Extremely Long-Cycle Standard Work

By Jon Miller Updated on April 19th, 2020

The benefit of standard work, and good standards in general, is that it frees us to from having to figure out or to remember how to do things correctly. Good standards help us quickly distinguish between normal conditions and abnormal conditions. When we learn and follow standard work to the point of competence, we can use our creativity and attention for improving the work, spotting dangers or taking advantage of opportunities. Having standard work to fall back on becomes especially important when facing new or highly uncertain situations.

Three Types of Standard Work

Within lean management there are broadly three types of standard work. These types are 1) for repetitive work with fixed sequence, time and work content, 2) for a pattern of more variable but repeating work based on a mix of products, and 3) for variable occasional work such as setup or conveyance that repeats on a longer cycle. All three are synched to takt or similar customer cadence.

Standard Work for Sporadic Events

The concept of standardized work applies beyond regularly repeating tasks, even to sporadic events. Municipalities in high risk areas for earthquakes, hurricanes or wildfires have standard work for responding to such events. It’s common for organizations to practice their emergency building evacuation standard work in the form of fire drills one or more times per year. Lean organizations employ a form of standard work for their abnormality response process. This may include when to pull the andon, how to contain the immediate risk, who responds at what time intervals, and so forth. These unpredictable, undesirable but inevitably recurring events merit their own, fourth type of standard work.

There is yet another type of sporadic event that calls for standard work. It is for extremely long-cycle, recurring, high disruption events. Major natural disasters. Regional armed conflicts. Financial shocks. Pandemics. The thing about unthinkable calamities is that they are only so by choice. Most organizations don’t look across decades, much less centuries, for their disaster planning. Why bother making plans for an existential crisis that may or may not occur during our watch over the next few decades? Current corporate governance best practices, which often value short-term profit at the cost of long-term thinking, don’t mandate it. It’s human nature to not invest in preparing for an event that seems remote and whose danger signs we don’t recognize.

Each generation owes it to the next to pass on improved standard work, even for extremely long-cycle sporadic events. Such events will happen again to our descendants. Getting through them requires level-headedness, creativity, steadfastness and flexibility in the moment. Those qualities rely on foundational principles to guide us, material preparation to sustain us and basic financial, social and operational stability. Standard work is built on what to do, when to do it, how long it should take, and what raw materials or in-process stock must be on hand.

Whatever sporadic events we choose to create standard work for, it should allow us to maintain preparedness, recognize the facts without fear or favor at the time of the event, communicate to remove fear and turn rumination into daily action, clarify what’s really important and what can be let go, and make unemotional decisions. Having this fifth type of standard work vastly improves our chance of survival.

Artifacts of Long-term Organizational Learning

The critical thing for these fourth and fifth types of standard work is that we pull them off the shelf to reflect on them and practice them, at least on an annual basis. Because sporadic events such as 100-year floods, pandemics or armed conflicts are by definition outside of our regular life and business, thinking about them is nor part of our daily routine. If we keep it on the shelf, out of mind, neglect practice, forget its value, lose knowledge, and defund capabilities, we place ourselves at risk.

A good example of this human forgetfulness or even intentional neglect is how people responded to tsunami stones. We find these at higher elevations along the rural northeast coast of Japan. Some date back many centuries. Villagers who survived major tsunami placed these standing stones as markers for future generations. Carved in the stones are the dates, lives lost, and often words to the effect of, “Remember the calamity and don’t build homes below this point.” People who heeded these words did not lose their lives during the 1960 and 2011 tsunamis.

No doubt many people across the centuries walked past these tsunami stones and saw them merely as moss-covered memorials and not standard work for extremely long-cycle events. The low-lying land was flat, cheap, available and too tempting. This is also human nature. To varying degrees, we all chose to live our lives exposed to various ruinous but low-probability risks. We text while driving. Small businesses operate without enough cash to get through a few months of zero revenue. Large businesses operate low-cost global supply chains with exposure to various high-cost risks. Day-to-day, time-tested practices and standards are too easy to ignore, unless we recognize them as valuable artifacts of long-term organizational learning.

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