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Why audit standard work? And what is the best approach?

Michael Ballé
1/1/2013
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Dear Gemba Coach,

Can you help me determine the best way to conduct audits of standard work (SW)? The Toyota Way Fieldbook describes a layered SW auditing system.  Team Leaders audit each of their five-member team members at least once per hour (40 audits/shift).  A group leader may audit one of these 5-member teams under their span of control at least once per hour (8 audits/shift).   The frequencies follow suit as you go up the organizational hierarchy.  What auditing frequency have you seen to be most effective?

To start with, I’m a bit uneasy about the term “audit” itself. Auditing means the structured evaluation of an activity (check is a looser term), and the question I’d have is: to what end? What is the problem you’re trying to solve?

Before getting into specifics (which I will), let’s explore a few questions about standard work itself. I’m assuming that you are keen to have standardized work implemented correctly, and so have concluded it needs to be checked frequently – no debate. Coincidentally, I was discussing with a Toyota senior exec who mentioned that his boss from Japan insists on six main points:

  1. Going to the Gemba to see problems, which also involves creating an atmosphere of calling things as they are and not hide issues.
  2. Establish standards if they’re not in place, as this is the starting point of kaizen.
  3. kaizen day after day, even the smallest things – which is very hard to keep going.
  4. The accumulating of kaizen creates the basis for larger changes in the year, which leads to innovation.
  5. Develop people: problem solving offers opportunity for people to think every day, and one shouldn’t give them the solution but guide them in deeper thinking.
  6. Encourage teamwork, which is far more effective than working alone.

These are great points because they question the intent behind every action: are we doing this or that for the right reasons? In a spirit of respect (in the Toyota sense)? What exactly are we seeking?

So let’s think ourselves back to the Gemba in a five-operator cell and ask ourselves the question of auditing standardized work with these six intentions in mind.

What Is the Purpose?

First, as I said, I’m uneasy with the term audit because, in our culture, it implicitly involves calling someone out. How do you feel when you are about to be audited at work? Do you feel relaxed and eager because finally someone is going to look at how you work and help you solve your problems? Or are you anxious and apprehensive because some know-nothing auditor is about to focus on unimportant details, miss the obvious, and blame you for not following procedure correctly, regardless of context? The whole point of going to the Gemba is to agree on problems in order to work together to resolve them. The difficulty here is that management should make people feel comfortable to disclose unfavorable information rather than conceal it. This kind of trust doesn’t come easily to human beings and it has to be fostered carefully – it takes long to nurture and can be destroyed with one wrong word.

What are you seeking in auditing how people work? This is the first question you must face – I know, I know, work isn’t like that and there’s always pressure to get things done rather than spend time questioning motives, but I’m afraid it really does condition every thing else. When you find an operator NOT respecting some standard or other – how do you plan to react? Do you intend to correct him or her and move on? Or do you want to find out why they’re not following the standard. Chances are, they have been taught, they want to follow the standard, but something stops them: maybe the equipment doesn’t behave as it’s supposed to? Maybe one specific movement is awkward or painful? Maybe both, such as a machine command slightly out of reach for a shorter person, which is then not pressed properly, and so on.

The purpose of checking standardized work is to check understanding of the standard and discover individual difficulties in order to resolve them through either individual training (to help the operator deal with the difficulty) and/or kaizen (to take the difficulty away).

Before we worry about auditing frequency, I’d start worrying about whether we know how to teach group leaders and team leaders how to correctly react to the problems they identify. Trust is a fragile thing, and the Taylorist tradition of just telling people to follow the procedure is strong in most shop floors. At this stage, I’d suggest that you step back from your question and reflect on what, exactly, you guys are planning to do and how do you intend to achieve it. If, as is often the case, the main concern is control of the work cycle to guarantee productivity, I’d argue for a rethink.

Where There’s a Will

The second point is establishing standards. Standardized work is very precise and specific to repetitive work in stabilized work cycles. In my experience, not that many operations have the right conditions in place and establishing standardized work is hard simply because work standards are not stabilized (the operator keeps being pulled away from the work cycle to do this or that). Stand 20 minutes in the “Ohno circle” and watch what is really going on (20 minutes is a good time: it’s long enough for people to start really looking as opposed to be skimming the process thinking about all their other worries).

In fact, in most non-automotive factories I’ve visited, basic operations standards (what operators need to do to make the product) are far from clear at the operator level. In other words, we have no firm place to start kaizen. For years I’ve made the mistake in assuming work standards should be in place before starting to work with operators, so some poor lean guy or manufacturing engineer got the job of clarifying all work standards – a difficult, lonely, and ultimately unrewarding job.

One day, by looking at the problem from the operator’s perspective in one plant, we realized that the issue was not the paper itself, but the collective will to follow standards. Each operator felt they knew best. We then established a “training” plan where group leaders would spend 20 minutes a day looking at one job with one operator and write the work standard together (sequence of steps, safety, key points, reasons for key points, etc.). One day, one person. As the plant started to do that, a library of work standards build up progressively and operators started comparing how they worked and discussing and exchanging practices.

At which point, the plant manager discovered that the number of opportunities for kaizen was exponential, which leads us into the third point you need to consider: what is your capability for kaizen? You’ll find that if you check processes with the intention of discovering problems, EVERY time you look at a work cycle, you WILL uncover a difficulty for the operator making it hard to follow work standards – and even surer the standardized work. In order to continue to build trust, you then must be ready to follow the third point of kaizening the little things, every day.

kaizen Capability

As this is not so easy because in most cases our capacity for kaizen is not infinite, you must think about it before setting a specific audit frequency. In other words, do you have the kaizen capability to conduct small improvements after EACH audit? The only way to keep this rhythm is to train team leaders to be autonomous in supporting kaizen, but, again, this is not a given and a challenge in its full right.

Which leads us to the fourth point: what is the larger change you’re trying to lead? One obvious one with a huge impact on work standards, for instance, is greater flexibility to accelerate flow. More frequent changeovers means more frequent switching from one work standard to the next, which entails more training and more checking.

The stone mason has a different outlook whether he believes he is cutting a stone, making a wall or building a cathedral. People will accept better the rigors of training and checking the detail of work standards if they understand the overall intent of the plant.

In the Toyota plant I previously mentioned, one challenge was to accelerate takt time changes in order to stick closer to difficult market conditions. Team members understood that, and the impact on changing standardized work accordingly, and so retraining, re-checking and doing more kaizen. Then, the plant prepared for a new model introduction, and again, the team members understood why all what had been done on work standards had to be done again. If you can’t share with your people your wider objectives by being on the shop floor and demonstrating personal interest in their progress, they won’t take kindly to work disruptions involved in the three previous points.

Because, point five, our aim is to develop people. Outside of Toyota, work standards are often felt as an additional constraint to getting the job done. People are more often than not abandoned with iffy equipment and unclear instructions and figure out by themselves how to make the parts and go through the day. Procedures are a necessary evil. The challenge is to get employees to want to do a good job, and consequently to want to adhere to standards because they themselves feel it’s the best way to succeed. This means people should (1) want to get it right and (2) trust that the existing standard is the way to get it right. problem solving is the key to spreading this understanding as in most cases, the most obvious reason the problem occurred in the first place is that some standard or other has not been respected.

I vividly remember failing to solve intractable quality problem on one part for Toyota at a supplier’s until one engineer arrived from Japan, got us to pull out all the technical documentation we had on the machine (a challenge in itself as the equipment had been there for years and the plant had changed hands at least twice since), and then, as we read through it line by line, ask us whether the ground was exactly plane (as it said in the documentation). He then got us to redo the ground and – lo! The machine started working without defects. He then asked us to figure out “why?” It was both instructive and embarrassing. Basically this guy had flown all the way from Japan to tell us to RTFM (read the ******* manual) and level the floor. It turns out he knew this was a classic problem with this kind of machine, and could have told us in a phone call. But he was making a more general point of teaching us to solve problems by first starting with standards. As a fledgling lean coach, I really took my lesson that way, and whenever I’m faced with a difficult technical problem I start by asking the team: where are your standards?

So let me return to your question, which reminds me: The Toyota Way Fieldbook: a classic! (If any of you have not read it yet, stop everything and read it now!) And a great source of inspiration. Constant checking is definitely an important part of lean practice, and every Toyota plant I’ve visited has its own system of “auditing.” I’ve asked Jeff Liker what exactly he had in mind and he told me that they were describing the system that was used for auditing at NUMMI during a year when one of their top priorities was group leader development.  NUMMI’s management had discovered weaknesses in the group leader role because of a lot of churn.

They set up a story board (kamishibai) that had instructions for a standard work day and a separate standardized work auditing board. The group leaders checked one process per day, actually per shift, since there were two shifts and two GLs.  The assistant manager the group leaders reported to in an area would go around and audit one job per day for each group leader--not necessarily what they audited, but one of the jobs they had audited recently.  If he found a discrepancy between his audit and theirs, he would have a coaching discussion about that. One job per hour does seem rather extreme.

You may have heard of “kamishibai” boards: visualizing the auditing activity by placing cards with audit questions on a board and establishing a schedule of audits, and so forth. Certainly, advanced plants will have the team leader check the standardized work of every person in the cell at least once a shift and audit more deeply one job per shift as well. However, we must bear in mind that whatever Toyota does is contingent to one plant, and one situation. Copying this or that Toyota practice without giving it some deeper thought usually leads to tears.

So let me answer the question with a question. What is the set frequency for your senior management to check the auditing system?  What is the big change your leaders are after? Have you collectively agreed on the mode of kaizen to support this change? Have they committed to checking the progress at the Gemba regularly? Auditing frequency should not be set because this or that Toyota plant did it like this at some point in its history. It should fit a management purpose and should be constantly checked and modified according to how well it helps you reach your goals. The answer to your question lies in following the full PDCA auditing corresponds to: what was the plan? Are we doing it? How often (and how) do we check? What are the conclusions we draw from this?

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Yury P. August 22, 2017

Good answer, enjoyed reading