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Standard operating procedures: Managing the human variables

Richard Stup Published on 17 September 2010

We can spend thousands or even millions of dollars building a milking parlor and milking equipment system that will perform every day exactly as we want. We can adjust the take-off settings, the pulsation rate, and the vacuum level.

We can have an information system that gathers important data about every cow that is milked so that we can respond to any changes in her performance appropriately. We can buy or harvest high-quality forages that have little variation in moisture or composition. We can control our fans, sprinklers, and curtains to help ensure that cows are comfortable.

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But if we can’t employ a workforce that operates the parlor consistently, then the whole operation will fail. Full adoption of the standard operating procedure (SOP) process can go a long way toward ensuring that the necessary workforce is in place.

Variation in processes
Standard operating procedures are a means to remove variation in work performance caused by people completing the same work processes in different ways. A process is a set of actions that a person or group of people must perform in order to complete a job. A standard operating procedure describes the steps that people should use to complete the process.

Thus, on a dairy farm, prepping and attaching milking units to cows is a process. Dry treating a cow is a process. Setting up and washing the milking equipment system is still another process.

Variation in processes can lead to reduced milk production, poor milk quality, increased incidence of mastitis, antibiotic contamination of milk, high bacteria counts, and any other problem that you can name. But since some variation is normal, how can it have such an impact on performance? The answer is that there are two types of variation.

The famous management educator W. Edwards Deming defined common cause variation as the result of the myriad imperceptible changes that occur in the everyday operation of a process. Fluctuation in daily dry matter intake by only a pound or two is likely due to common cause variation. Likewise, minor fluctuation in bulk tank bacteria counts is due to common cause, unmanageable variation.

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On the other hand, significant variation that has a definite cause is known as special cause variation. Special cause variation is caused by something that can be identified and controlled, such as human performance.

Danish researchers published an important study of variation in milking procedures that illustrates the need to control special cause variation. The research compared cows milked with a standardized routine to cows that were milked with a traditional, tie-stall routine.

In the traditional routine, the lag time from cow preparation to milking unit attachment was quite variable, while the prep and timing were very consistent in the standardized routine. The results indicated that the cows milked with the standardized routine yielded about 10.7% more milk over the course of a lactation.

The SOP process and human resource management
Most people think of a standard operating procedure as a piece of paper that contains step-by-step directions about how to complete a job. That image is correct – in part. However, in order to get the full benefit of managing with SOPs, one needs to think in terms of an SOP process.

A good SOP process is about engaging the creative talents of managers, workers, and advisers in a cooperative way. When this is done well, the result is an outstanding procedure that everyone feels committed to.

Attempting to create SOPs at the management or adviser level and then simply imposing them on workers is an exercise in futility. Imposing SOPs on others without their input leads to resentment, rejection of the SOP, and countless small acts of sabotage that defeat the purpose altogether.

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The right way to design SOPs is in a participative manner. Participative management means encouraging everyone that will be affected by the SOP (the stakeholders) to contribute to its development. Leading this process takes practice, but it is worth the effort because teams of people will always outperform individuals.

Leadership for SOP development should come from the manager of the process to be standardized. He or she may work closely with an outside adviser with technical expertise in the process such as a veterinarian or nutrition consultant. Often, this team leadership approach is effective because the two can complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Development
It is in the development stage that the procedure is opened up for input and review from the stakeholders: workers, other managers, and other advisers. Everyone whose work is in some way affected by the SOP should have an opportunity to make suggestions to improve the process.

Development is an extremely important stage, because it is here that people must begin to feel ownership in the SOP. Stakeholders, particularly the workers, will feel ownership and commitment to an SOP only if they believe that their ideas were included during development.

Workers will not feel committed to the SOP if they believe that management is imposing it without regard for their input. Another excellent reason to involve the workers is that they are likely to have good ideas. Only the frontline workers know the day-to-day challenges and opportunities that will come to bear on actual SOP performance.

Share with the stakeholders the business goal that the SOP will improve. Give the stakeholders an opportunity to suggest changes or additions to the goal. Goals should lead directly to the measurements that will be included in the monitoring step.

The SOP may pass through several revisions while in the development stage. By the time a final version of the procedure is drafted, everyone involved should have had an impact on its final form. When there is disagreement about how a step should be performed, there should be a clear reason why the alternative finally chosen was selected.

One of the last steps in the development stage is to test the SOP. It seems simple, but sometimes written procedures cannot be completed as written. The ultimate test is to ask someone unfamiliar with the procedure to follow the SOP exactly as it is written. If they can’t complete the procedure using the SOP reasonably well, then it should be revised.

Implementation
After a satisfactory standard operating procedure is developed and tested, it is time for implementation. The SOP leader needs to make sure that everyone receives a copy of the SOP to study and review. In addition, the SOP should be posted, if possible, in the workplace where it will be completed.

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 some steps in different ways, leading to harmful variation in processes and results. Once the procedure is implemented, the next step is to put in place the monitoring program.

Monitoring and feedback
Monitoring stems from the performance goals that leadership established in the planning stage.

An effective monitoring system really must measure two different things:

Are all the workers consistently following the SOP?, and

Is the SOP designed correctly to achieve the desired results?

These questions need to be addressed in the order shown, because we really cannot evaluate whether the SOP is correct without knowing that everyone is following the SOP faithfully. Monitoring provides information that managers can use as performance feedback to help energize, direct, and motivate workers. This feedback, combined with clear performance goals and a participative management style, can dramatically improve worker motivation.

No quick fix is possible to remove variation introduced when different people complete a process. A thorough standard operating procedure program can remove much of the variation by bringing workers, advisers, and management together to design the best possible procedure.

A participative style makes managers better, it leads to happier and more motivated workers, and it creates procedures that are far more effective than when management designs them alone. PD

Excerpts from National Mastitis Council Regional Meeting, July 2002

Richard Stup

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