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The amount of detail included in SOPs may help a company stay compliant, says Susan J. Schniepp, Distinguished Fellow at Regulatory Compliance Associates, LLC.
Q. I am responsible for updating my company’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). My company has been cited several times in audits for not following them, and this situation has worsened since the onset of the pandemic. What advice do you have for me to make sure the SOPs are being followed for now and in the future?
A. You are not alone. Not following SOPs or not having adequate procedures in writing continues to be one of the top observations for the industry in 2019 (1). Companies usually use their SOP to show that they have control over their processes, thereby demonstrating compliance with regulatory expectations. The problem you are having with your SOPs seems to be an ongoing issue not necessarily related to the pandemic. It would seem this situation is exacerbated by the pandemic but not caused by the pandemic. My advice to you would be to take a holistic look at how you create, implement, and modify your SOPs.
There are four simple concepts to keep in mind for having compliant SOPs: Say what you do, do what you say, prove it, improve it. The ‘say what you do’ phrase equates to the written SOP that defines the steps taken to achieve compliance to a regulatory requirement. ‘Do what you say’ equates to following the SOP. ‘Prove it’ means that you need to collect and be able to present data that indicate you have followed the instructions in your SOP and have investigated any incidents where you have deviated from those instructions. Once you have mastered these concepts, you can begin to work on the ‘improve it’ concept by revising and updating your SOPs to reflect current practice and process improvements. These concepts are simple enough to follow, so the being cited by regulators for not following SOPs is disappointing.
Previously in this column, we have discussed the elements of an SOP (2). The problem you are having seems to be related to the SOP content. To address this particular problem, you need to be aware of some of the pitfalls companies encounter when writing SOPs. Writing an SOP with the correct amount of information in it—neither too restrictive nor too ambiguous—is not an easy task. It takes time and effort to create an SOP with the right balance of information (3).
The three most common pitfalls when writing an SOP are providing too much information, providing too little information, and providing unneeded specific information.
Providing too much information in an SOP results in a restrictive process that generates deviations. An example of too much information in an SOP would be listing the serial number for a piece of equipment. Should the piece of equipment need to be changed for any reason, the result is a deviation and an SOP that can’t be followed.
When listing equipment requirements in an SOP, you should describe the piece of equipment but not necessarily to the serial number. It would be best to provide a list of the equipment needed with a general description of its function and capability.
When an SOP provides too little information, it results in an out-of-control process that generates deviations. When there is lack of clarity, it allows for interpretation by the operator. There is the potential for each individual executing the process to interpret the instructions in their own unique way resulting in deviations that need to be investigated and the potential for the regulatory citation of insufficient SOPs. An example of providing too little information might be not specifying the specific order reagents need to be added to generate a reaction. If it is critical to add the reagents in a certain order, that information needs to be specified in the SOP.
SOPs that provide unneeded specific information are also problematic. An example of unneeded specific information might be how dates are recorded in a document. A company needs to be consistent in the way the date is recorded regarding the order of the day, month, and year but can be flexible regarding whether this information is separated by hyphens or slashes. There is no difference between DD/MM/YY and DD-MM-YY. Specifying hyphens versus slashes sets you up for insignificant deviations that wastes time and resources.
Other potential pitfalls to avoid are providing ambiguous information, restricting access to SOPs, allowing access to obsolete SOPs, having unnecessary SOPs describing operations that you don’t perform, and not providing clear instructions for recording data, which could lead to data integrity issues.
Writing an effective SOP and keeping it current is not an easy task.It requires time, effort, and cooperation with the users to achieve the correct balance that allows the process to be easily followed, specifies the correct data to be recorded, reflects the current operations, and can be improved as the process improves through continual improvement. Taking a critical look at the level and detail provided in your SOPs and right sizing the information contained to accurately reflect your operations will help in eliminating an audit observation of not following SOPs or having insufficient SOPs, and these steps may help improve your compliance position.
1. FDA, “Inspection Observations,” www.fda.gov/inspections-compliance-enforcement-and-criminal-investigations/inspection-references/inspection-observations, accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
2. S. Schniepp, Pharmaceutical Technology 41 (12) 2017.
3. S. Schniepp, B. Matye, and J. Moldenhauer, SOPs Clear and Simple for Healthcare Manufacturers (DHI Publishing, LLC, 2018).
Susan J. Schniepp is Distinguished Fellow at Regulatory Compliance Associates, LLC.
Volume 44, Number 10
Pages: 74, 73
When referring to this article, please cite it as S. Schniepp, "Writing Effective SOPs," Pharmaceutical Technology 44 (10) 2020.