Make or break your ability to scale: A guide to efficient cannabis SOPs
January 10, 2023 By Hardeep Shoker
Here in Canada, and in many other cannabis industries around the world, standard operating procedures (SOPs) are required by government to be compliant.
SOPs are written documents that contain step-by-step instructions on how to complete a specific task in a standardized way that maintains consistency and quality results, regardless of who’s completing it.
You need to have your SOPs in place before licensing, and many cannabis producers will buy existing sets rather than starting from scratch. These typically include SOPs for quality, security, compliance, sanitation, and operations.
Purchasing SOPs is straightforward. Some consultants offer sets for around $10-20k, depending on the scale of your business. The challenging part, however, is tailoring the SOPs to seamlessly match your facility’s operations.
Even if you purchase a set, you’ll likely have to create or heavily customize your cultivation and processing SOPs, as these will depend on your internal processes. Knowing how to write a good cannabis SOP is therefore an essential skill to hone in on.
The importance of writing flexible SOPs
The quality of your SOPs can set you up for success or hold you back from scaling.
A unique challenge that cannabis producers face when it comes to writing operational SOPs (e.g., SOPs for cultivation or processing tasks) is allowing for flexibility.
If you’re a cannabis producer that grows multiple cultivars, you know that the requirements of the different cultivars vary. Constantly altering procedures can make maintaining and updating SOPs challenging. If they are flexible, you can avoid regularly updating them and prevent all the extra work caused by deviations, investigations and CAPAs.
Efficiencies through digital record-keeping
SOPs have associated forms and records that must be completed by an employee when executing a particular task or process. Surprisingly, even now many facilities complete these records on paper and store them in batch binders — but this can be risky.
Paper records are easily damaged, lost, are incomplete or have poor legibility, which could result in long and stressful audits/inspections.
Risks aside, filling out your records on paper really slows down your batch release process. It also means that tonnes of data that could be used for forecasting, batch analysis and creating more consistent, higher-quality cannabis products is essentially filed away.
Digital record-keeping can significantly speed up the time it takes to compile and release. Modern seed-to-sale or cannabis manufacturing software should include digital record-keeping and link your quality program to your inventory, giving you traceability and transparency across departments.
So, how do you write a killer SOP?
How to customize and update cannabis SOPs
As previously mentioned, most producers purchase their SOPs from a consultant. You then need to have a good understanding of how to customize and implement them based on your own procedures.
Step 1: Writing and updating SOPs
For best results, SOPs need to be updated or customized by a subject matter expert. If you want a cultivation SOP detailing how to prune plants, the master grower or someone who works in the cultivation department should write it.
When writing the SOP, you need to be specific as possible and not leave anything up to interpretation. Theoretically, someone should be able to follow the SOP without anyone physically showing them — assume they know nothing and have never done this task before.
For example, think about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What sort of assumptions could you make if you were writing instructions for how to make one? You might forget instructions like “get the SMOOTH peanut butter from the kitchen cupboard,” or you might assume they know to use a butter knife and not a steak knife. You might miss a critical step in your SOP if you make assumptions. This is why specific SOPs are important.
Another way to make the instructions specific and easier to follow is by adding pictures along with the instructions (think Ikea furniture).
Step 2: Reviewing SOPs
Once you’ve written or updated your SOP, you’ll need a reviewer. Technically, the SOP only needs an author, a reviewer and an approver. But ideally, it should have two reviews.
The first reviewer should also be a subject matter expert manager (cultivation or operations manager, for example), someone familiar with the process and can verify that the instructions are correct. The second reviewer should be someone from the quality department to ensure that the process is still compliant and meets good production practices (GPP) or other standards such as GMP.
Step 3: Approving SOPs
Finally, you’re ready for approval. The head of QA does this. In Canada, for example, this would be the quality assurance person (QAP). The QAP must approve all SOPs before implementation in the facility.
Step 4: Training and implementing SOPs
What does SOP implementation mean? It means that you can use it in production. But before that happens, the employees following this SOP must be trained and demonstrate competency. Training can be conducted one-on-one or in a group training for efficiency. Teams should have a learning management system to help them keep track of what SOPs and policies they’re trained on (there is also an SOP for that).
And that’s it! A simple guide to efficient cannabis SOPs.
Hardeep Shoker is the chief product officer of Elevated Signals
Elevated Signals provides cannabis producers with GMP-validated, user-friendly manufacturing software that combines inventory reporting, quality record-keeping and environmental data into a single platform. Its software helps users spend less time battling paper, spreadsheets, and legacy seed-to-sale software by giving them visibility of their entire cannabis manufacturing process.
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