Josh Howell - President, Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

A few weeks ago, during a day-long meeting with an executive management team, the topic of standardized work came up … again. It’s been popping up in conversations rather frequently of late.

The thing is that standardized work is one of the most foundational and powerful lean tools there is and is fundamental to lean thinking. Which is to say, it’s one of the most powerful learning frameworks there is when it comes to doing and improving value-creating work. When used effectively, it sets organizations up for sustainable improvement since it’s used to a) create the baseline for kaizen and b) develop people who can improve their own work. As fundamental as it is to lean thinking, I’ve found that it’s one of the most misunderstood tools in the “box.”

Standardized Work: What It Is and Isn’t

Furniture maker, Herman Miller, offers an excellent example of how to use standardized work correctly. In assembly, takt time synchronizes the work so that everyone and everything moves at the same pace, in rhythm. A precise number of parts for assembly are placed in a specific sequence, and the order of assembly is fixed and performed within takt. It should be noted that Herman Miller is a high-volume manufacturer, and has worked for years to stabilize the system within which standardized work can be achieved.

Regardless, the process was established after much observation locally: a record was made of the human and machine work elements and their timing relative to takt and the workstation layout was drawn including each piece of equipment, every tool, and the quantity and spatial requirements of every part. And then, using the resulting benchmark, regular improvements are made. This continuous cycle of resetting the benchmark and looking for more ways to improve on it is the purpose of standardized work. It enables changes to be made effectively and quickly, whenever the dynamic context demands.

Standardization vs. Commonization

Often, however, once standardized work, or something resembling it, is established in one area of a company, managers turn their attention toward transplanting it to other areas where jobs are considered similar, as well as to other facilities, rather than on improving it. This is often referred to as sharing “best practices.”

To ensure that the commonization of a process is achieved, an investment is made for centralized trainers to learn the new process. These individuals hold training sessions across the site or company to ensure all workers learn to perform the job in the one “correct” way. Then, to verify that the process is fully adopted, a new compliance system is established. Whether the commonization impacts dozens or thousands of jobs, adopting and sustaining the commonization of the process becomes its own objective, which is supported by its own management system.

When I was a member of a corporate “lean team” at Starbucks, I experienced first-hand the mindset underlying an extreme version of this approach. One executive who oversaw thousands of coffee shops once scolded me, saying, “You get paid to figure out where they should put the scissors! I get paid to make sure they keep ‘em there!” It’s worth noting that in my experience at Starbucks, this executive was an outlier.

Situational Influences

To the consternation of the aforementioned executive, my experience at Starbucks actually taught me how important localization is in creating standardized work, or what Starbucks calls Routines. The truth is how well a job is performed often is influenced as much if not more by the local environment than the process.

With brewed coffee, for instance, differences can be significant in how the work area is set up—the equipment may be different, the layout and location, even the counter height or length may vary. Whether the store is high-volume and staffed with six employees versus low-volume and staffed with two, all impact what the best process for that coffee shop will be. The point is while the role of barista has the same objective in all stores—including brewing and serving a perfect cup of coffee every time—the site-specific job conditions necessitate that for the process to be optimal, it must be somewhat different in each location.

Training all employees with seemingly similar jobs to do the work in the same way, and then measuring their adherence is not only ineffective, it can overtake the real objective of lean thinking, which is to create engaged problem solvers who can improve, directly and indirectly, an organization’s products/services and processes. In reality, this approach suggests the opposite objective; that workers are not expected to think and solve problems, but rather, to put and keep the scissors exactly where an executive or a trainer from far away said they should be kept.

Whether the goal is to brew the best coffee or build a quality car, problem solvers will figure out how to do the job better than workers who are controlled by compliance.

Thinking Lean Requires Acting Lean

Unfortunately, obsessing about commonization is often pursued in the name of lean. There is now a whole generation of workers experiencing something called “lean” that just isn’t. I believe this is one of our challenges as a community of lean thinkers today. When we step away from our foundational concepts, the effectiveness of lean thinking erodes.

I believe this is especially true when it comes to standardized work. Lean thinking teaches us that the value in standardized work is found through localization. So, instead of asking all employees to act in one way created far from the gemba, lean thinking challenges those who are closest to the work, closest to the customer, to discover the best-known way to do the job … here. And in the process, problem solvers who can more capably improve their own work are created.

 

Staying on Track


John Shook identified five aspects of standardizing that are often at the heart of misplaced intent in the interest of standardization. These include:

  1. Confusing standardized work with work standards,
  2. Mistaking standardization with commonization,
  3. Trying to impose standardized work without also providing structured improvement
  4. Not practicing,
  5. Discounting the critical role of the manager, or team leader, in establishing the right process of the circumstances.

For a deeper understanding of standardized work and its fundamental role in lean thinking, you can revisit a classic series of posts (Lean.org) on this topic written by John Shook. I also invite you to check out the JPW Fund (jpwfund.org) to learn how future leaders are discovering the power of locally created standardized work while in school, under the guidance of an experienced lean coach, by helping a local non-profit do good for the community. And finally, you can register for our next simulation-based workshop on standardized work here.(Lean.org)


Josh Howell
President, Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.
Boston, MA