A Standard Operating Procedure or SOP refers to clearly written step-by step instructions on how to complete a particular job or procedure on the dairy farm. Typically there are SOPs for milking routine, calving, fresh cow monitoring, vaccinations and treatment of sick animals.

Unfortunately, like many oft-repeated actions that we consider automatic, there can be parts of the process that get forgotten or, over time, eliminated.  Needless to say, that has a direct effect on the quality of the procedure and the profitable outcomes being achieved on your dairy farm.  Also negatively adding to these results is the fact that there may be people trying to carry out the SOPs who do not have a background in farming or who have been newly assigned to the task, who find the instructions confusing, hard to understand or even impossible to carry out.  Unfortunately, this is happening 80 to 90 percent of the time.  In other words, the most frequent part of the repeated SOP actions is that they are not being done correctly.

SOPs must be ready for Hand Off.  Sign Off. And Check Off.

Are your SOPs in the barn office?  In a drawer?  Posted on the wall? Well, that might be too far from the action to be effective in making a difference to your dairy operation. A step up from merely knowing where the SOPs are kept is having them available on clipboards that are in each area being dealt with.  With SOPs in hands managers and workers can check off the steps when a SOP is completed, then sign-off and see that the paperwork gets to the office for the manager to review and act upon.

Could you make a SOP video?

One simple way to consider whether your SOP’s are correct is to try to make a video using the SOP instructions only. If you have to change, edit or ask someone, “How do you actually do this?” then you will quickly understand that not only are poorly developed SOPs costing you time but also money. Properly implemented SOPs help reduce variation in how a task is performed.  Dairy cattle thrive on consistency, and when tasks such as milking and feeding are performed correctly and consistently, cow performance is optimized.

Here are five of the top mistakes that dairies make time and time again in standard operating procedures (or SOP’s):

Mistake #1: Distributing SOPS that sit on a shelf or computer desktop.

SOPs should be dynamic and regularly reviewed. Even more important is that they should be printed in all necessary languages and posted where they are seen and used.  The language used should be the same language as that which is spoken in the dairy with the emphasis not so much on what you cannot do, but on what can be done. Forget corporate or legal talk and put the focus on helping staff understand what to do and how to do it correctly.  Implementation of SOPs can be particularly beneficial in milking routine and parlor operation, maternity (calving) management, treatment of sick animals and in fresh cow monitoring programs. It isn`t only health and diseases that need SOPs.  Staff needs to know what to do to respond to low feed intake or heat stressed animals as well.

Mistake #2:  Managers and employees are not included in writing the documents.

It is only logical that people are much more likely to accept and use a SOP that they have had a hand in developing. Being left out risks upsetting workers and producing a poorly written SOP. Furthermore, engaging staff in designing the SOP means that they will have a commitment to seeing the SOP put into practice. The most important benefit is that it is quite likely that they will have good suggestions and ideas. When included in a regular process of evaluation of SOPs, the entire team will benefit from more efficiency, cost effectiveness and quality production.

Mistake #3: Sharing the ‘How’ but forgetting to explain the ‘Why’

Many SOPs pass the ‘how’ test but not the ‘why’ test?  This means that company processes get repeated without people ever questioning why they need to do something.  Over time staff is taught processes that solve problems that no longer exist.  Decide what will be achieved through using SOPs and how those procedures fit in with goals targeted for dairy performance and health. Many benchmarks exist in the industry to help measure quality and efficiency in specific areas. People are much more likely to follow procedures exactly when they understand why they are important to profitability and to their paychecks too (especially if incentives are included). In addition, sharing “why” demonstrates that you care about the workers as part of the dairy team.

Mistake #4: SOPS written in a boring style with too much text

Educational researchers have found that 83% of human learning occurs visually.  We all know how easy it is to learn from a picture than a page of poorly written or complicated text.  Yet, probably less than 50% of the standard operating procedures use photos or diagrams.  (Read more: 5 Mistakes Companies make with their Standard Operating Procedures) Being able to reduce the number of cases of mastitis or pneumonia could pay for the setup of usable, well-written SOPs and any computer or paperwork system needed to keep them working well.

Mistake #5: Negative writing style

It is human nature to ignore negative words such as “don’t or “can’t” and instead hear the word after.  So if you say, “Don’t run” many will just hear run.  Rather than tell people what you don’t want them to do, say what you want.  So say “Walk slowly” instead. Often, standard operating procedures are full of negative language.  Too often SOPs are negative and even treat the reader as if they are already disobedient. If it is unclear, it will be ineffective.

Five Steps to Take Your Standard Operating Procedures from Bloopers to Super

  1. Get an outsider to read your standard operating procedures.  This is a great litmus test, as to how well a lay-person understands the information.  Often, when you’re an expert in your field you have “The Curse of Knowledge”.  This means the more you know in a certain field the harder it is to break the information down, so that a new person to the field can understand it.  Either you give more information than a person needs to understand or too little.  It also is valuable to tap the expertise of technical advisers such as the vet, nutritionist, or extension agent.  Finally — Give it your kids.  If it’s well written, a child should be able to understand it.
  2. Ask “Why?”
    Go through every procedure and ask why do we do that?  You’ll be surprised about how much redundant information you have that can be deleted.  Most people naturally want to do a good job and knowing why a procedure is necessary helps develop the worker’s job knowledge and enhances his or her ability to contribute to future procedure revisions and improvements. Make the purpose easy to understand so that everyone is committed to completing work procedures consistently and accurately.
  3. Go out and do the procedures according to the SOPs
    This is an excellent way to test if they’re still relevant and whether they make sense. Use this time to take clear photos that you can add into your documents. Standard operating procedures used in combination with planned training and regular performance feedback lead to an effective and motivated workforce. Ensuring that your standard operating procedures are correct is important for business safety and productivity.  Start improving your procedures now and ensure that all staff are doing the right procedure every time, everywhere.
  4. Provide Training. Training. And More Training.
    Train or retrain everyone as necessary to follow the procedure correctly. Even with very detailed steps, it is necessary to train all workers.  Otherwise, individuals will interpret the meaning of procedures in different ways, leading to inconsistency in work routines and performance. Everyone has to be accountable for their steps in the SOP.  Some dairies have both the manager (of each area) and the worker sign off on every SOP.  Then it is reviewed by the owner or dairy manager. Nothing is left to memory. The SOP isn`t designed to reward perfect memory. It is intended to create repeatable quality.
  5. Measure SOP Effectiveness
    Ultimately the proof of the success of a SOP is in the response of the cattle.  Effective parlor procedures can be measured by milk volume, milk quality and udder health. Calving procedures directly impact calf health. Whatever the procedure, there will be a corresponding animal improvement or escalating problem to be observed and measured.  For example, if you suddenly have a month where there are more than the usual number of calf mortalities, there is either slippage or an error in the SOP. It`s time to review and revise the SOP. Dairy herd performance is optimized when you successfully take each SOP from blooper to super!

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Using SOPs means that dairy managers and advisers benefit from consistent work performance and predictable results. Workers benefit from increased confidence and a sense of achievement. The goal is always to minimize the critical incidents. The SOP development process is an excellent way for managers, workers and technical advisers to cooperate for everyone’s benefit.  SOPs can mean the difference between success and failure by establishing a baseline for continuous improvement.



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