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  • Writer's pictureStephan Busch

SOP’s Standard Operating Procedures - Limiting the ability to provide excellent service in hospital

“Standard operating procedures are most important for any aspect of hotel or restaurant operation.” This is a quote from a top manager that I heard not long ago and too often before. I just can’t agree. It is true though that Standard Operating Procedures are needed for safety, security, hygiene, and all technical aspects also in hotel business. But there it has to stop. If Standard Operating Procedures are applied to all aspects the result will never be more than just standard. Where is the “Human to Human” factor that get’s quoted so frequently? Humans are non - standard so to force them to do everything the same way will lead to an average standard. Not more!

The “Good Morning” from an enthusiastic, friendly receptionist was always different than the same “Good Morning” I got from the grumpy old Breakfast Headwaiter. I had once an office girl that always sounded nasty. Whatever she said. One of my owners told me one day: “I know I just heard her saying good morning to me but if you wouldn’t have confirmed it I would be still sure she just said something very nasty too me.” These are people. Some of them are better of in the office. We are here to manage them!

Whenever I mention this points I often get told that it is important to hire the right people first and those problems can’t occur. That is the point where I suggest that we go around the hotel of this person and see if they hired right. The walk around results in a few “ah, this one has his last week” and “ They are from the agency. Outsourced. Not much you can do” or “ That one? An exception. I live with that” I am sure all of us could come up with many more of this kind of explanations. I know because I have done it before – I am not better! We are all short on staff and we often hire because we need to hire. To press them all now into using Standard phrases doesn’t produce the result we intend when we advertised the “Human to Human” touch.

If I would have to use a Disney Standard Operating Procedure to greet guest I would fail already when judging the distance of their approach. So many feet distance you have to say this - closer to you, say that - and really close you need to shake hands in addition to the prescript words. I would be lost and mix it up. Scared I would have to shuffle the pages of the handbook for the section “hugging” which I personally hate. I like people and like to greet them the way I am which most properly comes over more honest.

We have Standard Operating Procedures because it makes it easier for the management of big companies to keep control of a certain standard. It doesn’t help them at all to provide what they promise when it comes to service of the non - technical side of hospitality. It just might help them to keep the standard.

Let’s look at one definition of SOP’s:

“A standard operating procedure, or SOP, is a set of step-by-step instructions compiled by an organization to help workers carry out routine operations. SOPs aim to achieve efficiency, quality output and uniformity of performance, while reducing miscommunication and failure to comply with industry regulations”

This definition explains why Standard Operating procedures are limiting hotel and restaurant staff to provide excellent service. They set standards that have to be followed and produce managers that ensure they are followed. Fine so far. But the word uniformity should ring some Alarm bells. Where is the praised local experience, the uniqueness of the hotel, the personal service when it is done everywhere the same?

A guest staying in a hotel will arrange his bathroom amenities they way it is most comfortable for him. The housekeeper will re arrange them when she cleans the room first time the way the SOP’s dictate. If not - the supervisor checking the room will notice right away that SOP’s are not followed. But maybe the guest puts them that way because that’s the way he likes it? One more sentence to think about is “failure to comply with industry regulations”. That’s what I mean with the technical, safety, security part. This needs SOP’s as much an Airline needs the pre flight check - lists.

I remember the story of a colleague from a five star branded hotel. In his international 5* star chain hotel a specific mineral water brand was to be used in the rooms. In his country the water was not always available and very expensive. The F&B Manager used common sense and sourced a local water that was of very good quality, presentable and for a much lower cost. When the new GM joined he of course proudly spotted this mistake and ordered to follow the SOP’s and brand specification. Of course this resulted in mineral water not being available and when available the cost where through the roof. Worse - the Guest had to suffer as service was cut. But the GM was probably praised by head office for spotting the shortfall in service according to the book. By now the company advertises local, unique products as an experience and maybe they have come back to the product that saved them a lot of cost and satisfied the guest?

The problem is that the SOP becomes more important than the guest and the staff. Of course with the high turnover it is easier to give step by step written instruction that are easy to check. But maybe it would be more beneficial to think about reducing the turnover than spending time to write detailed manuals?

Another sentences that raises questions from the same definition:

“compiled by an organization to help workers carry out routine operations.”

The reason for SOP’s is that the staff is not qualified. Otherwise routine operations would be exactly what the word says: “Routine!” How can you advance when the worker needs help to even carry out routine operations? Of course in big hotel and restaurant chains that is necessary as the staff is turning over too fast. The Managers are promoted too fast and need the fixed frame of SOP’s.

I was fortunate, lucky and I am still thankful to have worked in hotels that were top of the notch without written SOP’s. The standards were set by the Leaders, Directors, Chief Housekeeper, Maitr’d’s and Executive Chef and were so high that everybody realized that there is a goal ahead but it will take some effort and time to reach excellence. There was no limit, no ceiling. No standard to meet guest expectations – only the choice to exceed guest expectations. But we were shown by professionals how we might do it one day.

These standards were followed in front of us as an example. Coached, trained, explained and tested. It was an experience were employees learnt a lot and guest benefited. Especially in hotels the excellence comes from the combination of values, the ability to communicate with different persons, adjust to personalities and read guests. Of course it needed the routine techniques that everybody learnt first and had in his blood. Like a good dancer who doesn’t have to think of each step – the technique, the routine is in the legs and executed automatically. The dancer can focus on fine tuning and aligning to perfection to the music and the rhythm. The hotel employee can focus on the guests. This is an inspiring work place where people advance instead of just functioning. It is fun to work. Believe me – they still exist!

The following quote is from a recent article by the Corporate Rebels about highly profitable and successful companies that don’t bother with SOP’s:

Besides having a strong purpose, inspiring workplaces clearly define who they are, how they treat each other, where they stand for and what they are all about. However, they don’t bother capturing this in detailed standard operating procedures and protocols. Instead, they establish a clear set of core values that describe the organization’s way of working. The core values are essential for the organization and used by its people as a set of guiding principles. It seems a pragmatic choice because to fully be able to benefit from the collective intelligence of everyone, organizations should get rid of most of the rules, procedures and other bureaucratic instruments that slow down organizations. A clear set of core values provides employees with guidance to help them to use their best judgment. It provides employees with a framework to act in the right way with the right mindset, without the need of extensive bureaucracy” Quoted from: STOP FOCUSING ON PROFITS RIGHT NOW!! INSTEAD, BUILD A COMMUNITY ON PURPOSE

The problem in the hotel and restaurant industry today is again that we lowered guest expectations, lowered the educational standards of staff and management and only concentrated on the fast profit. We followed the banks, the insurances and the stock market. This is right for our owners - but not for us – we are hospitality! Now I normally hear that profits are important for a business otherwise there would be bancruptcy and no one would be employed anymore. Right again! Here is another result of a research that might answer this question:

“The strange thing about purpose-driven companies is that the most profitable companies are not the most profit-focused. Various research studies show that purpose-driven organizations outperform their competitors. In his book Firms of Endearment, Raj Sisodia concludes that purpose-led companies outperform the S&P 500 by 10 times between 1996 and 2011

Raj Sisodia, “Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose”

Today we have too many managers that need SOP’s as much as their staff. It can’t be satisfying for them but how should they know better? In many cases they became Job position 15 that has the corresponding job description number 15 and has to follow the SOP’s for job position number 15. Very inspiring! It is time to show again what excellence means.

SOP limits creativity, restricts shortcuts, weakens competition, and denies flexibility. Another quote that highlights the negative side of SOP’s:

“Some of the pitfalls of SOP’s mainly emanate from the fear that SOP limits creativity, restricts shortcuts, weakens competition, and denies flexibility. According to EBTE Consultants, the potential disadvantages include that the use of SOP can become more and more restrictive; reduce individual liberty and approach to work; and can become very time consuming; and create a complete controlled environment - ideal for bureaucratic management style.”

Is that what we intended? Is that what the top management and mission statement promises to guest and staff? If it is not – why do we still have Standard Operating Procedures for everything?

If we want to exceed guest expectations – “human to human” – “the experience” – personalized service” - “uniqueness” ,we have to move away from the bankers mindset and come back to think “hospitality” where common sense creates profits and satisfaction for guests, employees and owners.

Stephan Busch 2017 ,

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