What is the purpose of instituting Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) or Process Operating Guidelines (POGs)? Simply stated, it is to ensure that manufacturing processes are operated within parameters known to produce consistent, quality products. Regardless of methods and equipment used, there will be procedures that will yield the best results for making a particular product; these need to be documented and used for future production. This documentation becomes the tool for process control in the baking industry.

Take a walk through the bakery aisle of your local supermarket as if you were a quality inspector. What do you see? You might find some lines of baked goods appearing on the shelf like soldiers in a row, demonstrating a tight range of quality for size, color, weight, package appearance and product coding.

Then there are other products whose quality attributes are inconsistent, varying widely in size, shape and color. The difference between these various products’ output is caused either by the absence of defined process guidelines or a process that has deviated outside of the guidelines without corrective action.

I suggest that if a process is capable of producing one loaf, bun or cake at a target specification, then all products made on that line should meet that same standard. If this is not achievable, the process must be examined to identify the source of the variation and, of course, correct it. This is the real importance of having standards — they require deviations to be identified and addressed. 

It is important to understand there are differences between these two approaches to process control. In fact, there are major distinctions that can — and will — affect the usefulness of these tools.

SOPs are established methods (procedures and set points) that are to be followed in controlling process variables. SOPs define the procedures (the steps and sequence) and the set points (weights, temperatures, speeds, etc.) that are to be followed in the setup, control and operation of the manufacturing process. Consider SOPs the “law” because the allowed deviation is typically very little.

While SOPs define specific actions to be taken and specific set points to be followed, POGs provide a framework to operate within. They are general statements and instructions that provide guidance in controlling process variables. Set points are not rigid; rather, they are ranges provided to the operator. Within these ranges, operators can adjust equipment to produce the desired end result.

Another distinction between the two approaches is that POGs inherently change with shifts in the process variables themselves. Why is this distinction so important? First, because it goes to the process control philosophy being employed by the baker — specifically, whether decisions are made top-down or bottom-up. Second, the ability to work within POGs requires a more skilled operator who has the ability to adjust the process in response to changing variables.

Certainly, the top-down approach requires SOPs to be put into place. The proper process parameters and set points are provided for the operator to follow. Some bakers go as far as pre-testing each batch of ingredients and performing test bakes to predetermine the set point changes when those ingredients are used. If the SOPs fail to produce the expected results, process experts are typically called for assistance. Many successful bakers employ this approach.

There are also bakers who believe that skilled operators and their supervisors are the ones in the best position to set and adjust process parameters in real time, responding to variability as they encounter it. With skilled personnel in place, the process can be effectively optimized. Only if the process cannot be controlled within the pre-established range is outside support required.

Once you have selected the right method for your bakery, the next step is to define the procedures and set points. Then, be the champion, the impetus, for implementation. Any weaknesses in your process and/or your people will quickly surface. This doesn’t mean the system isn’t working — rather the opposite. The system is identifying those variables in materials, equipment and people that require attention to achieve standard operation.

Lastly, SOPs and POGs do not replace the need for quality control standards. In fact, both systems depend on having quality standards in place and adhered to. Setting the process control is only the beginning.