Dear Gemba Coach,
Is there such a thing as leader standard work, and, if so, what is it?
This is a very frequent – and very odd question – and I have to confess not to be very sure how to address it. If we’re going into this topic, you will have to bear with me as we clarify terms:
- What do we mean by standard work? (I’ll assume here standard work is short for standardized work)
- What is a leader’s work?
Standard work is often interpreted as job instructions – and sometimes looks like it – but the thinking behind the two concepts are very different. Back in the days when all these ideas came together, Taiichi Ohno and the other engineers cobbling together the Toyota Production System had a few counterintuitive ideas in mind:
- Bean counters naturally think that it makes sense to produce in-house all high-volume parts to lower the direct cost per part and outsource low-volume parts to suppliers. But the lean guys thought they should do the opposite and produce the low-volume, high-variety parts and outsource the high-volume ones. The high unit cost of low-volume parts would put pressure on Toyota engineers for kaizen to find ways to reduce costs, while allowing suppliers to make the high-volume parts would also, in the end, provide a cost advantage.
- Low-volume parts naturally needed experienced craftsmen to make, but the same engineers thought that all parts should be done by regular operators to break the stranglehold expert craftsmen had on the shops, which slowed down the development of just-in-time production.
The First Step in Kaizen
Intent on working with regular workers to produce at low costs in a high-variety, low-volume mix, Toyota’s original lean thinkers came up with the idea of standard work (or standardized work): the written sequence of steps to do the job within takt time. Standard work was not thought of as job instructions – something everyone should know by heart – but as the first step of kaizen to progressively improve machining until any worker could achieve quality within takt time.
The sequence of steps was displayed everywhere for operators to compare how they made the parts to the standard, see problems, and work with the team to fix them. Standard work charts were never supposed to remain fixed, and, for instance, Ohno later recounted telling people they didn’t earn their pay if they left the standardized work unchanged for a whole month. Standard work was really about kaizen. You start by adopting a standard, any standard, and then tackle one improvement after the other by trial and error.
From this perspective, standard work is rather specific to production. Can it apply to leader’s work?
What Do Leaders Do?
What is a leaders’ work for that matter? John Kotter famously argued in a Harvard Business Review article about what leaders really do: “They don’t make plans; they don’t solve problems; they don’t even organize people. What leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it.” Management, he claims, is coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast is coping with change. In other words, leaders make choices where managers take decisions.
Hard to see how standard work can really apply to leadership then? But for argument’s sake, is there a sequence of steps that could help a leader compare how he or she makes choices to the ideal way to do so?
Oddly – there might be. In the lean tradition, Fujio Cho is often quoted as saying:
- Always think of the customer first
- Go and see first-hand
- Ask why five times
- Show respect
I recently witnessed a boardroom discussion where the issue was how to deal with a subcontractor that kept delivering subpar quality. Not surprisingly the talk went back and forth on the different ways to put pressure on the supplier to deliver better quality – penalties were discussed, going straight to the supplier CEO and complaining, or getting purchasing to replace them altogether and so on.
At some point, the leader stopped the discussion and decided to actually go and see first-hand. What he discovered completely floored him. Central purchasing had negotiated such a low fee that the subcontractor was not making any money and, therefore, not staffing enough people to do the job properly. Furthermore, quality penalties were already applied, making it even harder for the supplier to achieve the required quality. The supplier’s CEO had tried to raise the issue several times but purchasing would not let him talk to any one else in the company.
Sure, there were many things that could be done to improve: For starters, better training of the subcontractor employees, but this would take time away from production – the vicious circle continued. Furthermore, having been squeezed hard over the past couple of years, the supplier’s management was extremely suspicious of any overtures by operational management – they expected the client simply to look for new ways to screw them over. The first thing the leader had to do was to ease up on the quality penalties – although quality was still poor. The second was to have a political fight with purchasing over what was better for customers.
So did the lean standard work of think of customers first, go and see, ask why, show respect help? Actually, yes, it worked exactly as standardized work in machining. By having this standard in mind, the leader and his team saw the situation differently from their original discussion in the meeting room. By comparing how they were making their managerial choice to the lean leader standard, the team saw the gaps in its own approach and corrected them.
I understand that this is probably not what the people who’ve mentioned leader standard work had in mind, and indeed, one can be a bit more tool-focused:
- Always think of the customer first: What are the quality and delivery metrics to show this?
- Go and see first-hand: Check the visual management system to see better on the gemba (pull system, andon, production analysis boards, etc.)
- Ask Why? 5 times: Develop problem solving through A3, 4M and so on
- Show Respect: Show interest in teams’ 5S, kaizen efforts, individual suggestions, and help people with the obstacles they encounter.
Although “leader” and “standard work” seem not to blend easily, conducting the thought experiment is, in itself, very valuable and thought provoking! Certainly, in the previous gemba example, the leader’s standard work led the leadership team to change its approach to the supplier – and in doing so reinforced its leadership skill.
 Kotter, J. 2001, What Leaders Really Do, Harvard Business Review
 Turner, T. 2009, One Team On All Levels: Stories from Toyota Team Members, CRC Press