These days, I often hear and read that many organizations’ goals for the year include "standardizing processes." Yes, standardizing processes can be beneficial, but the focus needs to be on the ends, not the means. Increased standardization should be viewed as a countermeasure, not a goal.
If there is a problem that can be solved by increasing standardization, great. But, keep in mind that "standardized" doesn't mean "do everything in a completely identical way." With apologies to the late Dr. Stephen Covey, we need to put first things first.
In most hospitals, patients can be harmed (or even die) when they get a central-line associated blood stream infection (or a CLABSI). Practice has shown that increasing the level of standardization – such as consistently using a five-step checklist – can dramatically reduce infection rates and deaths. That's a classic case where more standardization is helpful.
But notice, this checklist avoids veering into "over-standardization" territory. For example, no reasonable hospital would try to force all healthcare providers to use their left hand because that's "standard" (even if data were to show that infection rates were lower with left-handed doctors).
We must remember to focus our lean work first on the problem and then and only then, think about root causes and countermeasures. If somebody is suggests a solution ("We should implement checklists!"), you might call a time out and ask, "Do we really understand the problem first?". It's better to say "We should reduce CLABSIs" as a goal and then propose and test different countermeasures.
People sometimes push back on me and say, "Well, Lean says to standardize. Even Taiichi Ohno said where there is no standard, there can be no improvement." It was very likely Masaaki Imai who first formally published that (although he might have learned it while working directly with Ohno). Lean actually doesn't say to standardize – Lean says reduce waste, improve quality, solve problems.
If you look back to the now-classic book Lean Thinking, you'll notice that "standardize" is not one of the five core principles Womack presents. Improving flow across the value stream is one. That's a perfectly fine goal because better flow should pretty directly benefit the customer (faster, more predictable delivery and better quality). And this should lead to better long-term profits for the company, creating more job security for employees. It's a win/win/win.
A zeal for standard work, or standardization, as a solution sometimes causes more problems than it solves. I've blogged about a case study from England, where employees at HMRC (their IRS) were forced to standardize their desks via 5S and a "Lean Office" methodology. People had to put tape down to mark the location of items, like their stapler, on their desks. What problem did that solve? How exactly was it improving the business? Did it help customers? Did it help anyone do their job?
Have I ever been happy to see somebody put tape around a stapler? Of course. In a nurse's station, the central point of most inpatient hospital units, workspaces are shared by nurses, case managers, unit secretaries, and physicians. Shared staplers often go missing and that can create problems – people waste time searching for a stupid stapler instead of doing value-adding work and providing care. One nurse might snap at another in the midst of the stress, which hurts teamwork, which then might harm quality and patient safety. But just because it helps to put tape around a stapler in one particular situation doesn't mean that we have to put tape around every stapler in the world.
Why would HMRC (and some private companies like Kyocera) standardize office desks so they don't have any family photos on them? Is there a good reason for this? What problem are they solving? None. Are they trying to solve a productivity problem because Bubba is staring and daydreaming about his beloved Bettie Sue all day long instead of working? OK, there's probably nobody at HMRC named Bubba or Bettie Sue, but you probably get my point. Banning family photos, in the name of "standardization" seems more an exercise in exerting top-down authority than problem solving.
The irony in a wrong-headed, heavy-handed policy like this is that studies show that productivity goes up when employees are able to have family photos on their desks. It reminds them of their personal sense of purpose and obligations to their partners and loved ones.
If you're excited about standardized work and standardization, especially if you're new to Lean, please stop and think about the problem that's being solved and confirm that there is one before you move forward. If you're a manager and see workplace standards not being followed, don't get upset about the stapler or hammer or push broom being out of place. If anything, be upset about the risks to quality, safety, or flow that might result… (if that's indeed a problem that's caused by something being out of place or missing).
Oh, and instead of getting upset, try to react calmly, constructively, and collaboratively, asking questions that begin with "Why?" Asking why, like standardization, is a good way to respond to a problem.