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Advice from the Gemba: Standardizing Work for Leaders with Varied Tasks

by Jean Cunningham, Karen Gaudet & Sammy Obara
May 12, 2017

Advice from the Gemba: Standardizing Work for Leaders with Varied Tasks

by Jean Cunningham, Karen Gaudet & Sammy Obara
May 12, 2017 | Comments (0)

Leader standard work is critical for creating a sustainable management system and lean culture. But this presents a challenge for some -- how do you standardize a leader's tasks when they do something different every day? Unexpected meetings, emergency trips and problem solving in the moment are just a few of the many, varied, and unpredictable tasks that leaders respond to every day. But this doesn't have to make things difficult. Three LEI faculty members weigh in:

Jean Cunningham (Founder, Jean Cunningham Consulting)

As in all things, you will learn what is best by taking action. Start small and see what is beneficial.

I would start by thinking about the work that I have committed to do for the team. That might be a weekly meeting, a quarterly feedback, comments on the metric board, etc. Next I would consider the work that I personally struggle to do at the level I would like to. Timely communication, gemba walk, spending time teaching/coaching, etc.

After each step do a personal PDCA….am I following the standard? What caused me to not follow the standard? Once I am following the standard, is it helping be with the outcomes I am desiring?

As in all things….run an experiment and then PDCA.  Take action again from your learning.

Go lean!

Karen Gaudet (Director of Education, Lean Enterprise Institute)

What is the role of the leader in support of the value-creating work for the customer? 

Having the answer to this question leads to understanding what should encompass the leader’s standard work (LSW). Why? Because any leader’s SW should consist of (or at least include) his or her work that creates value for the customer.

 Back before Starbucks’ lean transformation, knowing everything about the work in order to inform others and/or have the answers needed to firefight problems was LSW for field leaders.

 The old LSW system to follow went like this:

    1. Review reports
    2. Identify gap
    3. Call next level leader
    4. Tell them about the gap
    5. Tell them what action to take to close the sales or profit gap
      1. Sell more of _____________
      2. Do this “best practice” I heard about from California

This would then trickle down; the changes would be delivered via fast phone calls to the teams in all of the 100+ stores in my region. Within a day’s time, while the store managers, team leaders and baristas were busy taking care of the customers’ needs, they would “shoehorn in” the actions I had asked their leaders to take to firefight the number on a report. 

Fast-forward post-lean transformation: my primary role as leader became building my people’s capability. This LSW looked vastly different.

It began with the team leader, who was directly leading the value-creating work in the café (making beverages and serving pastry products). Their primary SW was to observe and coach the baristas, and also facilitate problem solving when issues came to the surface while serving customers. The problems originated from the SW of the production process.

My LSW post-transformation was to develop a management system that gave me regular, consistent time with the store-level field leaders observing the work and discovering the problems they needed my support to solve.

The fundamental difference from the pre-transformation LSW was that this began with knowing the value-creating work and defined the role of the leader as building the team’s problem-solving capability for when issues arose. We knew that the tasks to be standardized were the ones that directly impacted the problem-solving process; and by extension, the customer experience. 

My LSW after transformation was this:

  • Go See the work
  • Discover the plan and goals around the work
  • Observe the work of the key leading measures/team leader to present and discuss key problems to solve
  • Separately in a one-on-one huddle between myself and the store leader, present and discuss what their level of work would be around the key problems to solve and the impact on key measures
  •  Share within the organization what problems needed organizational support
  • Develop a management system that enabled all of the above

My SW, grounded in the same value-creating work, was now focused at a different level. Each leader within the organization was most focused on the capability of their own direct team member.

So how does the leader decide what tasks need to be standardized in their own work? The answer lies with those performing the value creating work for the customer.

Sammy Obara (President, Honsha Associates)

What I have seen is that the hierarchy is inversely proportional to the cyclicality of the work. Team leaders and supervisors have more “standardizable” work than presidents and officers.   

Still, even for the extreme top of the organization, there is a set of work that can be standardized to an extent. An example from Toyota could be the executive’s daily agenda, which would standardize certain blocks of time to devote to checking key performance indicators on the floor, to have follow up sessions with certain groups, to development and coaching of their associates, etc.

Although team leaders may have over 80 percent of their tasks standardized, executives may have less than 20 percent.

Want to Keep Learning?

Read Steady Work by Karen Gaudet, who managed 110 stores as a regional manager for Starbucks. She offers smart, practical business advice and a heartfelt personal story about how a continuous improvement system revitalized the retailer during the global financial crisis and helped employees in Newtown, CT, get through a national tragedy: https://www.lean.org/Bookstore/ProductDetails.cfm?SelectedProductId=436

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  leadership,  standardized work
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