Dear Gemba Coach,
We’re often told that “there can be no kaizen without standards.” But when do you start when there are no standards? How do you standardize? And how about “just do it” kaizen?
This is an intriguing question, thank you. I’d say that the first point to clarify is that having standards doesn’t mean standardizing: it is NOT about everyone doing the same thing everywhere. In other words standards and standardizing are two different concepts and it’s easy to see how one can be mistaken for the other. Yet, where standards are key to lean thinking, misinterpreting “there can be no kaizen without standards” by saying “lean is about standardizing everything” is common – and self-defeating.
Obsession with standardization-as-uniformization is a reflection of modern management’s deployment mindset. In a Taylorist world, “best practice” must be replicated everywhere quickly in order to improve the organization as a whole. This mindset makes several assumptions—that (1) local context is the same everywhere and (2) it won’t ever change. Yet clearly, renting cars at the Aix-En-Provence office is not the same thing as renting cars in the Cincinnati downtown agency, and, for that matter the Aix-En-Provence high-speed train station has different issues than the Aix-En-Provence downtown desk: context is local. Sure, the paperwork is the same, but customer usage and requirements will differ significantly. All customers assume that you can provide them with a car and get them to sign the contract. Their satisfaction (or, more likely, dissatisfaction) rests in the specifics.
Lean reflects scientific thinking applied to business situations. Lean thinking is about exploration rather than deployment. The lean question is how to provide muda-free service in context, and in changing situations. Sure there are standards, but these are not one size fits all apply in all cases “standards.” We’re looking for something else.
Taiichi Ohno’s core intuition was that our thinking generates a layer of waste on top of the unavoidable cost of doing anything. For instance, the idea that we can overload a machine without maintenance (demand is such that we run weekends and don’t have any time to stop the machine) generates the waste of having a breakdown with all of its consequences. The idea that we can build up a huge stock of products in advance, in order to reduce the cost of changing production, generates the extra cost of carrying unneeded inventory, while falling short of the parts we need right now. Finally, the idea that we need to optimize the efficiency of the process out of its context generates many useless activities such as walking, checking, correcting, moving and so on.
Lean thinking is essentially an empirical method to discover this extra layer of cost we add on to our operations because of our wrong-headed ideas (what Ohno called our misconceptions). To discover this layer of waste, we practice kaizen: in trying to improve performance, we will hit upon waste in the process, it’s unavoidable. But what about standards?
Lean practitioners have been exploring how the wrong method generates waste for over half a century now so, like in any scientific field, ideas can be classed as:
- Things you know: this is certain, it’s verified every time and don’t bother looking for an alternative, there isn’t one. Such certainty is rare, but it exists: one piece flow is more effective than batching (every time you try, it works), not passing on bad parts to the next process is the way to guarantee quality at the customer (every time you try it, it works), operators have lots to say about their work and are more engaged when they’ve improved their own workstation (every time you try it, it works). These are, well, standards. We don’t accept them because we have to. We accept them because evidence shows that they’re always correct.
- Things you think: far more common, in many situations, we think we know, but if we’re honest, we’re not that sure. We know in some context, but maybe not in this one. The only way to figure it out is to try and kaizen, not so much to improve per se, but to know more. The main difference in lean thinking is that true lean experts know how to distinguish what they think (most cases) from what they know (rare instances).
- Things where you haven’t got a clue: most situations, most cases. Knowledge is horribly domain specific and knowing something in one case doesn’t make it true (in fit-to-fact fashion) in another, so careful exploration is warranted.
In this sense, “start with standards” means start with what you know. Then improve it (kaizen) to see how well you do know it in context. What this means is that when a standard exists, start by applying the standard. This is particularly true in engineering. There’s always a clever guy who figures out how to save a couple of dimes by not following the standard. But the standard is there because many equally clever guys had a lot of experience with this in the past. In shaving some cost by not following the standard, you’re very likely to unwittingly generate the muda the standard is about. So do yourself a favor: start with the standard. Look for cost saving ideas where there is no clear standard.
There are far fewer standards than situations. When in doubt, start with the standard where you have one, and apply your creativity to all other situations where the standard is unclear or inexistent. Standards are rare peaks of certainty on a few islands of “we think it’s this way but we’re not absolutely sure” in oceans of “we don’t have a clue.” So don’t start by challenging standards – there’s plenty more fruitful to explore.
What Toyota has routinized (or standardized?) is a method to seek out this knowledge in varying situations and contexts. The routines are rarely about applying a “way-to-do-this” in itself (except for the cases where there is a clear standard), which is silly since things change from context to context and time to time, but an unchanging routine about how to find out what is what – with varying degrees of complexity:
- 5S: by practicing organization, neatness, cleanliness, routine-izing cleanup activities and keeping that discipline, you will discover how things change over time and how to keep the environment in effective conditions;
- 4M: by analyzing the Manpower, Machine, Materials, Methods issues to explain problems, you will discover where and how standards are not respected and why?
- A3: by following the QC story you’ll go into greater detail in technical manners and learn more about the specifics of the situation, and whether standards should be established or not;
- 5 Why? By asking why five times you’ll explore the underlying conditions to events, beyond standards and surface problems
- Hansei: by practicing reflection/review, you’ll question your own understanding of strategy, policies and politics in an ever changing business context.
A standard is the best known local method to work with the least muda. This is what we know in a given situation. Which means that (1) the same standard may not apply in the next cell, but it’s a good place to start and (2) the same standard may not apply next week because something has changed, but it’s a good place to start. The way to figure out whether the standard applies or not is kaizen.
In the end, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, and accept once and for all that standards and kaizen are just two sides of the same coin, like the back and the palm of your hand, one goes with the other. Standards are the right place to start kaizen, and kaizen is the right way to establish standards. In any situation, just ask:
- You’re doing kaizen? Fine idea, but have you started by finding out what the standard is and implementing it?
- You’re applying the standard? Fine idea, but when have you last kaizened this area?
To answer your specific question of where do you start when there is no notion of standard, I’d take a page from Isao Kato and Art Smalley’s great workbook on Toyota kaizen methods. Go to the process and draw up a simple form with three columns listing:
- DETAILS of the current way of doing the job step-by-step
- NOTES, reminders, tolerances, distance, time, etc.
- IMPROVEMENT IDEAS: write them down, don’t trust to memory.
And see where that gets you. And yes, that’s a standard.