Imagine you wake up one morning with no recollection of how to get ready for work. What would you do first? What would you do…period? Now, imagine waking up like this every day, and every day having to expend mental energy to try and figure out the best way to get ready for work. In this scenario, because you first need to think about the process as well as the appropriate sequence of tasks, there will always be a delay in executing the tactical actions necessary to get ready for work. Luckily, this scenario is completely unrealistic because we all have developed our own routines for daily chores like getting ready for work, and because of this we’re able to avoid “reinventing the wheel” every time we do a repetitive task.
All living things love routine. It helps boost the efficiency of behaviors and actions by standardizing the best ways to do things. This is why ants, bees, salmon, single-cell bacteria and millions of other living things do what they do. And human beings are certainly no exception. Routine helps us make sense out of a chaotic and uncontrollable world by creating a framework for small decisions that we no longer have to make. It helps automate certain decisions so we don’t waste time thinking about them. And it is this notion of routine that represents the crux of standard operating procedures, or SOPs.
What are SOPs?
In terms of the emergency operations of utilities, the standardization of routines is best accomplished via SOPs. Simply put, emergency restoration SOPs outline what is expected and required of utility personnel during and after an event. They establish a standard or generic course of action that includes things such as equipment placement, tactical operations, safety, command structure, responder expectations, coordination with other organizations, mutual assistance, hazard assessment, and more.
One important distinction is that they are not plans. The plan represents the strategy, and the SOPs direct the more general functions necessary to execute the strategy. In other words, they are generally used to “operationalize” strategies. Another important distinction is that SOPs do not precisely describe how to do a job (i.e., technical skills), they merely describe the rules for doing the job (procedural guidance). For example, SOPs might describe the permitted uses of an emergency warning system, but they wouldn’t describe how to activate the system. I only mention this because there seems to be a lot of confusion out there regarding these two nuances.
Why are They Important?
I’ve already mentioned at a high level why SOPs are critical, but as they say, the devil is in the details. Here’s a little more granularity on why:
- They clarify job requirements and expectations in a format that can be easily applied on the job, which improves operational efficiency, safety, and employee productivity.
- They help improve compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.
- They allow crews to complete restorations faster.
- They help streamline the communication between disparate parties – both internal groups as well as external parties.
- They help improve the efficacy of employee training – especially as it relates to second roles.
- The act of researching and developing SOPs provides opportunities to compare current work practices with best practices to accelerate the identification of process improvements.
How to Develop SOPs
The notion of how to develop standard operating protocols is well beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you’re reviewing or creating emergency restoration SOPs.
Above all, they should be organized in a logical framework – typically organized by department or function. Also, since they will touch every area of the company as well as many external parties, you’ll want to involve multiple internal and external subject matter experts as you develop them – SOPs should take into account legal, regulatory, community and customer needs and requirements. Another thing to keep in mind is that SOPs are not static; they should be regularly evaluated to identify gaps or improvement opportunities, and then updated. Finally, don’t forget that developing the SOPs is only the first part of the equation – the second part is implementing them via employee notification, distribution, and training.
SOPs are guidelines that help dictate actions we take in order to make us more efficient. Most utilities already have SOPs in place, but my guess is that many times these are not being updated frequently enough. If you take anything away from this article, remember this: SOPs are living, evolving rules of engagement. The development of SOPs is not a “set and forget” activity. Chances are, if your standard operating protocols have not been reviewed in the past 5 years, they are severely out-of-date. Having outdated SOPs is only marginally better than having none at all. So do yourself and your organization a favor – review your SOPs today!