Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Debunking Six Common Misconceptions of Standardized Work

Last week I featured a guest post on standard work as a mechanism for facilitating and empowering improvement. By documenting the current best practice, standardized work forms the baseline for kaizen or continuous improvement. As the standard is improved, the new standard becomes the baseline for further improvements, and so on. Improving standardized work is a never-ending process. Standardized work is one of the most powerful but least used lean tools.

Unfortunately, there are many myths regarding standardized work that if followed create a flawed system. To prevent you from failing into this trap I will attempt to debunk several of these myths.

A common misconception is that ‘standardized’ is assumed to be permanent. This is not the case. It’s just the best way we know how to do the work today. Continuous improvement is always encouraged, once the current best method is understood and practiced in order to establish a stable foundation for further improvement.

Some think employees develop their own standardized work. The initial work standard should be developed by engineers (process owners) working with operators who are part of a team. Group leaders and team leaders then have responsibility for training employees on the standard work and soliciting their input. Once the process is operating at some level of stability, employees are challenged to develop better methods, but the methods are always reviewed by others, including management.

Another common myth about standardized work is that many think of a rigid work environment where workers aren’t required to think. This is totally the opposite as I said above. Operators are part of the creation of the work standard and then are challenged to improve these methods. The standard creates a baseline by which improvement can be measured. Ideas should be discussed with group leaders and considered depending upon the consensus and buy-in from other members and shifts. Once consensus is reached then experimentation can be done to determine the effectiveness of the improvement. If it is deemed an effective change then the standardized work can modified and everyone trained in the new method.

It is also believed that with standard work you will know everything about the job and therefore be able to train anyone to do the job. Standardized work is the process used by operators to define their work method through documentation and visual postings. This is often misinterpreted as a fully detailed description of the work and associated standards. Anyone who has read the standard work sheets would see that the work description explains the work elements in basic terms - not nearly enough information to read and fully understand the job. Job Instruction Training (JIT) is the method commonly used in Lean to transfer complete knowledge of a job to a team member. In my experience anyone who believes that a job is simple enough to distill down to a few sheets of paper underestimates the competency level necessary of their employees.

Another myth is that with standard work and visual postings employees will not deviate from the standard. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is nothing in standardized work that will prevent deviation by the operator except the visual awareness of others. The visual reference is utilized by management for monitoring adherence to the standard which is done through periodic and regular audits of the standardized work. To ensure compliance to the standard, it’s necessary to poka-yoke or mistake proof the process to prevent deviation and make excursions highly visible.

Lastly, there are those that believe standard work is only for the shop floor. Standard work has been proven effective in many industries from the military to healthcare and everything in between. In particular, I think this is a technique that management teams must adopt. How we run the business should not be any different than how we do business. In my experience, those organizations that use standard work at the management level are more productive and effective.

Standardizing the work adds discipline to the culture, an element that is frequently neglected but essential for Lean to take root. Standardized work is also a learning tool that supports audits, promotes problem solving, and involves team members in developing poka-yokes. While standard work can be an effective foundation for continuous improvement it is important to recognize that it is not a one-stop shop for all that ails you.

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  1. What is the best approach for developing standard work where during the development phase, there a lot of debate on the "best method" for various elements of the job? How do you keep the team focused on developing a good baseline without trying to build a ton of improvements into the first baseline?

    1. JM it is important to recognize the pre-requisites needed for standard work. The most basic of these is to have process stability, where processes have been stabilized to the extent that they can operate with some consistency (stability, in the context of processes, means having the capability to produce consistent results over time).
      Putting standardized work ahead of stability will surely create a condition similar to a dog chasing its tail you will go round and round but never get the result you want.

      If you build standard work into your development processes and the prototype units you will find it will come more naturally as you ramp production or transfer to manufacturing.

  2. Some good points and I like your article. One extra point however... what about the importance of understanding the goal of the standardised work outcome.

    This is often where people "go native" and change the process due to their perception of what the goal is.

    Without a clearly communicated goal, individuals will connect the dots for themselves - often incorrectly.

    1. Kathryn, I agree with the importance of clearly communicated goals and to that end the need for them to lead "True North". I am not sure that has much to do with standard work. Standard work is like the dance steps but the goal might be to be world champion. Standard work is about creating and following a process so it is easy to see abnormalities. When we find issues we use continuous improvement following PDCA to implement countermeasures. It is in this process where goals are important. They help us keep focus in the right direction. So while goals are important they are not necessarily part of creating a standard but that improvement of the standard.