Policy, Procedures and SOPs

Policy, Procedures and SOPs

What is the difference?

What is the difference between a Policy, a Procedures and a SOP and why is it important?

I was recently asked by a client to review their SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and to report back to the executives why staff were stuffing-up a number of key activities even when they referred to the documents.

Policy & Standard Operating Procedure Writers Australia

When I looked at a random sprinking of the documents it was obvious that they weren't SOPs. They were long, long documents with different levels of detail, policy and instruction. How could I make this distinction? To do this, I need to explain the difference in design and intent between these three document types.


Standard Operating Procedures live up to their name. They are standardised, they just cover a single task or operation and each individual step is the most basic thing you can do. Think of a cake recipe - it is a sequential series of steps, written using the active voice and so simply written that my robot could follow the instructions without getting confused.

Typically they have a close relationship with training courses and the eventual competency testing.

So, to summarise SOPs are short numbered steps that instruct the reader in completing a given task.


A procedure is typically one level of abstraction higher than a SOP. They may have numbered tasks in the text, but not necessarily. Their primary purpose is to explain how to implement said Policy. Procedures will show you how to do one or more linked tasks without necessarily going into step by step detail. For example, the policy will state "All employees in the office must show ID". The procedures will take the employee through the process of getting an ID if they don't have one already, and then how to show their ID, what to do if they forget their pass, what to do if they lose their pass and finally what to do if someone attempts to enter the office without a pass (typically by tailgaiting).

Procedures tell staff how to implement policy but not at the lowest level of detail, which is the domain of SOPs.


Legislative, regulatory and compliance edicts are the basis of policy documents. Policy doesn't tell you how or why it just says what is to be done, often at a very high level. Policy statements, particularly if they are derrived from legislation can be quite obtuse to the casual reader, whilst compliance based policy is often more easily understood.

Training Documentation

Training documentation has a close relationship to Procedures and SOPs. Often, the training material has been created by a team who have looked at the procedures and then after evaluating the baseline understanding of the intended audience determined what needs to be explained and what can be glossed over. If there is some kind of competency test or evaluation to follow then the training material must align exactly with the procedures and SOPs.

Share this article: Email
Discovery Media