SOP vs Work Instructions: Understanding the Key Differences

a person comparing an SOP vs work instructions
What’s more important in the manufacturing world than clarity? Knowing exactly what needs to get done, understanding how best to get it done, and having full context into why it needs doing in the first place are essential to cutting costs, increasing efficiency, enabling productive collaboration, and many other goals. But manufacturing processes are complex, which means that ensuring clarity at every step requires careful documentation and planning.

That’s why there are not one, but two key types of documentation out there to help us do this. Both work instructions and standard operating procedures (SOPs) serve critical roles in clarifying the work that gets done throughout the manufacturing process. However, the distinction between SOPs vs work instructions is often misunderstood, and they are used interchangeably. In order to help you make the most of these tools, let’s look at what they each are and how you should be putting them to use.

What is an SOP (Standard Operating Procedures)?

An SOP is a high-level, overarching document that describes the process of carrying out routine activities within an organization. They might provide details on the people who should be involved, the specific steps that should be taken, and the resources that will be needed. Their primary purpose is to ensure efficiency, uniformity, and compliance with industry standards, legal requirements, and company policies. 

Some key characteristics of SOPs include:

  • Broad scope: SOPs cover entire processes or systems rather than individual tasks.
  • Policy-driven: They are derived from organizational policies and high-level directives.
  • Strategic focus: SOPs align with the strategic goals of the organization, ensuring that all operations contribute to broader objectives.

Used in manufacturing, SOPs help maintain production quality by regulating processes – but they can also be found in a wide variety of other industries. For example, SOPs in healthcare are put to use in order to maintain patient health and safety. In the corporate sector, SOPs guide administrative and operational procedures to ensure regulatory compliance.

What are Work Instructions?

Work instructions are similar to SOPs, but are much more detailed and specific. Instead of focusing on entire processes, they provide step-by-step instructions that describe how to complete or execute an individual task. Their purpose is to ensure that everyone can perform these tasks correctly and consistently, resulting in fewer errors and higher productivity. Understanding the difference between SOP vs Work Instructions is crucial for proper implementation.

Some key characteristics of work instructions include:

  • Detailed, step-by-step guidance: Work Instructions break down processes into specific, actionable steps.
  • Task specific: They focus on individual tasks rather than entire processes.
  • Operational focus: Work Instructions are concerned with the practical aspects of performing tasks efficiently.

Within manufacturing, you’ll see work instructions put to use on the assembly line, where workers will refer to them when putting together products. They might also detail safety instructions for operating machinery at a factory, or even give detailed steps that customer service representatives can follow during client interactions.

Key Differences Between SOPs and Work Instructions

As you may be able to tell, at their most general, both SOPs and work instructions help describe how something should be done. The key difference is that SOPs focus more on overarching policies, while work instructions are concerned about the exact steps needed to complete individual tasks. 

Another way to think of all this is that SOPs provide the “what” and “why” behind processes: What needs to be done and why should it be done? Meanwhile, work instructions cover the “how”: How should a task get accomplished?

But what’s the difference when it comes to how each impacts employees? You could say that SOPs help employees understand how their roles fit within larger processes. For example, a factory floor worker might find it useful to know that the extra layer of quality control they have to do is to prevent supply chain bottlenecks and escalating costs later on. In contrast, work instructions are there to ensure employees perform their specific tasks correctly and efficiently, which is vital for the day-to-day operations and productivity of an organization.

Here’s a table that breaks all this down more:

 

SOPs

Work Instructions

Scope

Broad, covering entire processes

Narrow, focusing on specific tasks

Purpose

Provide general guidelines and policies

Offer detailed, step-by-step instructions

Focus

Strategic

Operational

Detail level

High-level

Highly detailed

Examples

Company-wide policies, regulatory compliance

Task-specific instructions, operational tasks

When to Use SOPs vs. Work Instructions

When considering whether to use an SOP or work instructions, the first thing you should consider is the scope and detail required. Are you trying to describe generalized processes? Are they policy-driven? Then an SOP is probably best. Or do you need to describe, in more precise detail, how to do a specific task? Then work instructions will be a better fit.

See if you can tell which will be a better fit for the following scenarios:

  1. Implementing company-wide changes
  2. Ensuring compliance with industry regulations
  3. Training new employees on specific tasks
  4. Standardizing processes across multiple departments
  5. Detailing procedures for operating factory equipment
  6. Providing step-by-step guidance for complex tasks

Answers: 1, 2, and 4 are better for SOPs, while 3, 5, and 6 are better for work instructions.

Integration and Consistency

Although they’re put toward different purposes, it’s still important to make sure that your SOPs and work instructions remain aligned. This is because both sets of documents will often complement each other, providing employees with a comprehensive overview of tasks and policies from both a broad and specific perspective. If there are discrepancies between the two, it can quickly lead to confusion and errors.

To ensure both types of documentation complement each other, be sure to regularly review and update them together. This is especially true if they overlap in any way, such as an SOP that covers the organization’s safety procedures and a set of work instructions that detail the specific safety requirements of a piece of equipment. Both of these should fully support the other. 

Be sure to also use clear and consistent language throughout both types of documents. If needed, you may want to create a glossary of accepted terms anyone building out future SOPs and work instructions can easily reference. And if you make any changes in an SOP or set of work instructions, make it a habit to review any related documents so that everything remains consistent.

Best Practices for Creating Effective SOPs and Work Instructions

So how can you make your SOPs and work instructions as effective as possible? To circle back to our introduction, the most important thing to remember is clarity. Strive to be as clear and descriptive as possible when writing both. Don’t leave any room for ambiguity. And if you’re unsure, ask your employees or stakeholders to read it themselves to see if they understand your intended meaning. When considering SOP vs Work Instructions, clarity remains paramount. Here are some other ways you can make your SOPs and work instructions more effective.

SOPs:

  • At the outset, make your objective and scope as clear as possible. Any readers should know exactly what you want this SOP to do.
  • Sketch out the roles and responsibilities the SOP is describing in as much detail as possible.
  • Make sure that the procedures and guidelines you are defining are comprehensive. After all, the SOP should be the definitive document everyone will reference for them.
  • As always, be sure to regularly review and update the SOP as needed. Think of it as a living document that changes with the organization, rather than something set in stone.

Work instructions:

  • Use language that is simple and direct. These instructions are typically describing complex operations, so there’s no need to make them complex as well.
  • Wherever possible, include visual aids alongside the text. These could be photos, diagrams, or anything that helps make the instructions clearer.
  • As you describe how to complete the task, ensure that you are breaking it down into manageable steps.
  • Always test your instructions with end users to ensure clarity and usability.

Conclusion

Understanding the differences between work instructions and SOPs is essential for any organization interested in creating more efficient and effective operations. Whereas SOPs are designed to describe the broad policies and overarching framework of an organization, work instructions are meant to give detailed guidance on specific tasks. That said, these differences are actually complimentary. Used together, organizations can give employees both the high-level context and precise instructions they need for success.

Now that you know how best to employ SOPs and work instructions, there’s no need to do it by hand. Anark can help you organize your data, track your edits, and distribute your instructions, among many other capabilities. Discover how we make collaboration and creation simple. Request your free demo today.

About the Author

Patrick Dunfey
Vice President of Marketing and Sales Enablement
Patrick is an accomplished marketing and sales enablement professional who knows that customers are at the heart of every great innovation. He focuses on driving customer satisfaction and business growth through aligned Product-Marketing-Sales programs. He uses digital systems and data-driven approaches to understand, measure and deliver success, resulting in unparalleled customer experiences and value.  Patrick has 20 years of enterprise software expertise, with specialties in CAD, PLM, ERP, AR/VR and IoT. Prior to joining Anark, Patrick developed and taught a business course on XR value strategy, helping companies identify and realize value using virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. During 14 years at PTC, a leading provider of product development software, Patrick led teams responsible for the design, build and launch of an award-winning, state-of-the-art technology experience center resulting in 5X customer meeting growth, and 66% close rates on those meetings; he led the development of a new IoT sales enablement strategy to map business value to enabling technology contributing to 52% YoY IoT revenue growth; and met with over 1000 companies, ranging from SMB to the Fortune 100, to help bridge the gap between technology and customer value. Patrick began his career as a mechanical engineer, working on product design and development projects with Brooks Automation, Arthur D. Little, U.S. Army, Keurig, and others. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University.
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