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Standardization is a Countermeasure, Never the Goal

by Mark Graban
July 29, 2014

Standardization is a Countermeasure, Never the Goal

by Mark Graban
July 29, 2014 | Comments (21)

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.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  5s,  standardized work
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21 Comments | Post a Comment
Brenda Kenefick July 29, 2014
5 People AGREE with this comment
That is a great post! It reminds us that we need to focus on the purpose and not just implement tools - it is easy to get lots done when focussing on tools, but you may not accomplish much.
Lean is about thinking, and you are so right to ask people to think about the problem, get consensus on the problem before thinking about a solution. Moving to standardize without thinking disengages staff -tells them what to do - definetly not a goal of Lean

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Mark Graban July 29, 2014
3 People AGREE with this reply
Thanks for your comment, Brenda.

I agree with your summary that "moving to standardize without thinking disengages staff." That's what we want to avoid doing.

I once arrived at a hospital in England to start a project, back in 2008. They previously had a different Lean consultant who had jammed a Kaizen Event (with pre-determined solutions) down their throat.

One of the older employees sat in the back row of my orientation session / meeting with her arms crossed.

She proclaimed, "Lean is nothing but a pain in me bum!!!"

That's not what Lean is supposed to be at all, of course.

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Ralf Lippold July 29, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment

Thanks a lot Mark - your thoughts are right on. Definitely widely to be seen reality especially in manufacturing companies here in Germany. 

It seems like the standardization is the curing of the current economic pressures. Only thing is without (lean) thinkig about what could have raised them (problems) in the first place. 

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a major car OEM (1)/ plastic supplier (2)  and talking about the problems to be solved, the "standard" answer was:

"We have our standards, we only need someonen who implements them!"

Standard should be really the guideline to see the deviation from the "normal" process instead of being the goal of the improvement efforts. 

However, humans tend to value clearly seen action, that can be followed in a controled way much higher than intangible search for root causes. 

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Mark Graban July 29, 2014
Hi Ralf - It's great to "see" you here. 

Thanks for pointing out the difference between "a standard" and "standardized work."

Ohno, via Imai, said "without no standards, there can be no kaizen," not "without standardized work" and I think some people treat those two terms as synonyms when the "standard" is more of the specification or the guideline, not the details of how the work is done.

I've been taught that a "problem" is a measurable gap between a standard and our actual performance. Standardized work might be a countermeasure that closes that gap... or maybe not.

The idea that "we have a standard, and people need to just implement it" is old outdated Industrial Engineering mindsets, not Lean (and I say that as a degreed I.E.).

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Carrie Howarth July 29, 2014
5 People AGREE with this comment
I am printing this out and sharing it.

Many times I see standard work treated as the omni-solution without anyone stopping to question "why" something is happening, "why" standards are not being followed, or even if we're trying to solve an actual problem.  Standard work tends to get created just for standard work's sake and we end up with a multitude of documents that no one reads, follows, or understands the purpose of. 

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Mark Graban July 30, 2014
2 People AGREE with this reply
Thanks, Carrie. I think it's important to keep in mind that the reasons why should be embedded into the standardized work documents or job instructions. This was taught back in the 1940s as part of "Training Within Industry" and it's a pretty standard part of Lean and standardized work. Why is it a good standard? Because explaining "Reasons Why" helps employees understand and better perform their work and it helps prevent over-standardization, I think.

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Carrie Howarth August 05, 2014
Thanks, Mark and totally agree.  One of the risks of making standardization a goal and not following TWI is the tendency to skip over the whole problem statement part.  I've see "to create a standard process / work" listed as the purpose on so many of our standard work documents (just came across one today) and admit that I have fallen in that trap as well.  I think understanding what the purpose can't be is just as important as defining what it is to avoid falling into that trap.

Whenever someone requests a standard work for something now, the first question I ask them is "what are we trying to solve with this?" to make sure we have a purpose beyond standardization. 

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Keith Lodahl July 29, 2014
I think that standard work is critical to a stable process.  And if the work is done differently each time then there is no way to predict how it will turn out.  For that reason Kaizen is at least very hard without predictable work/predictable results. 

We have started to document all processes we change with clear, visually supported standard work with a known format and file saving structure that makes it available to all.  We are auditing to knowledge of the standard and adherance to the standards.  We are seeing here the same lesson I have seen in several other places:  we may slow down the fastest worker, but we greatly speed up most of the rest.  And we know what the output looks like.

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Mark Graban July 29, 2014
2 People AGREE with this reply
Hi Keith - Yeah, I'm not saying standardized work is never helpful. But, as you were saying... there has to be some benefit or reason to standardize a process... like better quality and more consistent flow.

Saying "we need to standardize our process to ensure better quality and improve flow" is far better than somebody just saying "we need to standardize because Lean tells us to."

And, I'd make sure the hypothesis was being tested... we've implemented a new process and then measured to confirm or disprove that quality and flow actually improved...

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Ganesh July 29, 2014
In TPS, Standardised Work is the basement for other principles and tools.
Often, Standardisation is regimented to the extent that the purpose is lost.
The level of detail is determined by factors like critical to quality and safety, how repetitive is it, etc.
Process confirmation or audit will reveal if the standardisation is adequate or excessive.
As always, ask the question - 'what value does it add?"

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Victoria Saenz de Ormijana July 30, 2014
Great post, I do completely agree with it. I think the question: what is the problem being solved it is a great question.

I'd like to add just one thing, it is hard to tell someone on the shop floor to respect the standards they have put in place, when the offices just beside are just a huge mess. I've seen this so many times.... 

Thanks for the article, a great one!!

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Mark Graban July 30, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
Victoria - thanks, you bring up an interesting scenario there.

I see a few ways that could play out...

1) The supervisor with that office/desk that's a huge mess chooses to follow 5S standards to set a good example.

2) It's a good opportunity to explain to the supervisor that they should set a good example (hoping they will make that choice)

3) Explain to the workforce more broadly that the point is not to be "nice and tidy" but rather to prevent problems and reduce waste

If an office is "a huge mess," it might be a productivity problem or a safety problem. But, reducing the "big mess" doesn't mean that you have to put tape around everything, I'd suggest.

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Marcelo Pinto July 30, 2014
Very helpful and interesting post Mark.
I think it is essential to first understand the problem and grasp the current condition. It prevents acting without the real focus on solving the problem.

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Andy Dobson July 31, 2014
Mark, accurate and too the point as usual.

I get tired of companies saying "we did lean, it didn't work" or "here is our Lean cell".  I also object when people confuse Lean with emaciated!

I have just run a 5S exercise at a manufacturing client's office and I was careful to say that 5S is NOT about placing tape around a stapler, a telephone, a banana etc..

We did however remove >250kg of paper, 8 cabinets of various sizes, 1 chair >50 Lever Arch and Box files, a load of old filing trays, 2 coffee makers and some horrible plastic plants!

We now have space and it is interesting to compare/contrast the work areas of the people who were not available on the day with those who were.

The area is markedly less cluttered and seems brighter, loads of poeple have said it needed doing!

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Mark Graban July 31, 2014
That's great, Andy. It sounds like there were a lot of benefits to what you did, which I think is key. Thanks for sharing your example.

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Kevin Erickson August 01, 2014
Some good points are made, but I must say that the key point regarding standardization is missed. Standards do not solve problems, nor do they create problems. Standars expose problems! That's why Ohno said their are no problems without standards; because we firefight everything, thus hiding the problem. I recently wrote a bit aboout this myself at the link below. Would love your feedback on my thoughts as well.

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Mark Graban August 02, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
You raise a good point Kevin -- when we have a standard, we can more easily detect a deviation. But, some standards are arguably unnecessary from a business perspective (such as a standard that says "no family photos on desks" or "stapler must be on the right hand side). I'd argue that not all standards are created equally nor are all standards necessary or helpful.

Steve Kane August 06, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
Great post, Mark.  An example in support of your point is the FAA's response to the investigation following the tragedy of 9/11/2001. 

On that morning the FAA ordered all flights over and heading to the US immediately grounded.  More than 5,000 flights landed at their first opportunity, regardless of location or destination. This was incredibly dangerous and a logistical nighmare.  However, it was done quicky and safely.  Not a single person was injured because of this emergency clearing of US airspace.

The FAA learned from this experience and thought to standardize a process to safely clear airspace in the event of similar events in the future.  They decided the best thing they could do was not create a policy or standard for such an event.  They realized the best course of action was to trust the people involved (air traffic controllers and pilots) to put first things first, use their best judgement and remain flexible.

Your post, Mark, is a good reminder to put the patient/customer/passenger first and to trust those charged with making that happen.

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Mark Graban August 17, 2014
Here is an article I wrote on standardized work in 2010 that shares a little more detail on my perspectives:


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Jerry Dykyj December 29, 2015

Hello Mark,

Excellent post, standardization just for the sake of "standardization" in itself isn't goal. I have seen standardization as a basis of a multigeneration plan, so it was a year one goal and part of a 5 year plan - taken out of context, that could appear to be the goal, when in reality it wasn't.

There certainly is a stigma around "standardization", which is why I personally prefer "best practice", and everything that goes into the establishment of best practices - teams sharing and implemeting best practices among themselves. Standardization has this top-down edict/mandate tone; everyone conform! Best practices is much more a collaborative method of sharing based on experience, and experts chosing what works best for them.

My "best practice" for implementing "standardization"! ;-)


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Jerry Dykyj December 29, 2015

N.B. - forgot to mention that the goal of "best practices" was always to optimize common processes, increase predicability, reuduce cost and variability among them. This was applied in several scenarios where companies grew through acquisition. National customers complaied that they felt they were deailing with "multiple companies" thus came the edict for "standardization" - there was the ends to the means...

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