What are standard (or standing) operating procedures (SOPs), and why should you have them? According to the U.S. Army, a SOP is “a clearly written set of instructions for methods detailing procedures for carrying out a routine or recurring task or study.” Now what does this really mean and how can I actually apply this to both my daily life and also high stress situations?
First, a quick background so that you can understand why this topic is so important to me. I’m an active duty Army Special Forces officer (O-3) with extensive experience around the world. I make my living using and creating Standard Operating Procedures for every situation you can think of within my team as well as with indigenous persons from other countries. I use these SOPs to enhance my lethality, effectiveness, survivability, and capability. They are what help separate my team from other units and allow us to operate at a much higher level. Okay, let’s get down to it.
What is an SOP, really? It can be as simple as: Each person will carry x-number of magazines on them for their rifle and handgun, or as complicated as exactly what you will need to do during a night time linkup with another friendly element. Why do we have them? We have them to eliminate extra steps or remove overthinking from the equation. We have them to make sure everyone follows the same standard for loadout on a patrol around the area. We have them so that no matter who is on guard shift, when a potential threat comes stumbling up to the gate at zero dark thirty, we all know exactly how to respond, even while still half asleep. They are used for all of these situations and many more.
At work, my team has a SOP booklet that is handed out whenever we receive a new teammate. Their job for that first week is to study this book. Now this alone isn’t going to get them up to speed with the rest of the team but it will make the learning curve not quite as steep. Additionally, whenever we go out for training, we review the SOPs for topics that we are going to cover. We do this so that everyone is on the same page and that everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and in what order so that we can work as efficiently as possible.
An example SOP may be flat range preparation. This part of our SOP booklet is a checklist showing exactly what needs to be contained in the team’s Range Box. It is presented as a checklist and reads:
1) Training plan
2) Medical Plan
3) Risk assessment
4) Range Radio
5) Staple gun
6) Extra staples
7) Armorer’s kit
8) Extra foam ear plugs
9) Gun oil and rags
11) Spare batteries (AA, AAA, CR123, 2032)
12) Cleaning rod
14) shade (tent)
18) Tape (100mph, electrical, masking)
20) Chem lights (red, green, blue, IR).
Every time we go to the flat range someone checks the range box, even if we went and conducted live fire at the same range the day before. By going through it every time we never have to worry about missing an item, causing someone to have to go all the way back to the team room, wasting precious training time.
The very next page discusses what you need to be wearing/have on you for a flat range. Our book also has diagrams and pictures to assist in showing certain standards. Like I stated, they can be as simple as daily uniform wear to as complex as the conduct of Close Quarters Battle (CQB) within a city. We have these SOPs so that in extreme stress, I know exactly where the person in front, behind, and to the side of me are going to go and they all know where I am going. This helps create predictability. Predictability amongst the team, especially while firing live rounds near one another, is paramount in making sure we are as safe as possible. The last thing you want to do is injure a teammate because you didn’t know they were going to step in front of you or they went off by themselves because you didn’t maintain your two-man rule.
Everyone knowing exactly what to do increases efficiency. However, just because something is written down as your SOP does not mean you cannot change it. In fact, every time we conduct our training we review, reassess, and update SOPs as necessary. An example of this is how my team entered a room during CQB. We had done it a certain way for at least 5-6 years. Then, after attending some advanced schooling where I received extensive training in the most up to date conduct of clearing houses, we made some slight changes. Ultimately, after the changes, we managed to get the second man inside the room in about .5-.75 seconds after the first man versus the 1-1.5 seconds it was taking us prior. This may not seem like a lot, but alone in a room full of bad guys shooting at you, 1 second is forever.
Another example of us tweaking established SOPs was after getting a chance to real world test QuikClot gauze versus regular Kerlix, a standard gauze bandage carried by US Soldiers. We found that one to two small strips of QuikClot gauze would stop the bleeding that was otherwise taking us four to five Kerlix bandages. That is why I carry two packages of QuikClot gauze in my med kit on my plate carrier for work and also why I keep some on me or in all my vehicles every day.
Once the team votes and agrees on a standard, we then validate it. After it has been thoroughly tested and validated it becomes the team SOP on a subject. We then immediately add it to the book or replace the old standard with our new one. We are always reviewing, reassessing, and updating SOPs based on new equipment, new techniques, or new knowledge. You must be willing to adapt and change. Just because you have done something one way for five years does not mean that it is the best way. On the other hand, the way you have been doing something may in fact be the best way. Try new techniques whenever you can but don’t change your SOP unless the new way is better.
Something to think about with these SOPs, if forming a group with little to no experience in a subject, you may want to have something simple to start with as your SOP and then adjust once you can all reach that standard. You cannot be an expert in everything but having knowledge and practicing many different things can at least get you to a satisfactory level of proficiency.
There are times however when they can be over the top and not practical. One such example would be exact setup of your go to war kit (minus a couple items). I used to always complain when I was in the Infantry about how I was told exactly how my body armor needed to be set up. There was MOLLE webbing for a reason. If you didn’t want me to modify my stuff with what works for me then why not just have pre-sewn on pouches? Rule of thumb is- if it doesn’t work for the majority or doesn’t enhance your group then it probably shouldn’t be a standard.
Some things regarding kit setup don’t necessarily need to be SOP but there are exceptions. Medical gear is one of them to me. Our SOP is for everyone’s Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) to be located on our left side in the same place and everyone will have two tourniquets: one on the back of their belt and one on the front of their body armor. We do this so that if someone is injured, anyone can run up and immediately know where their medical supplies are so they can begin working on that person. (As a side note, you always want to use their supplies on them first because you never know when you may need to use your own supplies on yourself.)
SOPs in Daily Life
I’m sure some of you are asking how can I use this in daily life, not just out on the range or conducting operations. Think about all the things that you already do daily. You know exactly how to start the coffee maker, how you arrange your books so that you can find a certain one when needed, you put your tools on the shelf a specific way. I know I hate when someone borrows my tools or books and puts them back incorrectly or can’t work the coffee maker in the morning when I need to wake up.
Now imagine getting together with your family and/or group who don’t do the same things as you every day. SOPs can mitigate some of that frustration that may build. If you are stocking food for your group, do you put cans in the same direction so you can read what is in the can or do you have the labels facing every which way? I’m sure it would drive your logistician crazy to have to rotate every other can during inventories just to see what someone put on the shelves last week. Your SOP book may contain many, many things. Ours has daily schedules so that anyone can go in and see what meetings we have and when. Additionally, when deployed we put our guard rotations in it and everyone knows where to look.
I think I’ve covered your ability to use SOPs to your advantage so I want to hit on a few more items or setup of your SOP book. The very first page of our SOP book is our mission statement and vision. I want everyone to know up front what we stand for and want to accomplish. Next is the table of contents. This is followed by our manning roster and dated blocks that everyone must initial by the listed date signifying they’ve reviewed the book as scheduled. This holds members of the team accountable for actually knowing the information contained within. After that, all our SOPs are ordered as stated in the table of contents.
We have a physical copy of our SOPs as well as each individual has a digital copy. Anyone is allowed to update or add additions after a validation of the changes is conducted and a review by the leadership. Just make sure everyone knows when the book is updated or have a single person be the editor. Any updates should not be a surprise. This will ensure everyone gets the most up to date information even if they missed the last training event. Our SOP book is a living, breathing, ever changing document that makes our team who we are.
Example SOP List
Here is an example SOP book content for a team:
- Mission statement/vision
- Table of contents
- Duties and responsibilities for each person/position
- Meeting format/conduct meeting layout
- Uniform/clothing standard
- Reporting format (SALT and SALUTE)
- Planning products
- Planning step by step guide
- Warning Operations Order (WARNO) format
- Operations Order (OPORD) format
- Flat range
- Patrolling (foot, vehicle, boat, etc…)
- Link-up procedures
- React to contact
- CQB-defensive layout
- Defensive posture
- Setup of LP/OPs
- Radio callsigns
- Radio etiquette/reporting
- Antenna construction
- Duty log
- Inventory schedule
- Proper marking of equipment/supplies
I know that this is only scratching the surface of Standard Operating Procedures but hopefully it has helped get the mind working. If you don’t have an SOP book, then I suggest you start one. Don’t worry if it isn’t done in the first weekend get-together. It took 10 of us around 6 months working on it after every training session to get it where it is today and even still, we continually are adding to and updating it.
Now go start a discussion with your family/group/team and test some things out and then get them written down. You’ll be happy later when you start having more time during each gathering because of the efficiencies you’ve created. Go be the best you can be.
Editor’s Closing Note: I’ve seen the author’s Officer Record Brief (ORB.) He is the genuine article.