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Five Missing Pieces in Your Standardized Work (Part 1 of 3)

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So, how is your standardized work (SW) implementation going?

Responses to that usually paint an ugly picture. Here’s what I frequently hear:

  • We just don’t have the discipline Toyota has to make SW work.
  • We put it in place but the people don’t follow it.
  • We have trouble transferring good SW from worksite to another.
  • We are good at determining the One Best Way, but people always insist on doing it their way.
  • People just don’t want to follow it. They like to do their own thing.
  • We put in an audit process, but the auditors don’t follow the audit process.

I like to say that the Toyota Way is a socio-technical system on steroids. A test for all our lean systems is the question of how well we integrate people with process (the social with the technical). Nowhere does that come together more than in the form of standardized work and kaizen.

By that I’m saying much more than just pointing out that our corporate lean initiatives should involve both Engineering and Human Resources departments, each initiating programs to elevate the technical and the social dimensions of work. I am talking about the way work design embodies both dimensions at the micro level at the same time. When a worker bolts in the seat belt in the factory or an office staffer processes a requisition in the office, the work will be driven by both the technical and social aspects of the job design.

Leaders, be warned: you cannot simply dictate this from on high. You are in trouble as soon as you find yourself chasing compliance in pursuit of standardized work. You are chasing your tail and you'll never catch it. Rather than controlling the details of compliance, examine why the worker is not or cannot follow the standardized work. Ask, "Why can't you follow the standardized work?" The answer to that question – asked not accusingly but in a spirit of pure inquiry – will invariably lead you to unexpected places, usually quite far from the employee.

I'm going to go through five neglected or misunderstood or forgotten aspects of standardized work. Then, we'll explore how to think about standardized work for non-standard work, things like service industries, knowledge workers, creative work, and management. Finally, I'll provide a kind of "outline" that might help as a guide for you to think about establishing standardized work in your organization, centered around these five neglected aspects of standardized work:

  1. Don't confuse standardized work with work standards
  2. Don't confuse standardization with commonization
  3. Don't try to impose standardized work without also providing a structured improvement process, a clearly defined, unambiguous means of making improvements (kaizen)
  4. Practice, practice, practice...
  5. Don't forget the critical role of the leader/manager

Five Neglected Aspects of Standardized work

1. Don't confuse standardized work with work standards

As a practical matter of getting started with standardized work, you have to first clarify your work standards. Never confuse work standards with standardized work. Other terminology often used for "work standards" include quality standards, specifications, engineering specifications, or quality specifications.

work standards are established during product and process development. They comprise the work that must be accomplished for the product to be produced in a way that successfully achieves the design intent of the product or service. Changes in the work standards requires review of the engineering design, so manufacturing companies usually have some kind of "Engineering Change Request" process in place (and, by the way, it's also a process that is often full of problems and waste and a good process to choose for one of your first efforts at business process kaizen). As part of standardized work, Toyota usually calls them out as “Quality Standards.”

Some examples include:

  • Assembly - apply xx pounds of torque
  • Processing - heat treat at xxx degrees for x hours
  • Healthcare - provide xx medication at xx dose
  • Coffee - xx seconds for an espresso shot
  • Journalism - a weekly column of xxx words

For each of the above, kaizen (improvement) is also possible, but through a different process than the typically incremental improvements of standardized work and a suggestion system.

Those are work standards.

Toyota-style standardized work for the front-line production operator is a matter of three basic elements: (1) timing, (2) sequence, and (3) a standard amount of stuff that is in process at any given time.

  1. Takt time and cycle time (TT vs. C/T) - In other words, timing - the timing demanded by the customer and the timing constraints of processing capability
  2. Sequence (including layout and man-machine combination with process capacity sheets and SW combination table) - In other words, determining the optimum sequence of producing the product or service – first do A then B then C
  3. S-WIP - In other words, the amount of in-process "stuff" that is required, no more, no less. That stuff may be material, parts, information.

With those standards established, the operator has the basic elements to make it possible (with training, practice, and support) to complete his or her work successfully. From there, he can easily learn to identify problems. And from there – with proper training and support – she can solve problems and make improvements. With the standardized work in place, now the operator can do PDCA.

Toyota's "Mr. Standardized work," Mr. Isao Kato, has hammered this point for many years: "Before you can begin with standardized work, you must clarify your work standards." Too often, this edict has fallen on deaf or not-ready-to-listen ears. This distinction is fully institutionalized in Toyota production operations, so Toyota operations people hardly even need to concern themselves with it. At your company, you will probably need to do a lot of detailed work to make the distinctions clear and you may need to add "required output" to the list for a fourth basic element.

2. Don't confuse standardization with commonization

Standardization means a given operation has established a standard practice, a routine that can be followed, a baseline of comparison for the human doing the work to use to discern normal from abnormal. With that baseline, a foundation for PDCA is established, making improvement possible.

Commonization, on the other hand, means simply that a given operation is done the same way everywhere. This is where concern with "best practice" and seeking "one best way" comes in. Toyota refers to it as yokoten. For example, an assembly job that entails bolting in a seat belt or the process for communicating a scheduling change in a dentist office – commonization is doing those jobs exactly the same in every location by every worker. (See my "Teachable Moment" column.)

Our aim with standardized work is the former, establishment of a baseline of operation from which improvement is possible. There are of course many occasions when commonization is also desirable. But, 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 that can then be observed for correctness, abnormalities easily identified, and improvements readily generated.

As a leader, if you can achieve this in all your operations, you should be very happy. Then, you may wish to also pursue commonization as needed. But, my wager is that once you have each worker engaged in pursuing improvements in his or her own SW, you will find your dissatisfaction that different workers may do similar jobs a little differently to be much less of a concern.

Many companies allow this concern to become an excuse to not turn their employees loose with kaizen, to not charge them with making suggestions to improve their own work. Such managers choose instead to worry about keeping track of and communicating "best practice."

My bet is that if you do unleash the creativity of your people, you will quickly stop worrying about the fact that worker A in plant B may perform the operation a little less efficiently than worker B in plant A.

3. Don't try to impose standardized work without also providing a structured improvement process, a clearly defined, unambiguous means of making improvements (kaizen)

You will have none or limited success with standardized work unless you also institute some kind of suggestion system, or process (whether or not labeled formally as a “suggestion system”) that gives individuals doing the standardized work a way to make suggestions in how to improve the work – AKA kaizen. The essence of kaizen comes down to the people who do the work making suggestions in how to improve it. In other words,

4. You can't do standardized work without kaizen

5. And you can’t do kaizen without standardized work

What is standardized work? What is kaizen?

They are two sides of the same coin - if you try to have one without the other, you will encounter one of two types of very serious problems. To explain and explore:

Standardized work without kaizen

  • Employee motivation is killed, human creativity wasted
  • Problems repeat, unidentified, unsolved, unabated
  • Employees don’t take initiative, improvement stops
  • Operations – like economies, like companies, like cultures, like species – either progress or decline.

<style="text-decoration: underline;">kaizen without standardized work

  • Chaotic change, the saw-tooth effect of progress and regress
  • Problems repeat, PDCA not followed, no root cause analysis
  • Progress impossible to identify, Improvement stops
  • kaizen – as an expression of the scientific method - requires a baseline of comparison.

Which brings us back again to the thesis I've been hammering in this space for months, that the technical/process side and the socio/people sides of the equation are equally important. Separate them and expect to find trouble.



That's the first column of three on Five Missing Pieces in Your Standardized work. Stay tuned.


John Shook
Senior Advisor
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Danie Vermeulen October 18, 2009
Hi John - thanks for another great thought-provoking post!
For me that the social side of work refers is a crucial ingredient and prerequisite for real continuous improvement (these days many refer to "buy-in").
You raise such an important point about possible confusion between standardized work, work standards and commonization.
We often come accross confused organisations who contribute to their own confusion by using confusing terminology ... like "Standard Operating Procedures"; guidelines; standards; user guides, reference guides, performance standards. Often they try to set and manage work standards and commonization by trying to capture it in different ways and end up contradicting themselves in these different documents - no wonder that they then struggle with standardized work.
Also a great reminder that Kaizen and Standardised work are two sides of the same coin.
I look forward to reading the next two parts!
Best regards
Danie Vermeulen
CEO Kaizen Institute New Zealand
John November 6, 2009
Thanks much for the thoughts, Danie, and apologies for the delay in replying to your post. I couldn't agree more that it can create huge problems when we blur these critical distinctions. Best wishes to you there in one of my favorite places. - john
Luis Guillermo Grasso August 2, 2012
How ever Mr. Shook always with a great point of view
helping to learners to undertand better Lean Mfg.

Do you apply time studies before do actual,proposal or future VSM?
I never saw in LEI material talk about time estudies to
more percise at the moment to prepare VSM's.

Tom Thompson August 4, 2012

A great article.  I particularly appreciate your points regarding the confusion of terms and the impact of this confusion in the work improvement process.

Regarding the basic elements of standardized work - I would have expected work content to be included as an element.  Perhaps it's implied as part of the sequence, but in my experience it is worth elaborating.  Specifically not only the sequence of steps, but how each step is to be done.  Again, in my experience this can be a significant source of variability - particularly in more complex operations.

Thanks again for a great article and for the opportunity to comment.
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