Podcast EP 109 | Why Building SOPs and Procedure Manuals Can Be a Waste of Time

Many scaling companies try to capture all their Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs in an effort to do things in a more consistent manner. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t work and doesn’t produce the intended effect.

Many end up with bulky SOPs and procedures that seem ‘right’ but aren’t delivering what the company and the team really need, and the documents become unused, and simply clog up servers.

In this episode of the Growth Whisperers podcast, Kevin Lawrence and Brad Giles discuss why building SOPs and procedure manuals can be a waste of time – and what best practices to do instead.




Please note that this episode was transcribed using an AI application and may not be 100% grammatically correct – but it will still allow you to scan the episode for key content.

Brad Giles  00:12

Hi, and welcome to the Growth Whisperers where everything we talk about is building endearing great companies. My name is Brad Giles, and as always joined today by my co host, Kevin Lawrence. Hello, Kevin. How are things in Vancouver today?

Kevin Lawrence  00:27

Thanks. Good. Brad. Things are good. Looking forward to today’s show. It’s a very interesting topic.

Brad Giles  00:35

We’d like to start with a word of the day. As always, Kevin, what might you have for word of the day to day or phrase?

Kevin Lawrence  00:45

Yeah, I would say that the end of the word of the day today is tired. This is a recording to the end of a 14 hour day. This is the start of our 14 today. So it’s a bit of a long one. Yeah, so tired. And I guess resilience is the other side of it. I can always keep going. I just know that. You know, I might pay for it later. But I guess Yeah, tired would be the word. But the positive side of that is resilience.

Brad Giles  01:11

Awesome. Mine would be team. And it’s just that, you know, ah, we were talking about Ted lasso before. And he’s got, you know, he, it’s a fabulous show that Ted lasso show. And he’s got so many corny, you know, things to talk about team, like Team work makes the dream work or whatever it is. But it’s, you know, there’s a little bit of thought, you know, behind that, and that is, you know, we need to have effective teams, so tired. Teams. That as far as I’m gonna go with that.

Kevin Lawrence  01:49

That’s good. Well, you don’t want to have a tired team. You want to have resilient team. That’s what you want. Awesome. Awesome. All right. Well, let’s dig into today. So today, we’re talking about why SOPs or standard operating procedures, or procedure manuals can be an absolute complete waste of time, or they can be awesome. But we see so many times that people put a lot of energy into building these things. And then within no time at all, they’re all but forgotten. And people are constantly doing things, not according to the SOP, and we’re willing, why haven’t you read it? And they’re like, read what? And just how it can be. It’s a wonderful intention to do these things. But often, they don’t get the return of the benefit from it that they could, and should

Brad Giles  02:42

Yeah, it really is a bit of a barrier to scaling because people can understand, like, it’s born of pure intent, like people want to have consistency. They want to have things work well. But I mean, it so many times we’ve seen these initiatives file or failed to deliver what’s promised. And it’s just, it’s, it’s just so annoying. And it’s like, and it’s annoying to the point where when you are i We’re preparing for this, we’re just saying that it can be a complete waste of time, we did have a little bit of an arm wrestle to say that they are absolutely a waste of time, and we dialed it back. But it’s just we’ve seen it so many times where they’ve failed. I’ve had it in my companies, in client companies in friends, companies. Yeah, it’s such a wise comment

Kevin Lawrence  03:36

So let’s, we’ll talk about the wrong jobs. They’re not suited for the jobs. So you think if you give them a bunch of training wheels and guardrails that there’ll be better? Well, no, that’s how you build a bureaucracy, a bureaucracy and a bureaucratic mediocre company, by getting the wrong people in jobs and trying to give them a whole bunch of systems and procedures to keep them from doing dumb things, when in reality, you should probably just put them into jobs that they would be smart at or capable at. So if you’ve got a really klutzy person, don’t make them the person serving the food. Now, we would know that in a restaurant environment, but in businesses, when the fixing the wrong people with procedures and processes is a horrible approach, trying to fix accountability, with procedures and processes is also usually a bad approach. So there are great approaches, consistency, sharing ideas of how to do things more efficiently, common view of how things should flow, lack of confusion, all that good stuff. But let’s just make sure we’re solving the right problem. And then once you’re there, we’ll talk about how to do it right.

Brad Giles  04:48

And so, think about it as if you were driving up a mountain, okay, rather than having an enormous book saying this is everything that you’ve got to do. We’re kind of advocating let the person be are responsible for their driving up the mountain, but then put a couple of guardrails there, you know. That is much, much better way to deal with it, because I love it. Because no one is going to read the manual, you’re going to write a 20 3050 page manual. And it’s going to cover every circumstance in every single situation, and people won’t read it, or they won’t understand it, or it won’t cover, it won’t cover it at a level. So it just doesn’t work.

Kevin Lawrence  05:37

And there are people who will read it front to back. There are, but they’re just a small sliver of the population. And generally, that’s we’re trying to get everyone on the same page. Go ahead, right?

Brad Giles  05:50

That’s a great pickup, that’s a great pickup, it might work for some people, and maybe even the people who write the manual are passionate about that stuff. Yes, he’s gonna get the average employee to walk in the door and get them up to speed and get them to do things the right way, and have responsibility and accountability for that. The big manuals won’t do that.

Kevin Lawrence  06:11

I don’t ever read a manual. I mean, I just more like I just tried to do it. And I’m not saying that’s good, or just there’s certain personalities that are more or less like, so let’s go into this thing about like, this is a great thing to come up with SOPs, you just got to make sure it’s core and part of how you operate in your business. And I want to create a distinction between document your standard operating procedures, which is like historical capture, versus constantly an iterate and improve the processes and how we work. That’s what we want to do. We want to give people tools to constantly iterate improve how we work, which is closer to lean, and Six Sigma and that kind of thinking Kaizen versus making encyclopedias. Right, we’re not in the encyclopedia making business, that’s not a lot of help these days. Even if it’s digital, it’s about helping people to do their work consistently, at a higher quality.

Brad Giles  07:09

Look, a great example here would be a smartphone. Imagine if you got an iPhone, you went to the shop and you got an iPhone, and you brought it back, and you open up the box, and there was a thick, 50 page manual that you needed to read before you started using the phone. That’s not how user experience works nowadays, maybe it worked 3050 years ago. But nowadays, it doesn’t work that way you want to pick up that phone, and maybe the phone helps you to understand how to use some of the basic functions. But then it’s so intuitive, that you’re able to be effective at using the phone without reading a massive manual.

Kevin Lawrence  07:51

I mean, we’re exaggerating here. But it would almost be like, every time you went to send a text, you’d have to go and read the process for sending a text. I mean, that’s overly simplified. The key is, is that it’s great to have standard procedures, do it for the right reason, not just because you have bad people in your company, and do it in the right way, which we’ll share. So those are point number one here today is now that we set the tone mapping and refining your core processes is a huge value add for most businesses, it absolutely is the key that we’re getting Ilija to hear today is you have to get the new updated software Terms and Conditions. Do you read the whole thing before you click Agree? Most people know they’re doing it to cover their butts legally. And we’re signing away a whole bunch of bad things. I just I know we don’t have privacy anyways. So it’s like you know, but the reality is, there’s so many things that you don’t follow the manual. And, you know, there’s this great book called The Checklist Manifesto. And what it found is in all kinds of studies are trying to basically kill less people in hospitals. That was one of the studies in the book. And they tried everything. And they would sit and they would brainstorm SOPs for surgeries and for cleanliness, because infection is a big problem in medical procedure, but there’s lots of other reasons. And they did all these Su and all the stuff they tested, it didn’t work. Finally, what they found, and this is what I call operationalizing an SOP is and this is the story in the book is that if the surgeon that basically to make sure that less patients died, when the surgeon goes to do surgery, they had checklists, they wouldn’t follow them. They put a tent card, a piece of paper folded almost, you know to make like a like little mountain on top of the tools the surgeon would use for the surgery. And the procedure was the nurse would pick it up read out the list. It was not a wall was not an iPad, and this little basic 20 cent 10 card and a nursery go number one, which, you know, there was things in there about having extra blood on hand in the hospital in case the patient needed extra blood beyond the normal. And they would have a list of all the things Oh, did you wash your hands, because washing our hands was another one of the really thorough wash scrubbing in. And there was a few things that people might forget. But there was seven items. So this it had to be simple. And it needed to be in the middle of the workflow so that you couldn’t miss it. So simple. And in the middle of the workflow, you couldn’t miss it no different than the toll booth on the highway, you can’t miss give, there’s no way or you can miss given them the money. They’re gonna get the money no matter what. And it’s, it’s thinking about process that way. So that it makes it a heck of a lot easier.

Brad Giles  10:59

Some people look at manuals and think that it can provide a point of countability. So the manager envisions we put everything into the manual, so that when someone doesn’t follow the manual, when they don’t follow the process that’s written in the manual, we can say to them, Why didn’t you do what it says in the manual, but it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. It’s too complicated. People don’t read it, as we said earlier. And people will we’ll just say, Oh, I forgot about it, or I didn’t do it or something. So it can become something that people will worship. But in actual fact, it doesn’t add the value that we’re really looking for. So we’ve got to make it simpler.

Kevin Lawrence  11:48

Yes. And it’s got to work for a majority of the workforce. And that goes back to upfront that we talked about. Was this manual written for an A player or a low B player. Right? That right? And everything was it built for like at the end of the day, systems that will work for low performers will drive high performers nuts because they will feel constrained. And your metaphor Brad have on the mountain road trust that they’re going to figure it out guardrails and a couple spots, a couple of signs where there’s extreme danger, let them figure it out and trust them. Right. So everything I look at, is it built for an A player, because the companies that we work with, we want the environment to work for a players, we want the other ones to get adjusted quickly. But if the low performers are well supported, overly supported, that means a players are probably going to hate it.

Brad Giles  12:43

Yeah. So the quick test there is your standard operating procedure manuals, or are they written for a players or B minus players?

Kevin Lawrence  12:56

So we’ve talked about that, you know, that third point you we’re touching on that is that, you know, people think these leaders, these managers can provide accountability, maybe I mean, high performers are accountable. Anyways, it’s about education, guidance, and deficiency. Number four is the solution is about making these things simple. And part of the process for getting the work done, like we talked about, but the key here is without headache and friction, so imagine an E commerce, you have to give them your credit card information and stuff like that. Some of those forms are nightmares, some checkouts, you might have to give your address twice.

I buy almost everything I can online, you select what you want in your cart, you get to payment and it clicks Apple Pay Per Click Apple Pay, I double check. It’s the right credit card and the right address I want to ship it to and I click it, it looks, it scans my face make sure I’m me and then it’s done. So that as a user experience that is nice and easy, right and no different than if you’re using Uber or one of the routes or one of the food delivery apps or you know, many, many pieces of software that make it very easy is your SOPs shipped from a user perspective should be easy and make doing the work easy. So even these manual should be easy and simple. And that’s hard. It takes more work to make this stuff really, really simple. So use your UX thinking or user experience thinking on your internal processes. And again, broad use example of an iPhone setting I set up last night before a meeting with our team here, a new iMac. You know how long it took me to set up?

Brad Giles  14:43

Seven minutes, maybe

Kevin Lawrence  14:45

Seven on my end and then I ran for a while in the back background and downloaded my stuff from my Apple account. I mean, the biggest problem I had is I didn’t remember because they wanted me to log in and get password for a different one of my computers as a security So I didn’t remember the password or which computer was which password, but it was easy. But it was. And next thing, you know, within 30 minutes, everything is working. And it’s functioning at 80% of the functionality I need. I mean, I need my IT guy to do a couple of things with some internal Arlecchino, SharePoint and stuff. But the point of it is, it was so damn easy. It was just a few key buttons, it was easy to follow. It’s like it was made for incredible ease and joy. And that’s what your should be in the direction of ideally.

Brad Giles  15:35

So apply user experience thinking from software, apply that thinking to internal processes. That’s what we’re saying here, right? How will the user if they’re an A player, how will the user respond to these internal processes? Yep.

Kevin Lawrence  15:56

There were five, and then you just what is the rhythm to read, look at these and remind people remind the key people involved with this is so basically, what is the timing? When we step back, hey, let’s just look at how we do this and give this a little revamp what’s working, what’s not working, gather some user feedback and tweak it, maybe it’s quarterly, maybe it’s monthly, maybe it’s any I don’t know. But they’re, you know, there should be somebody who owns each of these processes. One of these, we didn’t call it a brother should be an owner. And there should be some rhythm to reset it and tweak it on our, you know, on a consistent basis, so they don’t get forgotten and become dust collectors, or, you know, server fillers.

Brad Giles  16:38

You know, I remember hearing Jim Collins talk about the way that he deals with internal processes is quite simple. Each person has a seat, a seat on the bus, as he puts it. And each person they have what he calls 10 commandments for their role. And within those 10 commandments, once per year, you do an annual review, and you need to update rewrite, edit, improve those 10 commandments. So what that means is what are the 10 things that one must do to make this role a roaring success. I love the simplicity of it. And it’s kind of like we said the guardrails or the signs as to this is how you succeed, but we’re not digging into every single bit of what you do.

Kevin Lawrence  17:27

So what we’re talking about here is SOPs and how you make sure there are dust collectors and server fillers, and that they’re actively used in people’s roles. So the first thing is mapping them. And refining them is a huge value add for most businesses, you just got to make sure you’re doing it for your high performers, not for people that should change jobs or change out of your company. People don’t read manuals, and we know that we don’t often read the terms and conditions for software and things you eat. Gotta keep that in mind. We don’t unless we have to. And some leaders think that manuals and SOPs can provide a point of accountability. Why didn’t you see it in the manual? People aren’t reading them. And it’s dangerous. And you know, as we found out in, you know, in the book, The Checklist Manifesto, most of the stuff people don’t remember, even even if it’s life critical, you need to make it very, very simple for people to use.

Brad Giles  18:23

The solution is about making these things simple, and a part of the process for getting the work done. So you have to follow the process in order to actually get the work done. And without creating a headache or friction along the way. And that is the way that we put it is think about applying UX or user experience thinking to your internal processes, then number five, having a rhythm to relook at them to come back and re analyze and make sure that they’re not overcooked. There’s not too much there, that it is actually simple and easy to use for the experience there. And we gave the example of Jim Collins who said he has 10 commandments for each role. What a great chat we’ve had today, Kevin.

Kevin Lawrence  19:10

So please do streamline your processes. But don’t forget the part about integrating it into the operations of the roles and then keeping it alive and refining them on an ongoing basis. We’re here to help make things work better not build encyclopedias.

Brad Giles  19:27

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode. And the title being that SOPs and build building manuals can be such a waste of time. If you are so inclined, you can find Kevin and I and the growth whisperers podcast on YouTube just by searching obviously the growth whispers Kevin has a quite interesting newsletter that he puts out each week you can find him and that newsletter at to Lawrence and co.com. And I have a news letter which allegedly could be potentially interesting. And you can find that at evolution partners.com.au along with all of the work that I do and the people that I work with, and so hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s episode of the growth whisperers and hope that you have a great week.