The Non-Standard Semantics of Standardization

The words standard, standards, and standardization with their associated concepts and meanings cause a lot of trouble for lean thinkers and others whose intentions are to promote continuous improvement without the lean label. A basic point of confusion is that the variants associated with “standard” seem to result in very different observed behaviors and experiences. There may also be simple local differences in language and cultural differences or biases in what these standard-words mean to people in manufacturing, service, education, government, science, engineering and so forth. A case in point is the speech by education reformer Sir Ken Robinson. View the full 55 minute version of Changing Education Paradigms or the 12 minute cartoon version created by RS Animate.

During the presentation Sir Ken Robinson makes the case for reforming the education system and uses variations on the notion of “standard” in at least three ways, at times endowing them with positive qualities and at other times the opposite. According to him the problem is that today’s education system was designed for the economic and social assumptions from another time and this system no longer serves millions of learners across many countries. The two assumptions which built the current system are intellectual and economic, which he terms “the two pillars”. The first refers to the notion that there are smart people and non-smart people and that the process of public education stratifies and sends people on their way to the careers fit for each. The second refers to the fact that the education system is modeled on and in the interests of industrialization, observing that “we still educate children by batches” because children are put through the education system by age group. He asks:

“Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It’s like the most important thing about them is the date of manufacture.”

Although increasingly the education system is about standardized testing, standardized curricula and conformity, Sir Ken says that we need to go in the exact opposite direction. Citing and questioning the so-called epidemic of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) among children and its correlation to the rise of standardized testing and the resulting boredom in the class room, he argues for the recognition and valuing of what he calls “divergent thinking” or the ability to see multiple answers to a question and not just one.

He concludes that in order to reform education three fundamental parts of its genetic code must be recognized and changed. We must:

  1. Get past the myth of people having limited capacity to learn and develop along the separate paths (academic versus non-academic, theoretical versus vocational),
  2. Stop “atomizing” or separating people from group learning environments in which “great learning happens”, and
  3. Understand the culture of the institutions, their habits and their habitats.

While denouncing standardization he is in fact arguing for a new paradigm in education. A paradigm is a generally accepted pattern, perspective or reference, a.k.a. a standard. Standardization is bad, but he that we need a new standard. Furthermore, he is in favor of raising standards. Raising standards is all about doing things in the best known way possible, and then aiming higher. “People say we should raise standards if this is a breakthrough…” in reference to the paradigm change, “we should, why would you lower them?”

Standard, standards, and standardization; the non-standardized semantics surrounding these concepts as well as their association with conflicting notions of conformity versus creativity, stagnation versus success, idealism versus improvements result in much heated debate and no small amount of confusion among well-intentioned people. Within a standard (best known way or system) there are discrete standards (rules, conditions, or performance benchmarks). The act of standardization involves copying elements of the standard so that some or all of the system performs according to certain standards. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a standard, setting standards or standardization. There is nothing inherently good either, as we can follow a false standard, set and aim for poor standards and then propagate these through standardization. Oddly, the industrial model that Sir Ken Robinson decries in fact does not tolerate this behavior for long. The market will not allow it. A well-managed industrial process checks to make sure that raw materials that are introduced into a manufacturing system meet standards that allow them to successfully complete the process and produce the desired results. Modern industry has made breakthroughs such as the standardization of processes, interchangeable parts and innovations in on-the-job and off-job education. Modern industry has weathered more than a century of drastic change through market pressures to improve quality and reduce costs, surviving remarkably.

If today’s educational institutions were to be judged against models of industrial maturity, most of them could be said to practice a primitive form of craft work wherein the craftsman (teacher) is expected to work with at best highly personalized and at worst inadequate tools, required to handle an infinite variety of raw materials (students), all the while given only limited financial reward and social recognition in too many cases. In this model results will, and do vary. Rather than move education away from all things industrial, away from standardization and its benefits, towards an aesthetic and arts-oriented system with the good intentions of tapping into the potential of each unique individual, we should study the state of the art (the standard) within the best run organizations. Education can learn a lot from how industrial firms meet and beat global performance standards, practice supply chain collaboration and engage people towards a common purpose through problem solving. The most successful lean manufacturers have demonstrated the ability to apply standardization without killing creativity through conformity.

We can learn from them, but unless we agree on definitions of the basic words we are using and whether they in fact apply with equal meaning to separate situations such as industry and education, it is likely that this debate on standards and their role in continuous improvement will rage on.


  1. Matt Wrye

    November 1, 2010 - 6:30 am

    What this reminds me of is a thought on rethinking the U.S.’s college system. We are still educating in batches there too. Moving kids to a campus and then shifting them from building to building for classes. With the technology that is available today, why do that. Is it possible to have an morning lecture from one of the top mathematics professors in the world who may be at a university on the East coast and 2 hours later have a lecture from on of the top economics professors in the world who is at a university on the West coast? My dad is the CFO for a theology college that is completely online but is very highly recognized in theology. How can this translate to our traditional college system?

  2. Mark Welch

    November 1, 2010 - 6:37 am

    I have an answer for Sir Ken’s question, “Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It’s like the most important thing about them is the date of manufacture.”
    Age is a critical independent variable in education. Kids of a common age are at common cognitive and emotional levels, so they are taught accordingly. I would hope Sir Ken recognizes this. I think this truly is a case where one can legitimately say, “We’re different. We’re not making cars,” and it’s not a copout.
    But, yes, the education world could learn a LOT from lean and/or the manfacturing world. One good place to start would be to teach them to be good problem-solvers instead spoon feeding and asking them to regurgitate. The manufacturing world could use to learn something from education as well, starting with granting their people respect for their dignity as human beings, seeing them as contributing people with brains and ideas instead of a pair of hands that can be purchased more cheaply in Mexico or China, and seeing training and education as investment in development rather than a company cost.
    It’s a two-way street.

  3. John Santomer

    November 2, 2010 - 1:15 am

    Dear Jon,
    All these would have been for naught if the mind set of corporate management is still anchored on the old educational system delivered eons ago. This same mind set will – screen graduates of well known colleges and universities draft them immediately to their corporate world for their baccalaureates or MBAs while controlling the entry of other “waste products” churned out from other not so well known educational institutions.
    Similar to an internet firewall for a corporate service limiting access to everyone for the simple reason that IT people can’t effectively classify, monitor and grant access permission to those who need these for their work responsibilities encompassing such a thing as strategic development. YOUTUBE for example, has been permanently blocked restricting access to other informative materials as this cartoon developed by RS Animate. It is really ironic, but I can’t seem to laugh anymore about it. I guess its easier growing tomatoes instead. Tempting nay fulfilling.