Did Standardized Work Originate Thousands of Years Ago?

Armies around the world and throughout history have many common practices and traditions. One practice, in particular, started thousands of years ago and is deeply rooted in what we today would characterize as Lean practices. This practice is marching.

What Problem are We Trying to Solve?

In early times, armies would walk days, weeks, or even months to get to a battlefield. Imagine thousands of people walking hundreds of miles to encounter an enemy. The caravan would expand and contact like an accordion. If you’ve read The Goal by Eli Goldratt you might remember the scouts getting spread out on a hike and Herbie being identified as the bottleneck–the person stretching out the formation.  When this happens to an army, the first soldiers to arrive are put at risk because they don’t have the full support of the rest of the army.

An army is less effective when it is spread out over distance both because the first on the battlefield don’t have the resources necessary to be effective, and because straggling to the battlefield doesn’t intimidate the enemy. Failure to intimidate actually bolsters the confidence of the opponent.

The greatest military victory is the prevention of conflict. Early military commanders knew there was a distinct advantage to having thousands of soldiers show up, ready to fight, in unison. There’s plenty to discuss about uniforms, weapons, and combat tactics, but we’ll keep our focus on marching.

Thousands of soldiers marching in formation–in step–builds the confidence of those in the formation and also intimidates others who might witness this. Ideally, the opposing army would be intimidated to the point of avoiding conflict. Well-executed marching demonstrates a high degree of coordination, preparation, esprit de corps, capability, and professional discipline. If this wasn’t enough to discourage the enemy, at least the entire army arrived at the same time and ready to fight.

Root Cause Analysis

A 5-Why analysis leads to root cause, then to countermeasures.

Problem: The army is an ineffective fighting force when it arrives on the battle field.

Why?

It expands and contracts like an accordion.

Why?

Individuals within the ranks walk at different speeds.

Why?

Various individuals have both different stride lengths and step at varying cadences (takt time).

Why?

Neither stride length nor cadence is standardized

Conclusion: If each step by each soldier covers the same distance at the same time, the entire formation will move in unison.

Countermeasure: Standardized Work

Having a need to move enormous numbers of people from point A to point B at the same time and in a coordinated manner required standardization. So how is walking standardized?

There are many details about marching (now called drill and ceremony) that won’t be covered here in the interest of brevity. We’ll keep the focus on time and distance.

Every individual in the army must cover the same distance in the same amount of time for the entire army arrive together. The root cause analysis suggest that if the individual movements of the individual soldiers is the same, then the movements of the formation will be uniform. I’ll use modern standards for the US Army to illustrate the point.

Distance from one soldier to another, in a marching formation, is 30 inches on center. This is the army we’re talking about here, so the standard isn’t 29.9 or 30.1, it’s 30 inches. Soldiers must, then, take 30 inch steps to prevent the formation from expanding and contracting. They also must step at the same time at the same cadence to prevent the formation from falling apart. This only works if each solder steps off with the same foot. With the exception of a right side-step, US soldiers always step off with the left foot.

Takt, or cadence, is maintained with verbal commands: “Left, left, left, right, left” called (yelled) by the formation leader at 120 beats per minute. Done well, the formation moves quickly and with precision.

Experiment to Test the Countermeasure

A formation marching in step, 30″ per step, 120 steps per minute will move at 3.4 mile per hour. This method has been proven countless times over the millennia to be the fastest way for large numbers of people from a specific point to a specific point at the same time. It has also proven to intimidate opponents to the extent avoiding conflict altogether.

The fastest and most effective way to get any organization to accomplish anything is through coordinated effort toward a common goal.

2 Comments

  1. Robert Simonis

    April 21, 2021 - 10:02 am
    Reply

    The mile is one thousand steps of the Roman Legion.

  2. David Irvine

    April 22, 2021 - 10:14 am
    Reply

    Actually 2000, Robert, with respect. 1000 30″ steps = 833 yards and there are 1760 yards in a mile. Interesting article.

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