Standard work and kaizen are often described the two cornerstones of the Toyota Production System house, a.k.a. lean management. The various systems, methods and tools that make up the lean way of working rely on setting provisional standards, testing these standards, practicing and refining them until stable, practicing standard work, finding gaps in performance, learning where we made incorrect assumptions, and improving by closing these gaps. This is an application of scientific of thinking to the way we work, fundamental to all aspects of lean. And yet many organizations struggle with lean when they treat standard work as a tool, a template, a visual control for monitoring and compliance, rather than as an enabler of a continuous improvement culture.
There are many reasons that people misunderstand or misapply one or more aspects of lean management. It may help to remind ourselves that every modern house is built on a foundation. The same is true of the TPS house, a.k.a. lean management. Specifically, there are three core beliefs that create the set the tone or create the cultural environment in which standard work can thrive.
1. Leaders teach standards. This goes far beyond simply having team leaders and supervisors who are capable of instructing people in standard work. The organization must be committed to developing its people. The leadership must demonstrate by example, pass on company or industry-specific knowledge, and encourage people to develop new knowledge that can be captured in the form of insights and standards.
2. Individuals take ownership of standards. Standards are today’s safest, easiest, fastest known ways of working. Each individual must take ownership of learning, adopting, practicing and revising standards, as well as contributing their knowledge and skills toward building standard work. People who do knowledge work or creative work may think that the idea of standards does not apply to them. These people may have a harder task but also more practice in using their creativity. Nobody is excused from finding opportunities to make work more reliable or to remove variability where it does not add value.
3. Everyone improves standards. Everyone must recognize that standards are temporary. Today’s best method will seem quant in a day, a month or a year. Part of what leaders teach is the importance of following standards and the other is how to think of ways to make the work easier and better. When we push standards onto people, there is resistance. When people are invited to use standards to set challenges that spark creativity and problem solving, this aligns the goals and efforts of individuals, teams and organization. This approached creates pull for learning and improvement.
The visible elements of standardized work are not a sure sign that the organization is building a lean culture. We can only be confident of this when we the standardized work artifacts are generated by the consistent behaviors based on the three fundamental beliefs above. This of course implies that the leadership prioritizes these behaviors by allowing people the time to learn and practice them. Even then, it is only a temporary condition. The true test of sustainability for standardized work is seeing how organizations evolve their approach towards it over time.