A Complete Guide to Cannabis Cultivation SOPs

  • Jul 15, 2020
  • Ella Alpina
  • Compliance , resources
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When it comes to commercial cannabis cultivation, consistency and compliance are crucial. Of course, quality control and your bottom line are also essential components of a successful cannabis business. So how do you balance and achieve all of these goals? 

A standard operating procedure (SOP) helps bring structure and consistency to your operation. 

Cultivation SOPs can help you oversee quality management, product consistency and the profitability you’re after. They can also support hiring, training and establishing retention processes in your cannabis business.

In this article, we’ll cover why cannabis SOPs are so crucial to a fine-tuned management system and why every department in your business can benefit from them.

Whether you’re just starting out in creating SOPs or you have a set of SOPs in place but want to improve them, we’ve created a free, downloadable SOP bundle consisting of an SOP template, a Propagation SOP and a Track and Trace Loss of Access SOP (courtesy of RMCC). 

Cannabis Cultivation SOPs

What are SOPs and Why are they important?

SOPs are the documented instructions cannabis companies follow to ensure processes are performed correctly and consistently every time. SOPs ensure a structured, quality control system that allows everyone in an organization to understand how to perform their work. 

SOPs work best as a step-by-step list of procedures that anyone can follow with a bit of training. 

Creating an SOP template and a set of SOPs might feel like a daunting task but the effort will ensure that your cannabis business keeps running smoothly as employees come and go, which will happen. 

Imagine starting a company, all of your ideas live in your head. Your tried and true methods. Your secret sauce. 

You need to document those processes so you can hire and train new people as you scale your business, or even take a vacation. 

SOPs ensure that important work will still be completed when you’re not there. And if you were to sell your cannabis industry business, well-crafted cannabis SOPs will deliver a business that runs efficiently and can be passed over to new management with no hiccups. 

Cannabis SOPs are especially important when employee turnover is high and product consistency is important to consumers and critical to medical patients. 

Training New Employees With SOPs

Training new employees goes hand in hand with well-written SOPs. In fact, they’re essential for the initial knowledge transfer when onboarding someone new. 

Cannabis SOPs, from routine tasks to complicated processes, give new hires access to resources and a management system that will help them get up to speed quicker and more efficiently. 

Time is money, so the more support new employees have to understand your company’s processes, the quicker they’ll be able to contribute to the team and company objectives.

Cannabis SOPs make employees’ jobs easier because they don’t have to guess how to perform their work. Clear-cut instructions that are easy to follow will ensure tasks are performed in a safe, consistent and efficient way. 

Employees will also never have to rack their brains to remember how to do something they were taught months or years ago. They can pull up a particular cannabis SOP to reference the required steps at any time without having to find someone to show them. Managers appreciate peace of mind when employees have ownership over their job duties.

What happens when your company doesn’t have clearly-defined cannabis cultivation SOPs in place? You run the risk of leaving your team uninformed and unprepared to handle challenges as they arise. Not a good idea if you want to retain your employees and keep the intellectual property and value in your company. 

Turnover is costly to a business and quite prevalent in the cannabis industry. Establishing a strong set of standard operating procedures that are well-maintained as your business evolves, will ensure success in your operations. 

Another benefit of cannabis SOPs is the ability to fairly evaluate employee performance. How can you perform quality control if you don’t have written standards in place? These documents make it easy to provide constructive feedback and quickly communicate the operational standards your company lives by.

SOPs for Scaling Cannabis Cultivation

If you have plans to expand your medical marijuana or recreational cultivation business, you’ll need to first ensure you have the established systems in place that will allow you to replicate what you’re doing well. 

Documented standard operating procedures and cannabis manufacturing best practices are an important part of scaling your cannabis business successfully. A strong cannabis SOP template can support the development of your company’s SOPs and ensure that quality assurance practices are upheld in the organization.

If you want to expand your cannabis cultivation business, you’ll want to have all of your cultivation processes documented to use as the blueprint for scaling.  

Cannabis Cultivation SOPs

A master grower can tell you a million different ways to grow and maintain healthy plants. A cultivation operations manual and its SOPs clarify the exact processes your cultivation facility follows. 

Each stage of growth calls for different processes, metrics, team members and resources. 

Cannabis companies have big sets of operating procedures that cover everything from security to cash handling. For cultivation operations in the cannabis industry, we recommend covering at least the following:

  • Substrate specifications for clones and plants 
  • Lights, their distance from plants, settings and schedule
  • Environmental conditions (humidity, temperature, CO2, etc)
  • Protocols for taking measurements at various stages of growth 
  • Procedures on how to care for plants in each growth phase, including propagation, transplanting, defoliation, pruning, training, super cropping, etc
  • Feeding instructions with nutrient schedules, flush guidelines and frequency
  • Preventative measures for pests, bacteria and fungi
  • Reactive measures for pest management, bacteria and fungi
  • Harvesting protocols that specify how to know when plants are ready, how to record plant weights properly and transfer them to processing
  • Waste management protocols
  • Cannabis inventory control and planning processes
  • Odor control efforts
  • ‘Seed to sale’ protocols to report compliance events to the state

How to Create Cannabis SOPs

If you’re new to writing SOPs, you might wonder where do I begin? Here’s a simple process to start creating cannabis SOPs for start ups.

List Out Your Processes

Create a list of all the processes you want to standardize. It might be helpful to begin from the initial planting or cloning activity and move your way up the growth phases into harvest, drying, packaging and sale. Seed to sale workflows can be complex. So be precise and detailed in your recording of the steps. 

You can also create SOPs by department if that makes more sense for your cannabis business. The propagation team could create their own set of SOPs, veg and flower managers could author cultivation SOPs, and the compliance team could create compliance SOPs for auditing, reporting and cannabis inventory control. 

Consult with the master grower and cultivation team to ensure all steps are recorded and quality management practices are clear. Cannabis cultivation consulting might also come in useful as an added outside resource to develop your policies and procedures.

Using a cannabis SOP template will bring consistency to the company’s documentation. You can approach this either way, just don’t let any important processes slip through the cracks!

Choose a Cannabis SOP Template

Before creating your SOPs, you’ll want to select a cannabis SOP template that will help you standardize the creation of your documents. There are many ways to present the information of your processes and procedures. Remember your audience and choose a format that’s straightforward and will be easily understood by your team.

We’ve created a basic cannabis SOP template for you to get started. Whether you have a set of SOPs you want to improve, or if you’re just getting started, download our cannabis SOP template here.

Involve Multiple Parties

Your business is not a ‘one man’ or ‘one woman’ show. The whole idea behind standard operating procedures is to be able to quickly share, teach, and train someone to perform a job the proper way. 

SOPs are communication tools. It’s best to develop the documents with input from the people who have been or will be performing the work. Include the master grower, compliance expert and cultivation employees in the drafting process to get their feedback and direction. From seed to sale, a team may be composed of many individuals whose feedback is equally important.

Document and Review

Once you’ve identified what processes need documenting, selected your cannabis SOP template, and activated the right people, it’s time to put pen to paper and document your standard operating procedures and good manufacturing practices (GMP). 

Include all the necessary details while being as concise as possible. Once complete, have your team review the standard operating procedures to identify any missing information or areas for improvement.

The Critical Factors of Great SOPs

The best SOPs are easily understood after reading them once. They should accurately reflect the process that ensures quality management and minimizes risk. When creating your cannabis SOPs, it’s important to consider the reader and how they will use the SOP to guide their work. 

Keep in mind the following three key factors as you develop your company’s SOPs. 

SOPs Should be Clear

When writing your cannabis SOPs, make sure to use words that are easily understood to eliminate potential confusion. Always choose simple words in place of technical or industry jargon. Define cultivation terms and use acronyms and abbreviations cautiously. The clearer your instructions, the less time it will take an employee to master their work.

SOPs Should be Concise

Compose your SOPs of short, direct sentences that only have one meaning. Simple, short directions that quickly communicate the process allow employees to easily memorize the steps.

SOPs Should be Accurate

Maintaining and updating your set of SOPs is one of the most neglected aspects of overseeing documentation. Keep your cannabis standard operating procedures current as company processes and procedures evolve. It’s critical to ensuring documentation matches the instructions given to employees. Effective training programs rely on accuracy and are critical to your bottom line. 

Different Types of SOPs

The Checklist

A checklist style SOP is a simple and straightforward way to create cultivation SOPs. They’re quick to write, simple to follow, and hard to misinterpret. 

For straightforward processes, the checklist style allows you to document your processes clearly and concisely. What’s often lacking, however, is a big scope for detail and any visuals or diagrams.

Photo/graphical

Photo/graphical SOPs are great for technical or manual processes that could be misinterpreted. They’re also great for visual learners who will benefit from pictures vs. loads of text. 

These types of SOPs are simple to follow, easily show lots of detail, and are good for documenting long processes. On the other hand, they take a little while to create and aren’t great for processes that require a lot of decision making along the way.

Flowchart

Flowcharts are a great way to present a complex workflow, like the seed to sale process, visually. A lengthy, complex process can benefit from a flowchart representation.  

Flowcharts are easy and logical to follow but will take more time and skill to create. Flowcharts don’t include a ton of detail either so you might consider attaching them to a written document to enhance a checklist style SOP. 

An example of a flowchart

Hybrid

If none of the above fit your needs perfectly, you can get creative and mix up it up. All of the above could be utilized in one SOP. Just don’t get too carried away! The key to remember is that your cannabis SOPs should be easy to follow. It’s all about clear, concise communication. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid when Creating SOPs

Bad Formatting & Too Much Text

No one likes to read a document that’s painful to look at.  We’ve all seen it. A block of text spanning the page with no spaces or paragraphs and tiny font. Who’s going to read that?

Break up your text with space, bullet points, photos and/or diagrams if appropriate. A picture is worth a thousand words.

All the ‘How to’ with none of the ‘Why’

It’s important to teach employees why they are doing something, now just how to do it. Purpose is important and facilitates a deeper understanding and adoption. Good manufacturing practices are not always obvious and common sense.

Empower your team by telling them why they need to do things in a certain way. That way, they’ll know if a process has become redundant when things change over time versus just doing things without considering their place in the process.

Negative Wording

Humans have a tendency to ignore negative words such as ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t’. Think of your immediate reaction to someone telling you “Don’t Look!”.  You instinctively want to look. 

Rather than telling your employees what not to do, compose your cannabis SOPs with positive language that tells them what they should do. 

A training manual of SOPs full of negative language will be off-putting for new hires. Your SOPs are a big part of training and onboarding new employees and if you want to retain them, this process should be as welcoming as it is efficient. 

How to improve existing SOPs

DEMO REQUEST

If you’re not starting from scratch and are looking for ways to improve existing cannabis SOPs, consider these ideas. 

Review with Subject Matter Experts

This is always a good place to start. Consulting with subject matter experts, like the master grower on your team or grow consulting groups in the cannabis industry will provide confirmation that the instructions and process documented in your SOPs are accurate and reflect the procedures that are followed. 

If you’re improving SOPs because of changes or proposed improvements to your processes, be sure to collaborate with the stakeholders who are influencing the changes. 

Run Through it Yourself

Not sure if you have an effective SOP on your hands? Put it in action! 

Perform the process outlined in the SOP and evaluate the following as you go:

  • How clear and concise is the document?
  • Is anything missing? 
  • Did you have to make independent decisions that weren’t mentioned in the document? 
  • Did you discover any steps that are now redundant? 
  • Are there any measurements or data recordings you’d like your employees to collect as they perform their duties? 

Take these findings and use them to update and improve your SOPs.

Ask ‘Why?’ 

Think about the purpose of the particular process. Is the objective of the procedure documented in the SOP? If not, add it. 

Remember, the Why is just as critical as the How. By identifying the reason why things are done in a certain way at the forefront of the process, you’ll ensure that employees understand the tasks’ place in the bigger picture of your operations plans and can identify when certain steps become redundant. 

Foster a culture where all employees are driven to uphold good manufacturing practices and systems.

Are my SOPs Current?

It’s easy to let SOPs slip out of date. For instance, if you automate a process that was once manual, you’ll need to modify the SOP to reflect the change. It’s important to always keep SOPs current so when you onboard new employees, they have accurate information on how to perform their job. 

Updating old SOPs may seem like a pain at the time but will make life much smoother in the long run. 

Keep Them Current 

Like everything in life, your processes will evolve over time. Perhaps you’ll discover a more efficient way to perform a task, or purchase some new equipment or software that will require you to adjust the steps in one or more processes. 

By nature, SOPs will evolve as your growing operation plan is refined and scales over time. Keeping quality control documentation for the medical marijuana or recreational business up to date will ensure your team operates efficiently and consistently produces quality cannabis. A current, detailed set of SOPs will keep daily operations streamlined.

Conclusion

Creating a complete set of SOPs is no easy feat. Some may be able to afford a cannabis industry consultant to work with their team to produce these essential documents. Many choose to take on the challenge themselves.

Working with all of the stakeholders on your team will ensure an accurate and detailed representation of organizational procedures and quality assurance guidelines.

 “Companies that invest in structured SOP implementation are rewarded with an average 24% increase in their profit margin. Forbes reports that with learning and development strategies in their organization,  operations realized a 41% reduction in absenteeism, and 59% less turnover. This translated into a 24% increase in profitability.” 

Debbi Spranza, Chief Learning Officer, RMCC

When creating your SOPs, consider our tips and guidelines above. And download our SOP bundle here to begin or to continue improving your existing documentation.


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