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Our technical guys are really resisting the idea of standard work. What should we do?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Our technical guys are really resisting the idea of standard work. They believe they each have their own way of working and don’t want to share. What should we do?

Have you considered they might be right? I recently encountered a similar situation in a center for refurbishment of transport equipment. Highly experienced and qualified operators resented any attempt by management to impose a “standard” way of working.

When management finally asked “why?” they realized that behind the first answer of “we each have our own way of working” was a more complex “we don’t trust any other way of working.” With any complex tasks, the people doing the work rely on their experience to feel confident about how to work, and are – legitimately – reluctant to consider other ways.

It’s not that they think the other way is wrong – it’s simply that they don’t know what they don’t know. They trust their way, and there are too many unknown aspects of doing it any other way.

Finally, the frontline management focused on one operation and two teams of two operators. Smartphone in hand, one operator would film his colleague doing the work several times, and then they’d switch. The question was NOT can we harmonize ways of working. The question was:

Why doesn’t the same person do the same work twice in the same way?

An Imposition

Surprisingly, by looking into the details they realized that many environmental factors varied as well as specific cues about the products being refurbished themselves. For instance, machines of different generations had not been assembled in the same way, so the sequence of tasks was different and so on.

After a while, they got to a point where each operator felt somewhat confident they did the same job in the same way (not the same amongst operators, but each person with their own standard). What came out in practice is that across the four people there were two clearly different ways of doing the same work.

Then, still without any intention to harmonize, they were asked to point out the various wastes their way of working produced, such as walking around to find tools, difficult hand positions, rework, and so on. This discussion led to quite naturally comparing the different approaches and, eventually, this group agreed that one sequence made a lot of sense.

The supervisor tried to impose this “standard” way of working to all other members of this team (20 people) … who rejected it.

Real Aim of Standards

This brings us to the crux of the matter: Yes, the lean aim is for the supervisor to give eight hours of standardized work to each team member. If he or she can’t do it, there’s little chance for meaningful kaizen. BUT standard work cannot be imposed – it’s about learning the details of operations, not deciding.

Management, in general, tried to make the unpredictable predictable. Managers love the idea of standards because they feel it will eliminate variation from one person to the next and reduce the chance of errors. This may be true, but that is not the purpose of standards.

The aim of a standard is to make each team member feel more confident about (1) the purpose of his or her work from the customer's point of view, (2) the sequence of tasks to carry out the work efficiently, (3) the detailed criteria to distinguish bad work from good work, (4) the work conditions needed to make good work and (5) confident in their ability to come up with kaizen ideas and suggestions.

In other terms, standard work’s main purpose is to understand the work much better. There are therefore two situations:

  1. A standard exists – and it make sense to ask people to first follow the standard before working  any other way, which means (1) knowing the standard exists, (2) understanding it, (3) mastering it, and (4) being able to show how and when it doesn’t apply if it doesn’t apply to a specific case.
  2. There is no standard – in which case there is no short cut to a careful (and long) exploration of work as it is which means that (1) each person will start by standardizing their own way of doing the work, (2) a few clear wastes will be indentified, and (3) people will compare how they do the work in the light of these wastes.

Standards only work to avoid errors and work efficiently if people own them – believe in them, master them – in short, trust them. This means that either everyone in this area already works with an existing standard, and a new person will quite naturally adapt to this way of working if being explained why they should and what is the rationale. Or they will trust the standard if none existed but have participated hands-on to its construction.

In any other circumstances, management can impose all the standards they like but if operators don't trust them, they simply won’t apply them. End of story.


Yes, we’re often in a rush to get to the ideal of “eight hours of standard work for each person,” but this is a case of taking one’s time in order to go fast. Until the operators themselves feel confident with the notion of standards, their ability to pushback will always trump, in the end, management’s ability to impose procedures.

As Toyota managers explain in this great Planet Lean interview: “One of our executive vice presidents at Toyota in Japan, Nimi-san, said that “it is up to production management to set the standard and up to the shop floor to break it.” People will find a better way. The key to that is then re-standardizing, re-training everybody and making sure the standard is being followed consistently, until we find the next improvement. It is not an explicit activity, and the company’s expectation is that we do this every day, that we improve all our processes every day. That’s what continuous improvement means.

Standards are tools to self-analyze how one works, not just to ensure error avoidance, but also to see which parts of the standard one masters more fully and which aspects need further work. This can never be done to people. It can only be achieved with people, one person at a time.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Carl Watt May 16, 2016

In my experience the  "what's in it for me?" for highly technical staff is first to start calling it "best practice".   This starts to get a personal pride in how they do the work.  Now it makes sense that there is one 'best'.  They choose which is best together.  Next, you make "document  more than X best practices during the year" a way to exceed expectations.  This can trigger behavior that later becomes part of the culture.

Norman Bodek May 20, 2016

 The ultimate goal is to make a masterpiece. This comes from a master.  We observe the master and try to replicate  exactly what he/she is doing.  Once we achieve this then we can improve. Are there different ways to make the masterpiece? Yes, of course, and we should show respect  for that possibility. Toyota like many companies have simplified work too much which required their form of rigidity to force people to follow standards.  But, we are coming into a new age where workers will once again become master craftsmen and be allowed to be more creative and less rigid at work.

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