Why and How to Implement Standard Operating Procedures at Your Construction Company

You can ill afford to have workers doing whatever they want, however they want to do their work, and expect to realize productive, much less profitable results

Standard operating procedures build consistency, teamwork and common vision for how you approach your construction projects.
Standard operating procedures build consistency, teamwork and common vision for how you approach your construction projects.

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) help to define a contractor and their business. It builds consistency, teamwork and common vision for how you approach your projects. SOPs represent your experience, knowledge and commitment to being the best contractor you can be. Start today by identifying three to five work processes that are very critical to the success of your work crews.

While standard operating procedures are not new to the construction industry, there are still too few contractors, whether “specialty” or “general,” that have developed these gems for training, quality, compliance, consistency and for the Lean Construction approach.

Let’s discuss the importance of SOPs first. To begin with, SOPs provide a great tool for your company to distinguish your work processes from competitors. Most contractors who started their own company did so because they believed they had a better way to approach and complete concrete, masonry, carpentry, electrical, “rock,” paving, etc. work. And as long as the company was small enough that the owner was always on the job, the workers learned to do things the way the owner wanted them completed. The contractor in this situation “is the SOP” for others to follow.

As a contractor grows, however, and when he or she is slowly removed from the day-to-day operations, it becomes more challenging to keep the process “sameness” intact. Employees are hired from other companies and bring with them a few ideas of their own. Over the course of just a few years suddenly the way in which a contractor’s crew completes work looks very different from “how we used to do it.”

The creation of standard operating procedures then becomes one tool that can ensure that process “sameness” is consistent and maintained. There are few other reasons why SOPs are important to a contractor. Consider a few of the following benefits:

  • With the written SOP, new employees have a training guide to learn and follow
  • Less margin for error because all workers are to conform to the written SOP; there is little to no process anarchy
  • SOPs do not guarantee 100% accuracy but they do move your results closer to “zero defect”
  • SOP compliance makes it easier for one employee to work on another crew and make an immediate impact since everyone is supposed to follow the same SOPs
  • The use of SOPs settles differences of approaches argued by different employees; the SOP “trumps” all other methods
  • Total adherence to SOPs increases your profitable results
  • SOPs communicate why one contractor is different than another
  • Following SOPs consistently can increase “speed” of the work process as there is little to no questioning or debating which way to approach a work process

Creating formal SOPs will admittedly require a bit of discussion time, the development of rough drafts, and the final editing of the SOP. However, all of this is minimal in effort compared to making SOPs a formal requirement for employees to follow. We’ll address how to make the SOP more of a natural part of your work crew behavior, but first let’s consider how to create a standard operating procedure.

Steps to creating SOPs

  1. Identify the needed work process to document (e.g. form a wall; run wire through conduit, hanging drywall, loading/unloading equipment, etc.)
  2. Create list for needed tools, equipment and materials
  3. Brainstorm for all steps needed to complete work process
  4. Prioritize brainstormed steps (from step #3) in order needed to complete work process
  5. Identify “check points” necessary within prioritized order of steps for workers to confirm their compliance
  6. Share first draft of SOP with experienced workers for confirmation and edit as needed
  7. Formalize final draft of SOP and prepare to implement through education, follow-up and monitoring

As you can see from the seven steps above, any work process can be mapped out, step by step, and then formalized for your workers to follow. The use of SOPs is all about adhering or conforming to process steps that, if followed, will increase our crews chances of performing work the right way…the first time!

Let’s look at an example of a SOP for a simple work process, completing the Next Week Look Ahead for a construction crew.

Next Week Look Ahead (NWLA) – SOP

Resource Needs: NWLA Form

Position Responsible: Crew Foreman

Step  Activity                     

  1. Obtain NWLA Form on Friday
  2. Review the Next Week Project Schedule – See Master Schedule
  3. Record Project Name & Location on NWLA
  4. Record Expected Number of Crew Workers for Each Day
  5. Record Expected Resource Needs for Each Day, i.e. Vehicles, Equipment, Tools, Materials
  6. Share Completed NWLA with Supervisor and Adjust as Needed
  7. Make Copy of NWLA for Supervisor & Keep Original for Use (Should Be Completed by Friday 6:00 PM)
  8. Make Daily Entries for Work Completed on Front Side
  9. For Work Not Completed, Record Reasons for Non-Completion on Back Side of NWLA
  10. Record Any Safety Concerns or Any Other Performance Issue that is Concerning
  11. Friday: Complete “Current” NWLA and File in Project Folder; Obtain New NWLA For and Repeat Steps #1 - #10

As you can see from this simple sample, the SOP is brief, concise, and provides step-by-step efforts to complete a work process effectively and consistently.

Can you ever change a SOP? Of course! In fact, every year it would be a good exercise to briefly review all of your SOPs to determine if there has been any new technique or approach that can enhance the present SOP and make it stronger.

Another change opportunity can happen anytime through your season when an employee might run across a better technique that is different than what the SOP calls for. In these moments it is wise to have a production meeting with those involved with the process and fully discuss the possibility of the new technique.

If, after presenting the suggested new approach and benefits, it is agreed that the new approach is an improvement, then by all means update the current SOP and begin to educate others on the change.

If the “evidence” doesn’t support making a change in the current SOP, then thank the employee who suggested the change and require your workers to continue following the current SOP.

Now, creating a standard operating procedure is the easiest part of making SOPs part of your company’s formal work process requirements. Gaining participation and consistency from your workers will require a bit more leadership on your part.

Let me briefly suggest a few efforts that can better position created SOPs as your company’s secret to quality, excellence and profitability.

How contractors drive SOP success

  • Lead the SOP education yourself. It is important that all employees understand that following SOPs is not optional and that the most senior leader, the owner, is requiring conformance to the SOPs.
  • Engage other leaders to educate on SOPs. If you have leaders working for you, engage their efforts to provide education, coaching and follow-up with workers learning and following the SOPs.
  • Invite employees to question the need for SOP and its compliance. Questions are good. While some questions might be insincerely raised, most of the questions will provide you with the opportunity to clarify and defend why “this” SOP.
  • Field monitor, coach and correct. Even the best educational effort will still leave some workers not remembering, wanting to stick to their old habits, etc. You and your leaders will need to monitor SOP compliance; coach where adjustments need to be made; and, correct SOP non-compliance.
  • Measure performance results. Remember, requiring workers to follow a SOP is to build consistency and quality. However, you do want any process to be productive and therefore, more profitable. So measure performance as this can be an indicator to whether your SOP is making a positive impact. Certainly if the SOP is greatly slowing down the process or just isn’t profitable, and there are no other safety or risks considerations, then a change in the SOP is probably needed.
  • Recognize SOP compliance; counsel SOP non-compliance. Workers do tend to repeat what is recognized and rewarded. When your crews conform to important SOPs, recognize their efforts. When an individual, or a crew, fails to comply with a particular SOP, you will need to ask why, coach where needed and counsel those in non-compliance that there are consequences for non-compliance. If needed, you may have to terminate those workers who choose to not comply with the needed SOP.

The use of standard operating procedures isn’t about holding power over workers or being hard-headed. If an existing work process would benefit from improving the steps of the SOP, then update and formalize the SOP.

Remember, our SOPs should represent what we believe to be the best way of completing a particular work process. You can ill afford to have workers doing whatever they want, however they want to do their work, and expect to realize productive, much less profitable results.

In the end, the SOPs represent your leadership. Should any worker resist following any SOP, intending to do things the way he wants to do them, then a little “reality” needs to be introduced. My old favorite counseling discussion with non-compliance workers went something like this:

“If you do not want to comply with the way we do things here (i.e. SOP non-compliance) that doesn’t make you a bad person; but it does greatly enhance your chances of being an ‘ex-employee.’ The decision is completely yours. If you choose to comply with our needed SOPs, then we want you. If you believe that your processes are better than ours then we will need to separate ways from each other!”

No need to get upset. Why? Because SOPs represent the way you want to see work completed. Having good discussion on differences and having improvements suggested is great, in fact it should be encouraged. But at the end of the day the way you want your company to operate falls on your shoulders as the contractor.

Don’t allow work process “anarchy” take over your construction company. You’ve worked too hard to allow such confusion among work approaches negatively impact your workers. Trust me, they might not agree with every SOP you have in your company, but hold them accountable and you will have greater consistency of performance and better profits at the end of each project!

Don’t allow any “SOBs” to prevent your SOPs from raising your company’s image, respect and results!