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What is the difference between standard work and procedures?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

What is the difference between standard work and procedures?

(During The Way to Lean, a free webinar on the “lean trilogy” approach to deeply understanding and applying kaizen daily, we received the above question plus dozens more that we didn't answer before running out of time. Presenter Michael Ballé will answer them, including the response below, in the Gemba Coach column he writes for LEI. -Ed.)

Same – but different. This is one of these tricky areas where both things might look the same but their intent (and therefore use) is really different. Let’s see if we can untangle this.

Have you ever sat on an airplane next to an emergency exit? The flight attendant probably came to you to ask you whether you speak English and then:

  1. Place your belongings in the overhead compartment for take-off and landing.
  2. Read the safety brochure to familiarize yourself with the operation of the emergency door.
  3. In case of an emergency wait for airline staff’s direction and then turn lever one and lever two to open the door.
  4. Do NOT do so unless expressly directed by airline staff.
  5. Read the safety card again to see how the doors open.

Or something similar to that. If you’re anything like me at this point, you’re thinking that thankfully chances of having to open this door are ridiculously small because if you ever had to do it, you’d be in bad, bad trouble. The procedure is perfectly clear but not much use in a real situation.

To my mind, the main difference between a procedure and standard work is:

  • A procedure tells you what to do in a given situation.
  • Standard work tells you what you need to know to get the job done right first time.

Three Elements of Standard work

Procedures are written by experts. They assume that if you just would stop thinking about it and follow the procedure step by step, the right process will guarantee the right outcome. This is of course much better than no procedure at all, but not much help when you hit a snag.

What about standard work? In his book on The Toyota Production System, Ohno describes standard work as a special kind of procedure that lists three core elements which had been used by Toyota since before WWII in loom manufacturing:

  1. Cycle time
  2. work sequence
  3. Standard inventory

Ohno is assuming many things, such as the fact that all parts are assumed good and so on, but we can see that this differs from a procedure (as in “a series of actions conducted in a certain order or manner”) in important ways:

First, there’s a criteria for success: the work must be done correctly in a certain amount of time. This is very important because it states the difference between doing a good job or a bad job (rework, for instance, will lengthen the Cycle time and be revealed).

Second it focuses on work sequence, not actions or activities. This is not nitpicking on words, but very specific. “Open the door” is a high-level instruction typically found in a procedure, whereas “turn lever A from clockwise with left hand and then turn lever B counter-clockwise with right hand” would be closer to standard work. Standard work is about the work itself.

Third, standard work specifies what you need at hand to get the job done (and what you don’t need in the case of having more inventory than immediately needed), which looks to the conditions you need to be in in order to do the work properly.

Focusing on the Outcome

To look at standard work in a broader sense we need to place it back in the context of just-in-time and jidoka. In order to keep up with takt time, the work must take place within a target Cycle time and with minimum inventory, and in order to build in quality:

  • The necessary conditions to produce good quality must be known and controlled in the process
  • Clear judgment criteria must allow employees to make judgments about their own quality with confidence.

Standard work should cover:

  1. The job’s objectives from customers’ expectations perspective.
  2. The break-down into work elements, in manageable steps.
  3. The necessary conditions in terms of components, equipment, tools, capability and other inputs.
  4. Constant clarification of judgment criteria to make confident decisions about work completion (probably involving documentation and training by supervisor).
  5. On-going confirmation, instruction, and improvement.

Standard work goes beyond procedures in terms of focusing on the outcome of the job, the impact doing the job this way or that way has on safety, quality, cycle-time and lead-time and is expressed at a much greater level of detail about work, to the point where it touches the basic skills needed to carry out successfully the work at each step of the job.

Break the Standard

In practice, standard work starts where the procedure ends. Standard work is the result of the effort the supervisor puts into mastering the procedure (usually written by engineering or another expert department) and turning it into specific work habits to do the job right and on time confidently, every time. Beyond standard work, standardized work actually describes the very steps (eye movement, hand movement, feet movement) one can follow to do the job with the minimum waste.

The supervisor’s aim is to have eight hours of standardized work for every employee in her team. The team leader’s aim is to “break” the standard by suggesting with team members new, better ways of doing the job – and hence kaizen. Without standard work, it’s very difficult to see what to kaizen. Without kaizen, standard work soon falls into disuses and reverts to … procedure.

In the end, the difference lies in the intention of the procedure. Lean’s arrow is clear and simple: is management’s intent to make work easier for employees so they can succeed at their jobs and for customers? Or is it about bringing back control of what people do towards more management input and decisions? Are we getting closer to the final process of work and customer satisfaction? Or back to management meetings and action plans. Standard work’s main purpose is to turn procedures into actionable knowledge to make it easier for each employee to succeed for their customers and in their job.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
sidjoynson January 12, 2016



My first encounter with the application of Toyota’s concept of standard work was on a cell design workshop organised by Norman Bodek in 1991. The workshop was led by Yoshiki Iwata and Chihiro Nakao.

At first I saw it as the defined standard of activities to consistently achieve the required output. I was told at the time it should be seen as the presently best known way of doing the task.

I have learnt over the intervening years that it has a more fundamental role in TPS.

The standard work sheet defines;

The work sequence to follow. The Takt time. The number of operators required at that TT. The standard W.I.P required to enable the process to flow.

The more fundamental role of ‘standard work’ becomes obvious when we remember the basic goal of TPS is to give customers;

What they want, in the quantity they want, when they want it.

To do this we must control our activities in four specific areas; they are Q.C.D.D. ---

Quality. The customer’s requirement is Zero defects. With one piece flow and source inspection with Poke-Yoke devises at every process stage of the standard work cycle, this is guaranteed.---

Cost.  With one piece flow and labour and material numbers precisely defined, cost are reduced and accurately controlled at the point of occurrence.---

Delivery. Running our processes at Takt time guarantees we match the customer demand rate. One piece flow gives the ability to produce whatever batch size the customer requires.  ---

Delight.  We can now ‘Delight’ our customers by giving them;

Defect free products, delivered on time and in full. (0-D.O.T.I.F).

We talk about QA (quality assurance). But standard work also gives us CA (cost assurance) and DA (delivery assurance).                                                                                                                                      With these three in place we achieve our ultimate goal which is DA (assuring the Delight of our customers).

It is upon the second D that the survival of your organisation depends.

Q, C and D are the routine dimensions of customer Delight and are supported by standard work.

 But ‘Delight’ for our customers has three other dimensions; P, S and E. ---                                                                          

P - Product. The physical product you provide. (Q, C, D).---

S - Service.  The service you provide to support the product. (Sometimes service is the product).---

E - Experience. The physical and emotional experiences customers can enjoy in all their contact with your organisation. This must cover all the stages from finding, acquiring, using, maintaining and finally disposing of your product.

If the total experience of doing business with you is ‘Delightful’, it should ensure they will want to purchase the replacement from your company. .                                                                                          

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