Standard operating procedures: Achieving high performance

The seven steps to SOP development are outlined Development team meetings are critical to create effective SOP's Process monitoring will show if SOPs are effective Performance feedback is essential for progress Sustaining employee motivation is the key to success

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) play three pivotal roles in modern dairy operations: they are the instructions that guide employee’s work; they are the standards by which managers can train and evaluate; and they are the access point where professional advisors can suggest changes and improvements to the dairy’s production processes.

Production or work processes are those activities that must be carried out in order to produce milk, such as milking, feeding, freestall maintenance, or delivering calves. Dairy managers who employ others in their business receive a special benefit from SOPs beyond improvement in production processes: developing SOPs and monitoring systems can also improve employee motivation and performance.

This paper begins with a seven step plan for SOP development and implementation and a discussion of how teams can be used for development. Next, SOP monitoring strategies are discussed and ways for feeding back performance information that will guide and engage employees. Finally we will explore tactics for sustaining employee motivation for continuous process improvement.

Seven Steps to SOP Development and Implementation

The function of a standard operating procedure is to transform a business goal into operational reality, but this cannot happen without a clear plan of action. In a previous paper (Standard Operating Procedures: Tools for Making Constant Improvements) we discussed how a dairy manager and an advisor such as a veterinarian, nutrition consultant, banker, or extension agent can work together as a leadership team for SOP development. The leadership team, and others when appropriate, can follow these seven steps toward the development of a well-designed and strongly supported SOP.

1. Plan for Results

The first step is to link the SOP with the business goal or goals that it will help achieve. In this way the SOP will be shaped from the beginning with steps that lead to accomplishment of the goal. For example, a goal for a milking procedure might look like this:

Only clean and properly prepped teats will be milked. This will help us to achieve a somatic cell count (SCC) of less than 200,000.

Goals do not work without measurement and feedback on performance. Thus, every standard operating procedure should have a way to measure performance. In the example above, SCC can be measured and this information can be made available to everyone who carries out or influences the milking procedure. We will discuss monitoring performance and feedback in greater depth later.

2. First Draft

The leader should next select a format for the procedure. Formats were described in detail in an earlier paper entitled, “Designing Standard Operating Procedures To Help Workers Do Their Jobs.” Write down the steps in the procedure to the best of your knowledge as they should be performed at present. Don't try to be perfect with the first draft, because it is very likely that you will need to make revisions. Writing a first draft in advance provides a starting point for the review and discussion that will follow.

3. Internal Review

Provide each employee who performs the procedure with a copy of the draft SOP. Ask them to review and suggest changes that are easier to understand, more accurate, or will improve performance. Assure employees that their input is important and will be considered.

People are much more likely to accept and use the SOP if they feel a sense of ownership in it. Workers will feel ownership and commitment to an SOP if they believe that management used, or at least fairly evaluated, their ideas during development. The chance of success is reduced when workers feel that management is imposing SOPs without regard to employee input. Another excellent reason to involve employees is that they are likely to have good ideas.

4. External Review

Dairy managers increasingly rely on the advice of trusted advisers outside their own organization. The SOP writing process is an excellent way to tap the expertise of your technical advisers such as the veterinarian, nutritionist, or extension agent. They can give you advice that draws on their scientific knowledge and broad experience with other dairy businesses.

Provide your advisors with a copy of the SOP draft. Ask them to suggest any changes that will make it clearer and more effective. Dairy managers often see dramatic performance improvements after their technical advisers help them with SOPs. In many cases, the procedure writing process takes communication with advisers much more productive than ever before. Revise the procedure as necessary to incorporate input from your technical advisers.

5. Testing

For procedures to be effective, they must perform in the workplace. There is only one way to be absolutely certain that a procedure is well written and performs as expected. Have a person (preferably someone unfamiliar with the work) test the procedure by performing each step exactly as it is described. Any steps that cause confusion or hesitation for the test worker should be revised.

6. Post

Make a final draft of the procedure and post it in the appropriate locations. The workplace is one essential location. A master SOP file should be kept in a central location so workers can review little-used SOPs when necessary. Another possibility is to include SOPs with employee handbook materials. In each case, it is essential to keep SOPs up to date.

Preferably, the workplace copy of the procedure should be printed in text large enough for workers to review while completing their work. Many copy centers have the ability to make enlargements. In addition, it may be helpful to laminate the workplace copy so that it will hold up under difficult conditions.

7. Train

The last step in the SOP writing process is often the most neglected. Train or retrain everyone as necessary to follow the procedure exactly. Even with very detailed steps, it is necessary to train all workers. Otherwise, individuals will interpret the meaning of procedures in different ways, leading to inconsistency in work routines and performance.

Development Team Meetings

It is often valuable to call a meeting where everyone involved with a particular production process can work together to develop the SOP. A well-managed development team can be more creative than simply gathering ideas from each individual. The creativeness of teams emerges from the interaction of people. Ideas tend to bounce back and forth and generate new and better ideas. Because of this, critical processes such as milking and feeding should be addressed with a team approach. Team meetings may replace step three “Internal Review,” and step four “External Review,” in the process described above. Development team meetings must be properly planned and managed or they can quickly become a huge waste of time.

Some professional advisors offer meeting facilitation as part of their services. Dairy managers should take advantage of these services when possible.

The manager/advisor leadership team that we described before can also facilitate meetings. In any case here are a few tips for more effective SOP development team meetings:

  • Formally designate one individual to facilitate the meeting. The facilitator is responsible for making sure that the meeting moves along at a reasonable pace and continues to address the agenda.
  • Prepare an agenda in advance. Agenda items may include: why are SOPs important, a review of past performance, a discussion of how other farms complete the process, a review of related research, etc.
  • Set a time limit and stick to it
  • Make opportunities for everyone to participate
  • Don’t try to rush to a conclusion, usually everything can’t be resolved in one meeting.
  • Stay focused on developing the SOP and avoid getting sidetracked by long discussions of particular details. Sometimes particular questions will emerge for which no one has a definitive answer. In these cases it is best to assign someone to research the question outside of the meeting.

You can learn more about teams by visiting websites or by reading one of the many books on team management. Some useful resources are the Pennsylvania Dairy Advisory Teams website at and the Center for the Study of Work Teams at


A process management system is not complete when an SOP is written. Employees must receive feedback that allows them to adjust their behaviors in ways that will lead to better results from their work. Managers and advisors must have a way to monitor the results of overall performance so that problems can be diagnosed and improvements implemented. Thus, a monitoring plan is important for process improvement.

The monitoring plan must measure the results of a process and answer two distinct questions:

  1. Are all employees accurately and consistently following the SOP?
  2. Is the SOP designed appropriately to achieve the desired results?

If a performance problem arises, then question one should be answered first. If it is determined that one or more employees are not following the SOP, then that problem must be corrected. It is quite likely that the deviation from the SOP directly caused the performance problem. Often this deviation is not motivated by any malicious intent from the employee. It could simply be that a piece of equipment is malfunctioning or the supply of some materials ran out.

On the other hand, if question one is answered positively, then we turn to question two. Here we need to look at the procedure itself to determine if a change is necessary. Procedures must change over time for many reasons. Perhaps they weren’t designed correctly in the first place, or external factors such as changing weather conditions make adjustment necessary. Changes in equipment will almost always force changes in SOPs and sometimes employee turnover results in a need for change to accommodate the skill level of the new person.

The information generated through monitoring has no value unless something is done with it. Managers and advisors can use the information to made decisions and compare the farm’s processes to benchmark data. Employees should receive the information in the form of feedback.

Individual and Group Feedback

Imagine that you are driving a car on a clear, sunny day on a winding road. You can see and react very well so you can drive quickly and make good progress, in other words you can perform at a high level. Your eyes gather information about the road ahead and feed that information back into your brain so that you can adjust your hands on the steering wheel and your foot on the accelerator.

Now imagine that you suddenly drive into a heavy fog. Your eyes can’t gather information and feed it back to your brain nearly as well as before. As a result you must slow down or risk having an accident, in other words you must perform at a lower level. A lack of feedback limits your ability to drive quickly and safely and it will also limit a worker’s ability to perform at a high level.

Any information that an employees receives about his or her work performance is known as feedback. Feedback allows people to adjust their own behaviors in ways that will influence the results of their work. People crave performance feedback and will seek it out if it is not provided for them. Feedback is essential for high performance, but it should be delivered thoughtfully, purposefully, and appropriately.

Individual Feedback

Individuals need feedback about performance that they can control on their own. For example, consider a dairy farm that employs four people in the milking process. All four of these people influence the quality of milk sold from the farm. No individual has complete control over milk quality because he or she cannot directly control the behaviors of his or her three peers. The individual can control his or her own behaviors, however. In this case, the milking supervisor should spend some time with each person (especially when they are learning a process) to observe and provide feedback on each individual’s performance.

Group Feedback

Groups of people have broader control over the results of certain processes. In the example above, all four milking employees have much more combined control over milk quality than any individual. It is appropriate and useful to provide this group with feedback in the form of numeric, quality measures such as somatic cell count. This will encourage the group to work together to improve results.

Whether feedback is provided to individuals or groups, there are six principles for effective performance feedback (London, 1997):

  • Specific. Feedback should be specifically related to recognizable elements of performance or particular incidents that can be easily understood by both the employee and supervisor. Whenever possible, feedback should include objective information.
  • Relevant. Feedback should focus on behaviors or attitudes that have a direct impact on performance. Issues or opinions unrelated to performance have no place in job feedback.
  • Credible. Feedback should come from a trusted source that has a developed relationship with the employee. The source of feedback needs to be in a position to observe employee performance. In other words, a milking supervisor who never visits employees milking on the night shift cannot credibly provide them with feedback.
  • Frequent. Feedback needs to be frequent enough to provide direction that helps employees to shape their performance. Supervisors should observe employees as they perform their work. Less experienced employees need feedback more frequently, but even experienced people need to hear it often enough to stay motivated and to feel valued.
  • Timely. Feedback needs to occur close enough in time to performance that it has meaning. Feedback about a critical incident in particular needs to come close to immediately after the incident takes place. Otherwise, the meaning and importance of the incident for learning begins to decline rapidly.
  • Linked to a Source of Help. Feedback should not end with the employee wondering what to do next. egative feedback especially, should always conclude with a series of positive steps that the employee can take toward improvement. The help should include some specific recommendations about how to better perform the procedure.

Sustaining Employee Motivation

SOPs and their associated monitoring and feedback systems are tools for engaging both the physical and mental effort of employees, managers, and advisors in constant process improvement. Regular employee performance ultimately determines success or failure for each production process. Thus it is essential to engage employees in the SOP process from the very beginning and help them to feel ownership for each production process that they carry out.

Management must communicate that the SOP process is meant to help everyone perform at a higher level. Identify how process improvement will benefit not just the business owners, but also each employee. The benefits that people derive from improved performance don’t always have to be financial incentives; pride in workmanship can also be a powerful motivator. It is important to get everyone involved in the SOP development process because people support what they help create.

A work group that is unfamiliar with SOPs should start with a project that has an excellent chance of success. That way they are less likely to become stalled by a difficult of confusing process. There are three characteristics of work processes that help to identify those projects with a good chance of success (Bacdayan, 2002). First, processes with physically observable steps are easier to manage than those with steps that you can’t watch someone doing. Second, high success projects are finite. This means that the process has a beginning and an end over a short period of time. Third, the process should be important so that people are interested in the outcome.

Good examples of dairy processes with a high probability of success include: milking procedures, parlor set-up and cleaning, newborn calf procedures, and most feeding procedures. Examples of processes that are more difficult usually involve decision-making. Examples include: dealing with abnormal milk, assisting with calf delivery, or deciding when to adjust feed rations. As people gain experience, SOP development becomes easier and more challenging processes can be improved.

Sometimes dairy employees are excited about process improvement at first, but lose interest over time. This usually takes place when monitoring and feedback systems are not built into the SOPs. Performance feedback is similar to keeping score in sports; it might be fun to play for a while without a score but the game is much more interesting when a score results from performance.

Other factors such as not updating goals or failure to recognize achievement can sap employee motivation. Goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding, and Timed). In order to stay SMART, goals need to be updated. Goal setting should include input from the work group so that everyone recognizes the significance of the goal. Finally, goals should be recognized when they are achieved. Gifts, parties, certificates, awards, and mentions in the newspaper are all possible ways for managers to recognize their employees’ goal achievement.


SOPs are powerful tools for bringing managers, employees, and advisors together to focus on improving dairy production processes. When everyone gets involved, goal setting is performed, monitoring is built in, and feedback is provided, the results can be dramatic. Not only will the dairy business become more successful, but managers and advisors will be more effective, and employees will perform at much higher levels. No dairy business can afford to overlook improvements like that.


Bacdayan, P. (2002). Preventing stalled quality improvement teams: A written test of project selectionability. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 15, 47 – 66.

London, M. (1997). Job feedback: Giving, seeking, and using feedback for performance improvement. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stup, R.E. (2001). Standard operating procedures: A writing guide. University Park, PA: Penn State Extension publication.

Stup, R.E. (2002). Designing Standard Operating Procedures To Help Workers Do Their Jobs.Retrieved May 6, 2003 from

Related Links:

Pennsylvania Dairy Advisory Teams

Standard operating procedures: A writing guide
Stup, R.E. Penn State Extension

Designing Standard Operating Procedures To Help Workers Do Their Jobs
Stup, R.E. Penn State Extension


Richard Stup

Richard Stup
3 articles

Branch Manager and Business Consultant at  AgChoice Farm Credit 

Read more »

AgChoice Farm Credit

AgChoice Farm Credit