Three Essential Supervisor Skills for Standard Work

Standard work (called standardized work at Toyota) is hard but it’s so important. As one of the cornerstones of the lean system, the difference between having standard work and not having it is truly a step difference in an organization’s ability to perform and continually transform itself. Why is standard work so hard for so many companies? There are many reasons, but perhaps three reasons stand out.
First, standard work requires that you have a repetitive process. By definition it requires takt time, work sequence, and standard work in process. If the volume varies day to day or is unknown or if the work sequence varies due to work content and product mix variation, it become almost pointless to impost the rigors of standard work. Standardization, small lot production, cycle time balancing and other elements that are part of standard work still make sense to implement. But just as kanban isn’t right for every process, standard work is one of those lean tools that has prerequisites that must be met before implementation.

Second, the documentation requirement can be daunting. The standard work combination sheet, table of production capacity by process, standard work sheet, standard work instruction sheet and several others are all required. Many people respond “I thought lean meant less paperwork!” when they see what they are in for in terms of establishing and maintaining standard work. More documentation is good when it is the right kind of documentation and used to support visual management and continuous improvement. These forms are actually not that hard but they can seem daunting at first.

Third, standard work fails the thrive in the workplace because it is not nurtured by its caretakers: the front line supervisors. If you find that the only way standard work documents are completed, audited or updated is to have the engineers or lean specialists do it, you have a problem. The supervisor or team leader position is essential to standard work because they are essential to teams, and teams are essential to a lean production system. Standard work just happens to be a bringing together of many of the fine tools of lean and industrial engineering such as takt time, one piece flow, downstream pull, cellular layouts, visual management and so forth, and not an enabling tool in itself. The successful lean enterprise relies on supervisors capable of understanding and maintaining a multi-dimensional work methods management system. This requires certain skills of supervisors.

Three essential supervisor skills to succeeding with standard work are finding, fixing and fortifying. You could also call these problem identification, problem solving, sustaining but alliteration assists activity in the amygdala so we’ll fly with find, fix and fortify.

The supervisor needs to be skilled at systematically finding problems with performing standard work. Part of each supervisor’s day should be spent observing standard work being performed, identifying deviations from standard work in the workers’ methods or other small problems which can be fixed. Supervisors should pay special attention when there have been changes in the operation to the basic 4M conditions: manpower, materials, machinery or methods.

Fixing the problems should be through empowering workers to use any existing means of doing kaizen such as QC circles, kaizen suggestions or other improvement teams. Rather than giving the solution the skilled supervisor will fix through asking questions to help the workers identify the cause for deviation from standard work. Broadly speaking these are quite often ignorance of the correct method, unwillingness to follow standard work or inability to perform the work as documented. Individually these have various root causes worth pursuing and fixing.

Fortifying standard work is best done in three ways as well. First the supervisor must lead by example and demonstrates standard work in person. If the supervisor is a skilled veteran, they will be able to demonstrate many knacks and tricks. If the supervisor is fresh out of business school with no work experience on the production line, all the better as the instructions will need to be fool-proof. Second, involving the workers in problem solving (fixing) as stated above is a key to gaining their buy in to the method and to changing the method.

Third and finally, fortifying standard work relies on the supervisor not turning a blind eye to the small deviations from standard work. People will by nature look for subtle cues and signs of what are the documented standards and what are the “unwritten rules”. Just as children watch their parents to learn how much and what sort of disobedience they can get away with (do you really think they didn’t hear you the first two times you asked them to clean up?) people performing standard work will learn from those small things that supervisors see and decide to “let it go”. These small things stack up to become big things, and the relentless adherence to and improvement of standards is what makes companies like Toyota great.

Find, fix and fortify. These are the three essential supervisor skills for succeeding with standard work.


  1. Mike Gardner

    February 28, 2008 - 4:29 am

    Let’s not forget the negative impact programs like ISO, QS9000, and TS16949 have on standard work. Far from encouraging standards, as they should, these programs cause us to create vague and useless documents in order to not be “gigged” by auditors for failing to follow the minutiae of documented procedures. These programs create the exact opposite situation from their intent. They also force all control of the workplace into the hands of a few, ruining empowerment and participation by the people on the “front line.”
    We must also never forget that in successful lean companies standard work as you describe it is driven from the top and the middle both, not just the middle. It will not work in an environment in which executives, managers, and supervisors are encouraged to abdicate responsibility for everything labeled “lean manufacturing” because that is thought to be the responsibility of the lean manager. I know this to be true from experience. Thanks for another well-written and well-thought piece, Jon.

  2. Jon Miller

    February 28, 2008 - 11:54 am

    That’s a great point about ISO Mike. We’ve gotten by in the past by stating that the standard work document are NOT controlled documents but rather visual management tools much like an hourly production control board, andon lamps, or lines demarcating aisles and work areas. Some of the documents that support standard work must certainly be controlled, but these are work standards.
    A standard work document (layout, combination sheet, etc.) is a tool of kaizen just like a spaghetti chart or time study sheet. If an auditor says a standard work combination sheet must be controlled under ISO, would the same be true for a spaghetti chart?
    I think the term “standard” and the fact that the standard work sheet lists quality check locations grabs their attention. Frankly, most ISO auditors do not understand what Toyota means by standard(ized) work so until that changes it’s a fruitless argument that “standard” does not have to mean “controlled document”.

  3. Lisa Scott

    December 9, 2008 - 8:30 am

    I have read multiple articles on this site referring to “Standard Work” or “Standardization” and it has gotten me confused. I though standard work and work standardization were different, but people seem to use them interchangeably. I am looking to guidance on how to implement a “standarization board” and what are the basics I need to know to be successful.

  4. Jon Miller

    January 16, 2009 - 12:43 pm

    Hi Lisa
    Thanks for your question. You might find the answer to your question here: Ask Gemba

  5. Barry Kraiter

    August 9, 2010 - 12:57 pm

    Our entire operation is such that we have some repetitive work, however the work sequence varies a lot. We find it very difficult for us to visualize the benefits of standardized work due to this. It seems as if the number of parts we have and the amount of work it would be to maintain this would be overwhelming and not very lean at all. In an environment where there is little repetitive work is there an alternative to setting up the standardized work that is outlined in this article?