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What are the three types of SOP format?

In today's dynamic business world, precision and consistency are paramount to success. The secret to seamless workflows lies in having clear standard operating procedures. These helpful documents provide a map for your team, ensuring that all processes in your organisation align with your goals and industry standards. 

However, there is much to consider when drafting up a standard operating procedure. To make them as effective as possible you need to have the right format for your SOPs. Different formats can be thought of as different keys, unlocking new doors and opening up more opportunities for your diverse operational needs. 

In this article, we discuss the three types of SOP format that will streamline your internal processes and maximise productivity in your organisation. We provide a definition of standard operating procedures to get you up to speed and then dive into the three formats; step by step, hierarchical and flowcharts. Finally, we offer some insight into how you can begin writing an SOP for your business operations.  

Have you been wondering what formats would be best to document procedures in your business? Then this is the perfect guide for you. 

What is a Standard Operating Procedure?

An SOP is a documented process or set of steps created to ensure the consistency and quality of services and business actions. This includes clear and precise details and step by step instructions for the successful completion of a task or process. Coherent documentation ensures that your team will have limited variation in performing tasks and will provide more efficient workflows.

SOPs can be used for a variety of business operations, from tracking finances to writing up a marketing strategy, almost every process in your organisation can benefit from a robust SOP. While they can improve the quality of your work and services, SOPs are also a fantastic way to boost the productivity of your team by removing guesswork and giving them clear steps to follow. This will vastly reduce errors made while completing work related processes and will give them greater confidence in completing their duties in the company.

You can find more information about SOPs and their benefits in this article.

The 3 types of SOP format

While SOPs have a myriad of proven benefits, it is important to remember that people are inherently different. Approximately 60% of the population are visual learners who gain more value and understanding from visual aids and demonstrations, so a list of actions might not be the most fruitful method for structuring an SOP. 

You should also consider the desired audience for the SOP as this will inform the best way to make it effective. Regardless of the format you choose for your SOP, you should include a purpose statement at the beginning to inform the user of why the process is required and how it factors into the operations of your business. 

The three main formats for SOPs are step by step instructions, hierarchical SOPs and flowchart SOPs. The format that you choose for your SOP will largely depend on your own individual circumstances as well as the specific process you are trying to document. We expand upon each of the different formats below. 

Step by step SOPs

As the name suggests, a step-by step SOP uses an organised list of steps that encompass the successful completion of a complex task or process. The SOP is structured in a linear fashion, allowing the user to start at the first step and work through the following steps in chronological order. 

Step by step SOP formats are best used for straightforward processes which don’t take long to complete. This ensures that your actions as a business are uniform across all your departments and teams. It can also function as a helpful tool when onboarding new hires as it gives them specific, clear guidance for how to complete their responsibilities and will turn the process into a habit.  

The benefits of step by step SOP formats

There are a range of benefits that a step by step SOP can bring to your business and workflows. The greatest of these benefits is that this format is very easy to follow and is innately intuitive. Most people can easily follow an ordered list of steps and it will give them a more comprehensive understanding of the task as a whole. 

However, to ensure your step by step SOP is as effective as possible, you’ll need to dig into the details while avoiding making the steps overcomplicated. For instance, you may begin writing your SOP and identify 50 different steps for a specific process that initially seemed like a simple task. When writing an SOP, make sure you differentiate between crucial details and unnecessary information to keep the steps concise and easy to follow. 

Too many steps and you might find people struggle to make it to the end of the task, too little information and your team might struggle to complete the task inline with your company standards. It’s a very fine line but gathering feedback and consistently updating your SOPs is paramount to ensuring their effectiveness. 

Top tip: Adding images and diagrams to a step by step SOP can help improve comprehension and adherence to the process. 

Hierarchical SOPs 

A hierarchical SOP is a great way to document processes that have interchangeable steps and tasks. It is similar to a step by step format in that you detail the different aspects of a task that are required for its successful completion. However it also allows you to incorporate larger processes or actions that will make the SOP more comprehensive and easier to complete. 

A hierarchical SOP format is more suited to processes that require more detail but don’t need to be completed in a specific order. It is the best fit for processes in your organisation that are more complex in nature and require a more technical approach. You can use a hierarchical SOP format to identify broader categories or stages of a process which allows the user to adapt the SOP to their specific needs and circumstances. 

The benefits of hierarchical SOP formats

The benefit of using a hierarchical approach compared to other SOP formats is that it can simplify complex processes and break them down into more manageable to-do lists. This makes it much easier to follow than an extensive list of steps which could overwhelm or confuse the user. 

That said, hierarchical SOPs can be more difficult to create as they are more complicated. They require a sound understanding and a higher level of familiarity of the specific process you are attempting to document. With this in mind, it is a good idea to have the relevant employees create the SOP and trial it to make sure it encompasses the required steps and categories. 

Flowchart SOPs

The final format for a stellar SOP is a flowchart. This is the most visual of the 3 formats and consists of a helpful diagram that details the necessary steps of a process from start to finish. The user is guided through the process by answers like ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to different situations which then indicates the next steps they need to take. This is a much more dynamic way to present and document a process and can be more helpful when a task requires variation. 

Flowcharts are best used for processes where there are different actions that need to be taken depending on a variety of factors. This makes the SOP much easier to follow and will inform the user of the options they have depending on the set of circumstances. 

The benefits of flowchart SOP formats

Flowcharts allow for more flexibility compared to written SOPs which is their greatest advantage. By selecting their own responses to the provided criteria, your team is better able to complete the required task in a way that is tailored to their own needs and situation. 

Another benefit of flowchart SOPs is that they are more adaptable than the other two types. It allows the user to find the necessary information that is applicable to them and allows them to follow the required actions for their specific problem. However, flowcharts can be quite challenging to put together. 

You will need to consider all the possible options and outcomes that could occur when conducting the process. You then need to ensure that these are all conveyed within the routes of the flowchart to make it efficient and practical for the user. Similarly, they will require a bit of design work, but SOP software and tools can help you with this. 

How to write a Standard Operating Procedure

Now that you understand the different types of SOPs and their associated benefits, it's important that you also know how to begin documenting these processes. In this section we will briefly discuss how to write standard operating procedures so that you can start implementing them into your organisation. 

You can follow this helpful SOP checklist to get started:

  • Identify what actually happens: Conduct interviews and gather feedback from employees and stakeholders who are directly involved with the process that you are attempting to document. This will give you a clearer picture of how the process needs to be executed and is a great starting point for writing a comprehensive SOP. 
  • Identify your audience: It is vital that you consider who will be using the SOP as this will inform the best format and structure for the document. If the SOP will be used by your wider team, you will want to make sure that it is easily understandable at every level of the business, from senior leadership to executives and assistants. 
  • Determine the necessary steps: Before you begin writing a standard operating procedure, you should determine which steps and work instructions are crucial in its execution. This will save you a lot of time when writing up the SOP. 
  • Write your SOP: You can now begin writing your SOP covering each step and the associated responsibilities. You can find a range of online standard operating procedure templates if you need help getting started. 
  • Gather feedback from your team: Once you have finished writing your SOP, forward it onto your wider team and ask them to provide feedback. This can help you identify obstacles and gaps within the document. You can also ask for feedback when onboarding new employees to get their perspective on the SOP and if they find it easy to follow. 
  • Update and improve the SOP: After receiving feedback, make the necessary adjustments to your SOP. It is a good idea to regularly update your SOP’s as innovations in tech and industry can vastly change how processes can be executed. 


Using standard operating procedures is a great way to streamline your workflows and boost the productivity of your workforce. By having a clear set of repeatable instructions for simple and complex processes, you can ensure that your team is all on the same page when it comes to executing tasks and business operations. 

The three main formats for SOPs include step-by-step, hierarchical and flowchart; each of which has its own applications and benefits. Step by Step SOPs are most useful for standardising smaller tasks whereas hierarchical formats are the best way to break down complex processes into more manageable chunks. Flowcharts are the best way to provide visual aids for completing a process and also provide much more flexibility, making them suitable for tasks that have elements of variation. 

No matter which format you settle on, creating SOPs is a guaranteed way to improve your business and manage your workflows. 

At Touch Stay, we provide digital guidebooks that are the perfect solution for documenting your organisation's standard operating procedures. Our dynamic and engaging guides will revolutionise your SOP’s and will be a powerful resource for your business operations. 

Start your free 14 day trial now and begin creating SOPs that will situate your company above the rest.