Over the past few weeks I have had several conversations about standard work and who creates it. In each case I find myself trying to dispel one of the most common myths of the Toyota Production System: that the workers themselves create the standard work.” Most people who have studied or have been exposed to the notion of standard work will be familiar with this.
It has a nice ring to it, fitting with the notion of empowerment. It is a romantic notion, and a misconception. Many who teach lean are in love with this notion because it blunts the edge when delivering the message that lean requires a high degree of standardization, which to many means conformity, discipline and the loss of freedom. I have heard, and expect to continue to hear howls of protest by stating that lean in fact takes away the privilege from the worker of setting the standard. Dispelling this myth will be easier if we can understand and agree, dare I say standardize, on what we mean by “standard” and “standard work”.
To review the narrow definition of standard work, it is “the most effective method that that combines manpower, material and machinery”. Standard work is built on takt time, work sequence and standard work in process (SWIP). If there are any doubts on what we mean by standard work (also known as standardized work or standardised work) as part of the Toyota Production System, please refer to articles here, here , here and also here. Standard work is the cornerstone of the Toyota Production System and kaizen cannot exist without it. Taiich Ohno said that you must have standards, even if they are bad standards.
This type of standard work is based on repetitive work with a known customer demand. The takt time condition is not set by the person doing the work. That is determined by the customer who sets the customer demand and the management who set the hours of operation, or net available time. The pace of work is set by whoever designs the process, which may be the person doing the work but is most often an engineer or supervisor in the case of industrial work. Prior to applying lean and standardization, work is either self-paced or paced by automation, rarely customer-paced. Although there are arguments for allowing a method of pacing not strictly set to customer demand (mostly in service industries, creative and knowledge work areas is self-paced and which may not be well defined for creative work or in batch processing industries) at the least the pace of work should be synchronized with other internal processes to avoid waste, variability and overburden. Standard work requires that we do our work at a certain pace in a certain sequence, creating a limited amount of work in process. The worker does not set these conditions.
Standard work includes quality and safety key points and checks within each process. These are not set by the people who do the work. They are based on customer requirements, key quality characteristics, or regulatory and compliance issues requiring inspection and documentation of quality. Initial standards for processes are the result of a technical understanding of what it takes to repeatably perform a process safely, with good quality, on-time. Even in a lean operation only the most experienced worker has this knowledge and only as a result of years of experience, and even then they do not have the time during the typical work day to go about creating and documenting these standards.
While improvements can be made the method of how these checks are made and documented, resulting in quicker checks or more accurate checks, the person who does the work rarely has the option to remove these standards or even modify them. One exception to this is when the standard contains false or unnecessary checks. The worker may be able to identify that these checks are in fact no longer needed, or help redesign the process in such a way as to eliminate possibility of error. But this is saying that the worker can do kaizen. Since kaizen automatically implies that a new standard is generated, we should just say that “the person who does the work can kaizen their work” rather than “…creates standard work.”
The broad definition of standard work does not involve takt time and SWIP but nonetheless is governed by timing, a target completion time, frequency, and sequence. For example what we used to call “daily management” or simply “good operations management” that has gained new life these days as “leader standard work“. This involves visiting the visual boards to check target (standards) versus actual performance on a periodic (time-based) cycle. It is typically part of a larger daily, weekly, monthly cycle of management. While we can say that “the worker sets the standard” in this case, with the worker being the leader or manager, in fact where they go, when they go, and what they check are all determined by how the operation operates. The customer sets the pace of work, the management agenda set the performance targets for safety, quality, delivery, cost and so forth, and the start and stop times of each shift set the boundaries on when the leader performs their standard work. While it is not exacting in its specification, nor is leader standard work typically set by a 3rd party expert or specialist, about the only thing the leader can set in their standard work is when they make their gemba walks, and how exactly they inspire and motivate creative thinking and problem solving in the people they coach during the leader standard work process. Wouldn’t we rather have our leaders using their creativity in that area, instead of in creating the time-sequence-location standard?
Standards are conditions that must be achieved. Standards are set by experts, customers and regulatory authorities. Only in the case that the person who does the work is also the expert is it true that “the person who does the work sets the standard” and even then only when there are negligible customer or regulatory standards issues. Sometimes when we say “the workers themselves set the standard” we are talking about office work or non-repetitive professional work. I think in some cases it may be an attempt to appease the professionals who protest at having anyone else set a standard for the work that they do.
Just yesterday a medical doctor who is also a lean leader stated that 90% of the work a physician does can be standardized. That is great news. That may be one view and other physicians may howl in protest, but most of what we call “freedom” is simply unnecessary variation from the standard, due most often to the lack of documented standard, or a misunderstanding of what “standards” means. In fact most of us do not have control over the standards for the work we do, and only limited control over the creation of standard work itself. However we have almost unlimited control over the improvement of this standard, once we embrace standard work and kaizen.
All improvement must start and end with a documented standard. At the start, the standard may be unclear, not repeatable and unable to meet the targets. That is alright as long as it is recognized as the current best way and improvement follows from this point. We can say that “the person who does the work sets a provisional standard”. As long as we are following a repeatable method that delivers the basic customer requirements (standards) set forth, in the absence of properly documented standard work we should create our own. But setting the provisional standard is different from setting the initial standard based on key quality characteristics, equipment conditions and other working parameters.
Distinct from a provisional standard, the initial standard is created when a product or process is first launched. It is based on specifications from product, equipment conditions, and is typically the work of process engineers or their equivalent. In the worst case scenario these standards are never revisited, standard times are not met and conditions are not improved. Performance management through traditional accounting puts these losses in a variance bucket at the end of the day or the month, ask “who?” not “why?”, punishes and moves on. In the best case scenario, and in the lean way, these initial standards are immediately and thoroughly studied and improved until they reach a stable level performance. Thereafter these standards are continuously improved with input from the people who do the work. They may help with but are unlikely to be responsible for creating the standard work documents. Leaders maintain accountability for standards through visual management to make deviations and missed targets immediately evident within the hour, if not within the cycle, and by asking “why?” not “who?” and repeating the cycle of kaizen over and over again.
All standards are provisional, which is to say temporary. Even those given to us by customers and regulators are subject to change according to their whim. Standards set by physical laws are mostly set in stone, but as our processes and technologies change these too can be adjusted (although the underlying laws of the universe may remain).
Everyone can and should follow and improve standard work. Everyone can use their creativity and experience to think of better ways. But not everyone is qualified to take the initial customer requirements, convert these into product or process standards, and create initial standard work. Standard work is not created by the operators, however it is continuously improved by them.
So unless there are objections or evidence to the contrary or the assertions made above, let’s stop perpetuating the myth that “the person who does the work sets the standard” and that “standard work is created by the operator”. Both are misleading statements that cloud the important issue that most of us work in environments direly lacking in standards. We simply need to take responsibility and ask for standards so we can start improvements from there.