factory floor to catch defects and other issues and stop them from ever becoming larger problems. Having good OPs in place is like having an Andon cord. By first scrutinizing the processes in an organization and then producing instructions for each of them, companies can remove defects before they ever become a problem.

Acting early is so important. When there are defects in your design phase, by the time you reach the rollout of your product or service, your costs can multiply tenfold. This is the Rule of Tens. 

The Rule of Tens
The Rule of Tens

Supporting consistent quality across your organization 

An OP can describe the process of small things, like how to close a retail store at the end of the day, how to make a sandwich or how to fold an item of clothing. Or it can describe the process of massive, important processes within a business, such as building a car on an assembly line (a manufacturing example) or paying team members correctly (a service example). 

Regardless of the size of the process they are applied to, OPs are the same at their core: a snapshot description with a systematic, precise list of actions to follow. There is a correct way to do every process in every business. The goal of OPs is to describe that best process in an exact, deliberate manner. 

For example, if you were a McDonald’s team member, you might think that the process of making Big Macs would be easy to describe: 

  1. You take the two patties and put them between their buns accordingly. 

  2. You then place all the ordered toppings on top of each patty. 

  3. Finally, add a generous serving of special sauce on top. 

  4. You have a Big Mac.

But no — this is not a Big Mac! It could be, but these steps could lead to any hamburger from any restaurant. The Big Mac is made in a specific way, and OPs describe that way. 

The set of steps above leaves out a lot of important information. 

  • How long do the patties cook? At what heat level? 

  • Should the patties go straight from the griddle to the buns, or should they sit for a while? 

  • How much of each topping should go on the sandwich — a small handful of lettuce or a large one, one or two tomato slices, a pinch of diced onion or a handful, two pickles or three? 

  • Does the special sauce go on the bun or directly on top of the other toppings? How much do you use? 

  • Once all of this is assembled, should the top bun be squished onto the burger or gently placed? 

  • Is the finished product placed in a box? If so, what is done with the box? 

Even a process that seems as simple as making a Big Mac can be complicated and require specific instructions so that it is made correctly every time. Consistency is a hallmark of McDonald’s. I know, as I’ve eaten at McDonald’s across the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Writing your OPs takes authors and experts

The OP-writing process may vary from business to business, but the two roles actively involved in crafting written procedures are the author (the person who writes the procedures with a consistent, company-wide style and appearance) and the subject matter experts (or SMEs). 

SMEs are people who have developed deep expertise about the process the authors aim to capture as an OP. The best method is to have an SME that actually performs the process on a daily basis. They know more than anyone about that specific process. 

Authors usually interview SMEs, asking them to describe in detail the explicit process they follow. An author then takes this data and writes it in a simplified, standardized manner by following a pre-established company template. Once the writing is complete, the author shows their version of the process to the SME for feedback on correctness. Once deemed correct, the operating procedure is complete. 

A technical writer on our team has an uncanny ability to observe any process and return an hour later with OPs that are, much to the surprise of the SME, 90 percent accurate. Typically, the third iteration achieves 100 percent accuracy. We believe we have a current best approach to documenting OPs, as we have written around 7,000 OPs as a team.

BONUS: Getting added value from writing out your OPs

Shortly after college, I told my roommate about a business plan I had been thinking about. He suggested I write it down because the discipline of writing a complex idea adds clarity and deeper thought to the idea. I did, and his proposal was a good one. It is the same with an operating procedure. Developing an OP forces the subject matter expert (SME) to think about the process in a structured, logical manner. 

Throughout my career, I’ve seen how writing the OP has been more valuable than actually using the OP for training or to further continuous improvement. I could have tossed the completed OP away. Forcing the structured thinking process was what the client really needed. The capture of intellectual property was a bonus.

Start a conversation about implementing OPs in your organization. Email us at As an alternative process document, consider the high-level, visual At-A-Glance.


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