Policies vs Procedures vs SOPs

What is the difference between Policies and Procedures and SOPs?

Most organizations have some form of documentation that is referred to as policies, procedures, SOPs or all three.  As each of these documents have significant impact on any organization, understanding how they are related to each other is critical for optimal operations within your organization.  Not only does each type of document have a different purpose,  but knowing the differences between policies vs procedures vs sops can have a significant impact on compliance in regulated environments.

What is a Policy?  The Rules.

Policies in an organization represent the global rules and definitions.  They are not designed to tell you the steps on “how” to do something, but the rules that need to be followed.  Think of driving a car.  When you drive from your home to work, you need drive on roads, obey speed limits and follow traffic signals.  It doesn’t matter what route you take or what mode of motorized transportation, these rules or Policies still apply.   The Policies of the road don’t tell you what time to leave, what vehicle to use or even what route to take.   The Policies simply govern all of the rules you need to follow along the way.

What is a Procedure?  The Steps.

Procedures are probably the best understood concept when looking at Polices, Procedures and SOPs.  Life is full of procedures that need to be followed.  Most people think of steps in a specific order when they think about a procedure and this is correct!  A procedure is a series of steps that need to be completed in order to accomplish an activity.  A well structured procedure typically starts each step with an action.  Why?  Because something needs to get accomplished.  Depending on the audience and purpose, procedures can range from verbal instructions to informal work instructions to visual workflows to formal documents.

What is an SOP?  The Regulation.

The fact that SOP or Standard Operation Procedure has the term “Procedure” included in the name, it is safe to assume that there are some similarities.  At face value, a Procedure and SOP could look identical.  If you look at how to structure a Procedure or SOP, both have many similarities including scope, revision control, stakeholders, steps and responsibilities.  They are actually so similar, that you can technically convert any SOP to just a Procedure, but the reverse may not be true.  So what makes an SOP so special?  There are several key distinctions between a Procedure and an SOP, including:

Trucks need to go into a Weigh station.  A fuel tanker for example, needs to follow the same rules of the road, can follow the exact same route as our commuter, but may need to stop at a Weigh station along the way.  They may even need to produce documentation about the load they are carrying.  Same policies, same procedure, but more checks and more documentation.

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The concept of a Control, putting mechanisms in place to ensure you get the expected result, is not specific to SOPs.  Any well structured Procedure should have an adequate level of controls built into the process.  The bar is raised for SOPs though.  First, the number and effectiveness of the controls in the process may increase.  Second, and more importantly, evidence must be generated.

Let’s look at a simple example:


You need to enter a weekly timesheet that needs to be reviewed by your supervisor.


Can simply print or email your supervisor your timesheet each week.  Maybe you hear back, maybe you don’t


You need to PROVE that the Supervisor saw the timesheet and signed off.  This could be done through manually signature, or ideally through electronic approval in a timesheet system.

The evidence that is generated under an SOP is critical as it is what is used for testing and audits.

Testing and Audits

Another significant distinction with an SOP over a procedure are audits.  When you implement an SOP, it should be with the full understanding that someone at some time will be performing tests against your SOP to ensure it is being followed.  This should certainly be taken into account when creating your SOP.  Extra attention needs to be put into providing evidence of actions, measurement of results and clarity of responsibility.

Regulatory Compliance

There are number of reasons an organization may find itself under a form of Regulatory Compliance.  Ranging from the type of organization (not-for-profit, Public companies, Healthcare) to industry specific standardizations (ISO).  One common element is that each of these Regulatory or Standardizations can require not only specific content of your SOPs, but may even require entirely new SOPs.    This is typically where SOPs get a bad name with people.  Although you should still structure your SOPs with the proper balance between efficiency and control, there will certainly be additional steps and output needed that goes beyond a basic Procedure getting you from A to B.  Since the additional content is driven by released Regulation or Standardizations, it is also important to track the specific Regulations that apply to your individual SOPs.  This allows you to quickly find and review all related SOPs if the Regulation changes in the future.

Relationships Matter

Although separate, it is actually the relationship between your Policies, Procedures and SOPs that determines the effectiveness of your organization.  It is not just about understanding the individual pieces, but how they fit together.  Even in small organizations, the combination of these three areas can get confusing quickly.  It is important that all of your Policies, Procedures and SOPs are organized and managed effectively to properly track what is current, who it applies to and how they relate to each other.

Policies for example, can govern many different procedures or SOPs.  A change in a policy could have an impact across many different processes.  Knowing the relationship between policies and procedures ensures that a proper review will occur when there is a change.

The same can be said for Procedures and SOPs.  Many procedures are part of a much larger process and are broken into manageable pieces.  Changes in one procedure can have a direct impact on another, especially if the output is changed from one process that is needed in another.

Bringing it all Together

When undertaking any project that involves creating or modify Policies, Procedures and SOPs, understanding when to use which document and the difference between them can help increase efficiency, compliance and effectiveness.