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Standard Operating Procedures and SMEs

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The oil industry has changed a great deal over the past decades. The prevailing attitudes and management’s posture toward the job are dramatically different from when I started in 1983. There is an aggressive focus, from top management down, on doing the work safely. I had the advantage of working on an oil-well pulling unit throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

There is a long tradition of on-the-job training in the oil field, and I can remember being taught how to do many tasks. Many of those tasks remain the same, but the way we categorize and convey the subject matter has changed. We saw the need to create job aids in the form of standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Starting in the 1990s, we gathered SOP teams together and brought them to our headquarters in Houston, Texas. We selected employees who were actually in the field supervising the work subject matter experts (SMEs). The United States Office of Personnel Management states that a subject matter expert is “a person with bona fide expert knowledge about what it takes to do a particular job. First level supervisors are normally good SMEs.” The supervisors we chose had come up through the ranks working as floor workers, derrick workers, and crew chiefs. As such, they had a firm grasp on what it took to do the job.

I remember the early days of being in SOP writing team sessions and later leading the sessions when I came to Houston myself to work in quality, health, safety, and environment. The subject matter experts, suddenly plucked from the field and sitting nervously in the boardroom, were not exactly sure what their transgression had been, how they were chosen, or why they were being insulted by being called “SMEs” behind their backs.

It was great to see the sessions begin and the participants identify the main job steps in sequences they knew by heart. Suddenly it was good to be a SME and we had hats made with the letters on them.


The sessions were lively, with everyone speaking from experience and furiously pasting sticky notes to the walls. Often, between all the participants, we would have hundreds of years of collective experience in the room. War stories supported assertions. Painful lessons learned were captured so that they wouldn’t have to be relearned by subsequent generations.

Producing the SOPs was a great benefit to the company. The technology has changed. The pencils and plastic dime store templates used to create flowcharts are gone. Today, in 2017, the formatting has changed but the job process steps haven’t. In those days we:

  • appointed a process champion
  • identified key job tasks
  • invited SMEs to a central location
  • provided them with the time and clerical resources to capture information
  • demonstrated what is meant by a “process flow”
  • turned them loose.

It is important to note that presentation methods have extended beyond simple SOPs. Ted Leibowitz, in his e-learning article “7 Benefits of Instructional Designers Working With Subject Matter Experts,” recognizes how instructional designers can assist SMEs in conveying any message more efficiently and effectively. I remember welcoming the assistance of design and clerical experts who had the time and expertise to turn the sticky notes into a finished and usable product.

Once the writing and formatting is done, the work is just beginning. It is essential to field test the SOP with the following steps:

  1. Have the SMEs return to their home bases.
  2. Introduce the SOP to field-level employees who are actually performing the work.
  3. Check it for accuracy and user friendliness.
  4. Update and modify the documents based on the field test.
  5. Make a controlled copy available on the company intranet or learning management system.

A great deal of time has passed since the early days of doing this. It is noteworthy that, in spite of mergers, acquisitions, and market fluctuations, many of those original SOP team members are still with the company decades later. Many of them have advanced into management positions because their detailed understanding of the work allows them to serve the workforce better. We must recognize that those SMEs will not be on the job forever. It is wise to capture the collective wisdom they represent and make it accessible in the form of SOPs. Even small companies have a vast amount of intellectual capital. They also have a responsibility to pass along that knowledge by acknowledging and supporting SMEs.

About the Author
James Kulis is the Senior Vice President, QHSE (Quality, Health, Safety and Environment) for a major oilfield services company. He has worked in the industry since 1983. He currently resides in Houston, Texas with his wife Merrillyn. Part of his duties as Senior Vice President include overseeing the company’s compliance training department as well as managing the company’s commercial driver training programs. He has been a CPLP since 2015 and looks forward to continuing in the profession for many years.   
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