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Standard Work Roundup

by Tom Ehrenfeld
June 8, 2016

Standard Work Roundup

by Tom Ehrenfeld
June 8, 2016 | Comments (4)

Several terrific articles that have appeared recently emphasize the importance and complexity of a key lean practice: standard (or standardized) work, which we’ll call SW. So we decided to bundle them into a broader roundup of key pieces about this key practice.

“Standardized work at Toyota is a framework for kaizen improvements,” says Taichi Ohno in chapter one of The Birth of Lean. Standards matter because they “make abnormalities immediately obvious so that corrective action can be taken.” As Art Byrne explains in a recent Ask Art piece, standards are a baseline for continuous improvement that represent the best known way of working; they are always about growing your people because “establishing standard work and then improving on it is a major part of creating a learning environment where every employee is contributing their ideas and learning new ways every day.”

Without standard work you simply cannot have kaizen, says John Shook in the first of three seminal columns. They are two sides of the same coin, he explains, elaborating that SW without kaizen kills motivation, causes problems to repeat, and stunts initiative; while kaizen without SW leads to chaotic change, lack of PDCA or root cause analysis, and confusion about tangible progress.

Like many key lean fundamentals, standard work exists at the junction of theory and practice, social and technical, tool and principle. Says Shook:

“I like to say that the Toyota Way is a social-technical system on steroids. A test for all our lean systems is the question of how well we integrate people with process (the social with the technical). Nowhere does this come together more than in the form of standardized work and kaizen.”

His second piece in this series shares an instructive personal story about working at Toyota that emphasizes the importance of team leader leadership in creating standard work. In this piece Shook also points out the value of extensive practice as a form of developing mastery through the evolution of standard work. And the third contains a great outline of what SW is, reminding us that SW owes a huge debt to the Training Within Industry program.

Like most core lean practices, SW calls for mastery that develops through rigorous, disciplined attention to detail. So it’s key to understand the basic elements of actually creating and using standard work. To get started there are many good resources, such as this Gemba Coach by Ballè noting the core elements (cycle time, work sequence, standard inventory) that are formally needed for SW. This popular Planet Lean article shares a wealth of advice on implementing SW, as does this insightful article from Rene Aernoudts. 

Beyond learning the lyrics one must always hear the music that animates SW; as many gemba veterans note, the key to making standards work is a mindful approach to applying them, as noted in this insightful Michael Balle column. “Standards only work to avoid errors and work efficiently if people own them—believe in them, master them—in short, trust them,” he writes, explaining that “standard work’s main purpose is to understand the work much better.” “The relationship between supervisor and worker is key to establishing standard work,” Balle also argues, saying that discovering how to create SW leads to better teams led by better leaders.

It’s important to note what SW is most emphatically NOT, which is a restrictive top-down barrier to learning and improvement. Rather, it is the foundation for what author Takahiro Fujimoto calls an evolutionary learning system. In The Evolution of a Manufacturing System at Toyota, he says:

“As shown in its kaizen activities and company rule systems, Toyota is a company that has highly standardized routine problem-solving processes and developed documentation systems (a kind of organizational memory storage). Although this may seem to contradict the notion of a dynamic capability, I would argue that standardization of regular problem-solving and systematic documentation of the results are essential components for retention of routines, and thus for a company’s internal evolutionary mechanism.” 

Unfortunately, SW is all too frequently the culprit when companies apply lean in precisely the wrong way. As Mark Graban’s excellent Lean Post points out, standardization is a countermeasure, never the goal. He and many others have have seen far too many companies that mindlessly “standardize” everything in the name of lean, in the process completely bureaucratizing a powerful practice and muddying the true intent of this method. Little wonder that so many scorn such practices as Taylorism. Yet as Fujimoto notes, empowering workers to take ownership in owning rigorous and specified work procedures is quite the opposite: “We should think of them not as a rejection of Taylorism but as the democratization of Taylor’s principles.”

This view of SW as a social/technical set of practices to engage people, form productive teams, and capture knowledge is why Ohno believed in standards as the basis for kaizen. His very first move when becoming manager of the machining shop at Toyota was to introduce standardized work:

“I told everyone that they weren’t earning their pay if they left the standardized work unchanged for a whole month. The idea was to let people know that they were responsible for making continual improvements in the work procedures and for incorporating those improvements in the standardized work.”

Finally, a great quote from Kaizen Express summing up the purpose of standardized work: “There is no ultimate solution in kaizen. Leaders should always try to respect their team members as humans, to design the work with them, and to continuously revise their standardized work through kaizen at their workplaces.”

Deeper Dive

For more on standard work…

This excellent roundup from Mark Graban cites terrific evidence from a wide range of examples and resources, and shares several key points:

  • It’s created by the people who do the work
  • It’s not always a detailed procedure
  • It’s not restrictive or limiting
  • It’s not permanent: 

“Even Henry Ford said almost 100 years ago that every process is experimental. Today’s standardized work is the basis for tomorrow’s kaizen (or continuous improvement). This is clearly taught by Toyota and it’s being taught in healthcare.”

Mark cites the use of checklists in healthcare and beyond as a powerful use of standards, and cites the work of Atul Gawande as evidence; one could do no better than reading his book The Checklist Manifesto, which highlights the power of standard work in health care, aviation, construction, and a wealth of other areas.

Also, props to Michel Baudin for a great overview of the existing material on SW, chock full of links to exhibits and videos, as well as a lengthy and fruitful LinkedIn discussion that he launched.

And finally, chapter 10 of Kiyoshi Suzaki’s The New Manufacturing Challenge shares one of the pithiest summaries of the why and how of standard work to be found anywhere. A great starting point!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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dan markovitz June 08, 2016
5 People AGREE with this comment

NFI Distributors, a 3PL in California, uses standard work extensively in customer service. They do a few things to keep it a living document, rather than a dusty piece of archival material:

1. It's written by the customer service staff, in their own language. (E.g., "Zoinks! The driver doesn't have the delivery information! Now what?")

2. It's mounted in clear plastic folders on the wall in the customer service area. 

3. When someone doesn't follow standard work, their colleagues assume that there's a problem with the SW document, not with the employee -- otherwise, the employee would have followed the instructions properly. 

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Tracey Richardson June 08, 2016
6 People AGREE with this comment

I had the unique opportunity to learn a process that is often necessary before we problem solve.   In problem solving its crucial to measure against a standard or expectation versus a current state. 

So one of the first lessons from my trainers was a process called SDCA.  Standardize - Do- Check - Act.  Meaning, how can we solve a problem without a standard first.   We dont want to make an assumption when we frame a problem.  So SDCA was a prereq to CI and problem solving.    As Taichii Ohno taught us - No standard no kaizen :).  

I thought it was interesting it was one of the first "thinking" processes we learned.   Standardize first!  

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Mark Donovan June 10, 2016

Thanks for this great collection of links to articles and resources for implementing standard work.  I have added many of these to the Standard Work section in our Learning Center.  

I am working hard on my own Leader Standard Work as I have been guilty of not practicing what I preach.  Not only am I getting more done but I'm finding that the leaders that I am coaching are adopting better practices faster as a result. 


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Tom Ehrenfeld June 13, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thank you to Dan, Tracey, and Mark for your comments! Agree fully that SW is foundational to lean practice. I just read a great piece by Michael Balle in which standard work is presented as the antidote to Taylorist bureacracy--great points on the dynamics of keeping SW current as the basis for learning and growth. http://leadwithlean.com/2016/06/kaizen-spirit-the-antidote-to-taylorist-bureaucratic-thinking/


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