Tuesday, March 22, 2016

SOP Revision, SWAT-Style

By Laurie Meehan

SOP revision. It falls somewhere between income tax prep and colonoscopy prep on the likability scale.  So why would you want to read about it?  Maybe you’re hoping someone’s figured out a way to make the process more efficient and less painful.  Maybe we have.

SOP Binders
The SWAT Technique

Last month, we worked with a company to revise a set of SOPs using a technique we call SWAT.  (Any edgy appeal that name might have otherwise had will be immediately dulled by its acronym expansion: “SOP Working Analysis Team.”  It’s the best we could do.  Don’t judge.)

The goal of the SWAT technique is to revise the most documents in the least time, while preserving friendships, sobriety, and original hair color.  The heart of SWAT is an immersive, multi-day working session in which participants discuss SOP revisions and incorporate them in real time.  Careful planning, thorough preparation, and commitment from management and participants are keys to keeping the SWAT session productive.

It’s Not For Everyone

Up front, we need to say that SWAT won’t work for every organization.  While the size of the company may not be important, the size of the working team needs to be fairly small.  Also SWAT won’t work for every set of SOPs.  The documents need to be part of a natural grouping – a set of similar procedures – and not a random collection.

But in the right situations, SWAT works very well.  Last month, we conducted a 2-day SWAT session with a client’s QA department to revise a set of 10 auditing SOPs.  We’ve also successfully used the technique with ClinOps teams, for example, to revise sets of monitoring SOPs.

SWAT Planning and Preparation

The SWAT process begins with central planning.  A coordination team selects a logical grouping of SOPs to revise, and assembles a list of specific revisions to be made.  Where it’s not possible to provide specific revisions, instructions and guidelines are developed, such as “remove audit report distribution details” or “update to reflect new file safeguarding practices.”

Each SWAT participant is assigned an SOP from the revision set.  The participant doesn’t need to be the author of record, but must be knowledgeable enough to “represent” the SOP – to learn the document well and understand how it’s similar to the other SOPs in the revision set and in what ways it’s unique.  Based on this understanding, prior to the SWAT session, participants make applicable revisions to their individual documents using the information received from the coordination team.  Participants should also note questions and any open issues appropriate for SWAT discussion using inline comments. 

SWAT Session
SOP Cafe

The result of the SWAT session is a set of approval-ready SOPs.  The precise structure of the SWAT session to get you there depends on a variety of factors, such as how similar or dissimilar the SOPs are, the extent and complexity of the revisions, and whether subject matter expertise is concentrated or distributed among the group.  But all successful SWAT sessions we’ve conducted share these attributes:

  • Duration of 2 to 3 days.  Just long enough to accomplish the aggressive goal, just short enough to keep everyone from diving out the window.
  • Real-time revision.  The “SOP of the hour” is projected on a screen while participants sit in front of PCs and update their assigned SOPs accordingly.
    Air Horn
  • Rigorous facilitation. It’s natural for discussions about company procedures to morph into other topics, such as business strategy or staffing requirements.  Discussion *will* get off topic.  When it does, the facilitator must act quickly to table it.  You can maintain a list of tangent topics on a flip chart, schedule a meeting to discuss the most pressing items, ring a cowbell, blow an air horn, or drop a quarter in the “Diversion Jar” and move on, but keep those conversations out of your SWAT session.  Save the war stories for dinner.
  • Commitment to the process.  Scheduling the session is one thing, but remaining dedicated to the session is an act of will. It’s so ridiculously easy for outside work to creep in.  Management and participants must be committed to carving out the time and keeping the barbarians at the gate.
  • Of course: Plenty of caffeine and yummy treats.

If you’ve ever worked on SOPs, you know there’s a big difference between done and almost done.  To help ensure you emerge from the SWAT session with the former, time must be allotted for participants to format, polish, and conduct a quality review.  If it’s possible to scare up some on-site administrative support, that could help expedite the process.

SWAT Benefits

When you look on your team’s Outlook calendar and see 3 entire days blocked out, it can seem like an awful lot of time devoted to SOP revision.  But SWAT really doesn’t take any longer than the usual process, it’s just more obvious.  Does SWAT take significantly *less* time?  Mmmm, not sure, but SWAT brings with it other benefits.

SWAT produces a more consistent set of SOPs.  Since every document is compared to every other, it’s easy to notice and correct incidental differences.

SWAT is a cross-training opportunity.  Participants enter SWAT knowing their own SOP very well.  They leave knowing the whole SOP revision set very well.

SWAT gets it done.  Auditors, how many times have you cited facilities for failure to revise their SOPs within the specified window?  It’s not because there’s a willful disregard for SOP procedures.  It’s because, in the real world of work, revising SOPs is seldom prioritized highly enough to get on anyone’s schedule until the end of the revision window encroaches or – oops – has passed.  But schedule a SWAT and they will come. (And because the effort is so visible and so obviously resource-intensive, no one wants to be the one to drop the ball.  Participants come prepared and the resulting documents are the better for it.)

SWAT is a lot more fun.  Revising SOPs on your own is really boring.  Revising them in immersive sessions with colleagues is significantly more enjoyable.  Gallows humor reigns supreme.  Copious amounts of chocolate are consumed.  Air horns are blown in celebration.  Friendships, sobriety, and hair color remain intact.  Participants live to write another day.

Photo Credit:  Tenaciousme CoffeeArt, under Creative Commons License