Standard Work for Astronauts

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

Here is a good example of standard work for knowledge workers. Astronauts are probably some of the best educated and best trained people on the planet (and off-planet for that matter). Those of us who think that we can’t have daily routines to constrain our creativity or productivity may want to examine the images below.

Checking with Mission Control – how many of us do that every day? This is especially important for knowledge workers who are part of virtual teams or work remotely. It is very easy for us to “drift out of orbit” after just a few days of working on what we think is important, without confirming with Mission Control.

Meals, Hygiene, Bathing, Exercise and Training, Sleep – it may seem silly to specify standard times for these things, but speaking from experience, it is not such a bad idea to remind engineers and consultants that these things are a necessary part of daily life in order to maintain peak performance. Astronauts are fortunate that they work in jobs that require these things as part of their daily routine. The world would be a better place if this was true of all jobs.

Here is another view of an astronaut’s daily schedule on the International Space Station (ISS). There is some disagreement between the 0.5 hours of check in with mission control stated on the website and the 2 hours on the museum exhibit. A half hour per day seems more likely than 2 hours.

The purpose of establishing daily routines as standard work is not only to make sure that all necessary tasks are done in line with the mission, but to make abnormal conditions immediately obvious. When the daily standard work cannot be performed within the standard time, something is wrong and corrective action is taken. Standard work must be paired with kaizen in order to be effective.

There is an expression in Japanese “kanzume ni naru” 缶詰になる which literally means to put oneself in a tin can. It means to lock oneself into a room or a space where one can focus on something without interruption. This is extremely hard to do in this day and age with mobile phones, the internet, global business with customers or colleagues needing attention at every hour of the day. The ISS is a tin can of sorts floating in orbit. It allows the astronauts very little freedom of movement, they are locked in place. This “tin can in orbit” condition both requires and enables standard work. Many of us fail to practice standard work because we have no tin can or orbit to put ourselves into, no constraints as leaders or knowledge workers, no limits on the tasks we accept or projects we initiate. As a result, we disperse our focus or fight fires more than we do kaizen. Intelligent constraints unlock our potential.

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