When SOPs kill

Most companies and all Government agencies aid smooth and efficient management by using SOPs (standard operating procedures). Along the lines of: If this happens do that. This enables consistency of action and underpins high quality control.

SOPs can be great, can be life savers… But there are times when SOPs could kill your company.

Singapore’s National library is in the middle of a controversy fueled I think by perfectly good SOPs.

The library I think purchases well recommended books, and recently purchased three very well regarded children’s books- should be no problem, right?

These well regarded books unfortunately represent alternate family values. And some parents have complained that these books, found in the Young Reader’s section, may not have been appropriate. My point is not about the books, per se, and so now we move from books to SOPs.

I believe the National Library SOP for customer complaints would probably be something like ‘receive so many complaints about a book, bring to management notice’. Management then decided that these books should be “withdrawn”… Or the SOP is, receive X complaints, withdraw book. On reflection a bad decision or a poorly written SOP. But, decision made. I also think the SOP for “withdrawn books” is that all withdrawn books are to be destroyed. Typically only dirty defaced well thumbed books are withdrawn, so this is understandable. And SOP for withdrawn books is probably incineration, the most clean and effective disposal method- so SOP is fine.

Resulting Headline – “National library destroys books”. People think National library burns controversial books.

Almost all of these decisions have been made without thought. And individually each decision could have been a great decision, but the cumulative impact is a disaster. The typical defense in this situation is ” I followed SOP”. The result fir the Library is either a humiliating apology and back down from the Library head, or worse the Minister.

So, what’s my answer to the SOP dilemma? SOPs work until they don’t work. Clearly explain when an SOP automatically works. And when people should stop and think.

You know what, if I was the library, I would have simply have moved the books from the Young Reader’s section to the Adult section. Problem solved.


updated- 12 July… Minister confirms that the Process led the way