A Beginning Step Toward Improvement: Standardize

Loosely defined work steps cause confusion when problems arise.

Editor's Note: Jonathan Taurman will speak at the IndustryWeek Best Plants Conference, being held April 27-29 in Nashville. The complete conference agenda is available at the IW Best Plants Conference Web site.

Before learning to run in a continuous improvement marathon, organizations should learn a basic lean step. Like a toddler learning to walk, standardizing processes is the fundamental step to a lifelong improvement journey.

A standard process is defined as a clear and consistent sequence of work steps. When work steps are loosely defined or inconsistently followed, employees waste time debating whether problems exist because there is no clear process or specification. Instead, when a standard process exists, a problem is clearly defined as anything outside the norm of the specific standard.

Shop floor processes, such as machine setup and production assembly, are typical applications for using standardized work. However, standardizing work is not just for production areas.

When kaizen events are conducted in office areas, these areas realize significant gains through standard work, especially in areas where overhead and office labor costs exceed shop-floor costs. Processes such as quoting, order entry, product development and even company meetings or strategic planning can benefit from standard streamlined processes. This application has been proven successful in reducing cycle-times in organizational meetings through standard agendas and even strategic planning cycles with standardized schedules and deliverables.

If there is not a consistent standard process already in place, then the first step to improvement is to define a clear standard process for all employees to follow. This creates a baseline for quantifying and measuring all future improvements.

Teams utilizing a problem solving process, such as Plan-Do-Check-Act or DMAIC, may prematurely create a new future process without making sure that a standard process exists for the current state. Additionally, leaders can be quick to ask questions about the new and improved process. In order to be a problem-solving coach, managers need to ask (require) that teams understand the current standard process before changing a process. If a current baseline was not created, then follow-up to see the future results after the baseline is created and measured.

Standardizing processes are the so-called "toddler steps" for organizations. A lack of a standard process causes trips, falls, and bruises, which limits sustainable improvement gains in a lean organization. So standardize and begin running fast!

Jonathan Taurman is a process manager for EMTEQ Inc., an aerospace electronics manufacturer, and is responsible for strategic deployment, lean implementation, and AS9100 quality.

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