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Five Missing Pieces in Your Standardized Work (Part 2 of 3)

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Last column we looked at the first three of my Five Missing Pieces in Your Standardized Work. Let's pick up where we left off, with Neglected Piece Number Four -- practice.

4. Practice, practice, practice…

For some reason, most of the time most of us come to see our day-to-day work as mundane. I guess it's because we do it every day.

But, is that necessary? Craftsmen do their work every day. Artists paint or sculpt every day. Athletes run or swim every day. Musicians play every day. But we choose to put our daily in a different, lesser, category. The focus that lean thinking puts on frontline work changes our attitude toward work. It elevates it, to higher level of visibility and importance. In my recent column about Starbucks, I suggested "…think of the best bartender or waiter/waitress you've ever seen. Remember marveling at how he or she could handle orders coming from all directions, without missing a beat."

Mastery of any skill requires diligent practice. When I was there, Toyota typically followed a sequence whereby workers would first master one job, then move to the preceding and following jobs, eventually mastering each job of the team. When I was at the Takaoka Plant, the process of learning each of the five or so jobs in a team took several years.

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell explains that there is great evidence to support the argument that mastery of any skill requires about 10,000 hours of practice. Musicians, athletes, craftsmen, artists, professionals of any discipline can all be observed as requiring this 10,000 hours hurdle. Gladwell provides several examples that reminded me of some of my own favorites:

  • Tiger Woods, working with a coach to re-build his swing from the ground up following his first Master's win, possibly the greatest victory ever in golf.
  • Michael Jordan may have been about the most talented player of all time, but every observer and Michael himself emphasizes that the real distinguishing factor was that he practiced harder than anyone else and was the most prepared.
  • Sonny Rollins, after (that would be AFTER) achieving stardom as one of the very top saxophone players in the jazz world, took three years off to take his playing to a new level. Practicing alone every day on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City, he blended his notes with the passing traffic so no one heard his new sound until he felt it was ready. His song and album "The Bridge" were instant classics.

There is a saying in Japanese, "Three years on a rock," meaning that it takes about three years to deeply learn any subject of substance.

  • When I was at Toyota, there was a saying that one could understand the basic concepts of TPS in three hours, learn to "explain" the basic concepts of TPS in three days, and be proficient in "actualizing the concepts" of TPS in three years.
  • In the engineering and R&D world of Toyota (quite independent from the rest of the company, with even its own separate Human Resource Development Department!), it was commonly stated that, "it takes 10 years to make an engineer."
  • For quick reference, Gladwell's 10,000 hours would ordinarily translate into about four years of essentially full-time effort, or longer if pursued at a more leisurely pace.

Of course, the specific numbers that Toyota (or Malcolm Gladwell) puts on these things is interesting but not exactly the point. The point is … what do you think?

What is the fundamental thinking regarding skill development that informs your organization’s approach, system, and methods of developing your people??

(Toyota's training, especially for employees who work on or around the front lines, is heavily informed by the Training Within Industry (TWI) program they learned from the U.S.A. following the Second World War. A little more on TWI in the next section, but if you don't know about TWI, learn it!)

5. Don't forget the critical role of the leader/manager

When I encounter managers struggling with getting standardized work firmly established, their questions and concerns always center around the worker, around how to get the worker to follow the standardized work. Usually, however, bigger problems are always found well before getting to the worker, often beginning with the role of the leader, especially the immediate front-line supervisor.

The front-line supervisor won't change his or her behavior from compliance officer to support for success unless (1) the new expectations are made clear, (2) the requisite training is provided, and - last but not least - (3) time allocation is provided. What that adds up to, of course, is standardized work for the supervisor.

My first encounter with SW was in January 1984 at Toyota's Takaoka Plant. I was fortunate to be provided the experience of six learning-packed weeks working production jobs in the each of the major auto processes: stamping - body welding - paint - final assembly (followed by time in the production control office learning kanban calculations, observing training, and learning other similar support operations). All my leader/mentors were outstanding, patiently (mostly patient) teaching me each job. It was in final assembly that I had my most intense experience with standardized work and the role of the team leader.

I was too tall for the job I was assigned on Toyota's Corolla assembly line. I’m six feet tall and Toyota's guidelines in Japan would ordinarily have placed me in other jobs rather than getting in and out of a Corolla 500 times a day. But, an exception was made in my case since I was to perform that particular job for only one week and the job was one that was being readied for trainees from NUMMI who would begin arriving a few months later.

In addition to being relatively tall, my legs are long for my height. So, I found it hard to do the job exactly as instructed, which was to enter and exit the vehicle in the highly specified proven, safe, and effective manner - butt first. So, I quickly found my workaround, which was to enter right leg first. Entering right-leg first was no problem in and of itself, but it meant that my legs would get stuck in an awkward position. It seemed okay to me, and was "easier" or preferable to me than doing it the prescribed way. (This all falls under the heading of "knack." When Toyota teaches standardized work, in addition to stipulating the sequence of work elements - as noted previously under the three elements of SW - the individual elements of work are taught using the TWI Job Instruction methodology in which many elements of the job require a certain "knack" to accomplish satisfactorily. People generally assume "knack" to be an individual thing, not to be specified. But, the TWI and SW approach stresses that "knack" can and should be standardized, and can therefore be improved.)

My team leader observed what I was doing. He watched for awhile, his brow steadily furrowed, and soon asked me why I couldn't do it as I had been instructed. I explained that it was easier for me to do it my way. He listened, unconvinced, and observed me awhile longer. He asked me to try it the "right" way again, explaining that he was fearful that I would hurt myself if I kept up with my improvised repetitive motion over and over day after day. Perhaps My Way seemed easier to me at the time, but the position I was maintaining to do the work would surely cause strain which would injure me over time. I complied with his instructions and tried again doing the job the standard way, but, sure enough found it very hard to perform the work that way. So, I explained that I would really have to go back to doing it My Way. He said, okay for now, again clearly unconvinced, with concern on his face, and again stood there observing me as I did the job.

Then, as I did the job and he observed, I began to feel his observation and my awkward work slowly attract a crowd. Before long, the group leader (my team leader's boss), some adjacent team leaders, and others I didn't know where all standing there, watching me work. I didn't have time to worry much about it. My takt time and cycle times were about 56 seconds (on average, vehicles would pass through that had different option content, so some would require well over 56 seconds, some less - the vehicles were arranged in a sequence - a heijunka sequence - that assured that two high-content vehicles never succeeded each other, there would always be a lower content vehicle that required less time in between) and I usually had no extra time to chat or divert my attention as I did my job.

Me at work

Then I noticed that the group of observers huddled, akin to an American football huddle, engaged in intense discussion. Then, as they broke their huddle, my team leader tapped me on the shoulder, instructed me to step aside, and took over my job. He and the others had come up with a NEW way to do the job, neither the original SW way nor my improvised method, which they all agreed was going to injure me if I kept it up. My team leader tried out the new procedure, as I now joined all the others in observing. When the New Method seemed to work to his and the others' satisfaction (many heads nodding approval, but still many furrowed brows as well - this was important stuff), he asked me what I thought. I gave his suggestion a try. Sure enough, the new procedure worked for me, and to the satisfaction of the impromptu task force. The other observers had included, I discovered later, a safety specialist.

So, safety comes first, and there are aspects to the design of successful work that don't necessarily appear on the various standardized work worksheets. Simply, the team leader (front line supervisor) must understand the work, deeply. Most importantly, first we are going to observe the work closely, ensure it for safety and effectiveness. Then, we'll work on efficiencies, improvements, and other problem solving. And, beginning to end, we are going to ... observe the work ... very ... closely.

More on leaders ...

I've been discussing here the key role of the front- line supervisor, but there is a role here for senior leadership as well. Too often, SW is viewed as one of those mundane things that are taken for granted. People assume that SW is working and if it isn't, well, people should just do their jobs better.

But, everyone has a role to play here. Engineering needs to design work that is easy to perform in a standard way, and easy to improve. Middle management needs to support the front-line supervisor so that he or she has the TIME available that is necessary to support the workers. When I worked at the Corolla plant in Toyota City, roughly half of the team leader's time was made available to help his team members when they got into trouble. And he had only five or so workers to support. So, here is where you should be asking yourself here, "Do we make that kind of support available to our workers ... ?" As I visit companies, it is very rare that I see this kind of commitment to support the frontline supervisor in supporting the worker.

Senior managers need to take the time to understand what SW really is and how it is nothing if not a mechanism to enable them to achieve their corporate objectives. At some point every high level objective comes down to a matter of how someone on the front lines performs his or her work. This is where, as the saying goes, the rubber meets the road. Until it's reflected in someone's standardized work, any corporate objective or initiative is just talk or words on a piece of paper.

So, we are going to take responsibility to ensure that the worker learns, is supported and given every opportunity to succeed in completing the standardized work EVERY time he or she performs the work. Providing that support is the role of the leader: Much less policing of compliance to enforce SW; much more support to enable success.

Standardizing non-standard work

Now that we've established a baseline understanding of basic, Toyota-style, standardized work for production workers, what about standardized work for non-standard work??

This topic is less a matter of a "here's how Toyota does it" and more of a question to explore together. I think of SW in three levels (this is similar but different to the Toyota view):

  1. Level 1 - repetitive production-type work
    This is what we've been exploring in this column
  2. Level 2 – supporting repetitive work
    I discussed this briefly in Neglected Aspect Number Five – the role of the leader
  3. Level 3 – knowledge-based or service or project-based work
    Even for those kinds of work, success is still a matter of
    • Timing
    • Sequence and content (including "knack")
    • How much "stuff" we need to complete the work
    • Output

    SW/kaizen versus creative or knowledge work
    Standardized work is ALL about PDCA, establishing conditions in which PDCA is possible, and then carrying out structured learning and improvement cycles. That is called science, the scientific method. Do we think science isn’t creative? Hah – perhaps it often isn’t, but it should be!

So what…

What shall we make of this discussion of standardized work? Two motivations drove me to write a bit extensively about standardized work. First, SW, that most basic of building blocks for any lean system, remains woefully misunderstood, misapplied and often disregarded. I think one reason for it being neglected relates to my second motivation.

I want to emphasize that well-designed standardized work will recognize all the social factors that go into producing good quality in a repeatable way. Poor design of the work could easily have led to the mistake by the worker and the subsequent quality failure. The work design must produce the required output, as defined by the technical requirements, the specifications, and as specified by the engineering design of the product. That comes first. But, the work design must also include the "human factors" considerations that make it possible to do the job the right way, and even difficult to do it the wrong way.

Which brings us back to the thesis that the technical/process side and the socio/people sides of the equation are equally important. At the end of the day, you can’t really separate them.

Look at your standardized work and structured improvement process (kaizen) - that is where you will find your culture!

Artifacts, Values, Attitude, Basic Assumptions


John Shook
Senior Advisor
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Welch October 22, 2009
John, I enjoyed your personal story in point #5 about getting in and out of the Corolla. It made your points very real - especially about safety, on-the-spot kaizen, teamwork, role of the manager, etc. I felt like I was there watching it all unfold. It's examples like this that make vicarious learning as powerful as it can be. It's why successful senseis tell stories. It's also why I'm looking forward to Steve Hoeft's book, "Stories from My Sensei." I was in one of Steve's training classes at the U. of Michigan last June and he teaches well with this method. I don't know if you have ever met or know Steve, but I learned a lot from him just in the two days he facilitated our group.

Overall, good learnings on standardized work in this posting. Thanks, John.
John Shook's Lean Management Column October 25, 2009
Thanks for the observations, Mark, and also for drawing attention to Steve Hoeft's new book, "Stories From My Sensei". You are right that Steve is an outstanding teacher. I just received my copy of the book and look forward to reading it. Speaking of new books and Standardized Work, it's also important to consider the connections between Standardized Work/Kaizen and the Japanese martial arts concept of "kata", explored in great detail in Mike Rother's great new book, "Toyota Kata". The connection also appears in MTL in the sidebar (page 32), "What's the Problem?". If we establish easily recognizable, repeatable patterns (SW, "kata") in our work, it becomes easy to learn, easy to see problems, and easy to make improvements. Or, more than "easy", it becomes natural. -john
Anonymous November 3, 2009
You've made some very good points that will help us with implementatin of standardized work at our factory. But I'm troubled by your distinction between commonization and standardized work. You state "...the real prize here is when we can get each person to follow his or her own SW so that every time they do the job they do it in the same way, establishing a baseline...". We are after a baseline of improvement, with a support structure for continuous improvement of that baseline. I can see where Starbucks would have a different standard for each site location, with different teams at that site developing their standards to suite their layouts and site specific differences... but we're currently pursuing a one best way as a baseline for our one unique site; we currently have each individuals doing a particular operation their own preferred method, and we're having the workers develop the one best way (again as a starting point for future kaizen). But we're not pursuing an approach where each individual develops their own standard - stemming from the belief that would then not be a standard for the system, and would develiver too much variation as a system. Did I miss interpret something? Please help.
- David Littlefield
Adam Lee July 9, 2018

"At some point, every high level objective comes down to a matter of how someone on the front lines performs his or her work...until it's reflected in someone's standardized work, any corporate objective or initiative is just talk or words on a piece of paper"

Thank you John, this is one of the most powerful statements I've ever read.   Very motivating.

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