Many of us, especially leaders who feel responsible for others’ learning and job performance (as we are human beings ourselves) think problems have to do with people.
Kate doesn’t have the right skills to perform job x and she isn’t getting enough support from Frank. Sally doesn’t work well with Frank, so project Y will never see the light of day. Tim doesn’t understand process Z well enough to perform his job and is easily discouraged, so what hope does Nancy have of being a good manager?
Even if it’s true that Kate needs more skills (or is in the wrong job), or that Tim has trouble understanding what Nancy’s trying to tell him, nine times out of 10, problems have to do with processes, not people… unless we’re talking about people’s capability for solving problems. Lean practitioners have found this to be true at organizations of all different stripes, which is why continuous improvement has become such a booming business. Good lean consultants help people design better problem-solving processes and improve their management systems in order to help people focus more attention on solving problems rather than blaming people.
With or without a lean coach though, it’s ultimately up to us to examine how we approach our work, collaborate with others, and contribute to our organization’s ability to solve problems. “Management standard work” is a dry term for a fairly powerful set of tools and principles that help us do exactly this. We can use management standard work, combined with lean leadership behaviors, not only to help us become better managers, but to guide the work and learning of the organization as a whole.
What is management standard work?
Most of us hear standard work and think of standard work documents outlining the steps required to perform a specific task. Take this idea and apply it to organizational strategy and management — often called leader — standard work becomes the activities leaders do day-in, day-out to build the problem-solving muscle of the organization.
Learning how to create and adhere to management standard work requires a clear understanding of where all team members add value in service of our organization’s purpose, vision, and values. When we are clear about these things, management standard work helps people stay on course by developing everyone’s capability for solving problems. It keeps people’s attention focused on the work that needs to be done rather than the problems we perceive to be having with each other.
Who is management standard work for and what does it look like in practice?
As a set of tools and principles, a new way of thinking about work, management standard work is for all leaders (not just managers), from frontline team leaders to CEOs. Visual management tools support management standard work, but they are not the same thing.
At the highest level, leaders use strategy deployment to determine organizational direction. They lead team members in periodic project reviews to see that creative activities and process improvement activities are working synergistically toward a common goal. Leaders take regular gemba walks to look for the existence of standard work and see if it’s working for individuals and the organization. Teams gather in daily reflection meetings, setting aside regular time for open communication and problem solving. Managers coach employees, guiding their learning path and teaching problem-solving skills, rather than conducting the typical performance review. And everyone learns through regular PDCA and reflection, which ensures project follow through and that the lean management system works as well as it can.
At the gemba level, when a team member identifies an abnormality or problem (an “andon”), he/she has a clear process for communicating that problem to the rest of the organization so that everyone is aware of the incapable processes that are holding the organization back. This too is part of management standard work.
“Our experience has shown—and this may be a bit counterintuitive—that the repetitive aspect of management standard work, rather than stifling creativity has actually led to more breakthrough objectives and breakthrough thinking. Constantly and critically looking at process allows creativity to emerge, resulting in new work and standards that out-perform the old.”
– Joe Murli
How do managers and organizations benefit from management standard work?
As leaders, we are constantly pulled in all different directions. It’s easy to focus on short-term objectives or fire fighting. When we leap to join the fire fight of the day, we distract ourselves from those activities that can really make a difference for our business. Management standard work helps us pay attention to what matters.
Management standard work also helps individuals and organizations get more creative. LEI faculty member Joe Murli describes it this way: “Our experience has shown—and this may be a bit counterintuitive—that the repetitive aspect of management standard work, rather than stifling creativity has actually led to more breakthrough objectives and breakthrough thinking. Constantly and critically looking at process allows creativity to emerge, resulting in new work and standards that out-perform the old.”
We asked you to tell us what benefits you’ve seen from management standard work. Ronny Valentin from Grammer, a company that manufactures components for car interiors, had this to say:
“We use management standard work to see non-standards and to focus [attention] on important actions. Our time is limited and we need to determine what is important and what is not. If a situation is going as planned (standard), we just move on and keep looking for non-standards … We also use ‘Leaders’ Standard Work’ to give managers a routine. This routine supports our efforts in problem-solving (PDCA)… Our managers are more able to concentrate on real issues now because most of their daily business is under control.”
Speaking to how management standard work creates a learning culture and inspires new learning behaviors, Scott Sterling of Rogers Corporation shared this:
“Management standard work helps people think. People take a position on what they think and why they do it. Once people turn off of ‘autopilot’, a whole new side opens up, a much lighter and happier side. When people attempt to problem-solve without a standard, there’s a lot of guessing. People use words like ‘maybe’, ‘ought-to’, and ‘perhaps’. When people practice problem-solving with standards and a structure in place, they say things like ‘here’s what I’ve observed’ and ‘these are the facts’. It’s a much more straightforward way of discussing work.”
Where to begin?
An organization without leader standard work still has purpose, vision, and values. In this way, all organizations have the building blocks for a management standard work program that works for them. If you are a manager or senior executive within an existing organization, gather a few colleagues and check out LEI’s course on management standard work. If you are a lean startup founder or change agent within an existing or new organization, we encourage you to discover how management standard work can help you and your organization learn and lead more effectively.