Standard work (sometimes called “standardized work”) is a term that practitioners of a continuous improvement methodology such as Lean, Kaizen or Six Sigma have probably heard before. It is simply a detailed written description of the most efficient and effective way known to complete a particular process or task, safely, with the highest quality result.
The goal is to reduce variation and improve key performance indicators (KPIs) related to delivery, quality, and cost measures. It also makes it possible to predict how long a task will take, no matter which employee does it.
The approach is straightforward, but there are a surprising number of ways to mess it up. I blame some of that on the name.
Standard work is an accurate description of what it is, but I think the name gives some people the sense that the Standard never changes and that employees should blindly follow it without comment or complaint. Nothing could be further from the truth. Standard work is the baseline or “floor” for improvement, not the ceiling. Ignoring this notion leads to a bunch of big mistakes. Here are some of the worst ones.
1- Failing to engage the people who do the work in the development of the Standard
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2- Missing critical details
The Standard work is not a process overview. In order to be effective, it needs to break each step down into its smallest task. Only this level of granularity will eliminate variation. That said, the document should be kept simple and easy to understand. Include pictures, diagrams, and other artifacts when needed.
3- Hiding it
Standard work documentation should be readily available to the people who do the work in the place that they do it. It always makes sense to store a digital version of the standard work in your improvement management system. Depending on the type of work and the work space, paper copies may also be necessary.
4- Thinking about Standard work as a one-time event
We’ve seen people finish documenting standard work, then sigh and say they are glad to be done with that. But the truth is, Standard work is never “done.” It is a living process that needs to be frequently refined over time.
5- Neglecting updates to the Standard work
If a process change is made, the Standard work must be updated or it no longer lives up to its name. One undocumented change after another leads to process variation, distrust in the Standard, and operational inefficiency.
6- Missing or inadequate process for improvement
Once the Standard is deployed, the goal is to improve upon it. Yes, it is essential for workers to adhere to the Standard while it is in place, but they should have an easy way to contribute ideas for improvement. There should be a method (perhaps DMAIC or PDSA) to complete an improvement cycle against the current process and produce a new Standard work.
7- Ignoring the need for training
Workers need the opportunity to be trained on the standard work and the chance to ask questions. This is especially important when new workers join the team. In addition to the tasks they must perform, these workers should also be briefed on the purpose of Standard work and how they can (and are expected to) contribute to improvement.
8- Inadequate measurement
Because the goal of Standard work is continuous improvement, it is important to know exactly what improvement looks like. That requires measuring the results of Standard work in quantifiable metrics. They may be financial, safety, customer satisfaction, quality, or speed KPIs that you want to track over time. Each time a change is made to the standard work, comparative analysis will confirm that improvement has been achieved.
We’ve focused a lot on what can go wrong with Standard work, so I want to close this post with a note about what can go right. Standard work is a continuous improvement rock star because it provides the baseline for improvement while ensuring predictable, high-quality results in the present. It helps boost employee confidence and engagement because they know exactly what they are supposed to be doing now and are given the power to shape the next iteration. If leaders are able to avoid these common missteps, Standard work is a brilliantly simple technique for long-term success.