Building Manager Standard Work

Standardization can help you free up time and use it more proactively.

Standardization is one of the fundamental elements of lean transformation. It's often the first step of problem solving -- understanding if there is a standard and if it is working. Standardization is applied with rigor to operational processes, yet many opportunities in knowledge work and management work remain.

People resist building standards in knowledge work because of natural variation. Yet if you already have variation, why would you want to add more by having no structure or routine? No, you can't write a standard that says, "Ask question 1 of the customer -- 90 seconds" for a salesperson, but you can build a list of the most effective questions to be asking. That's standardization.

Management is similar; it's highly variable from day to day, but consistency and the ability to improve are exceptionally valuable. Management Standard Work, sometimes misleadingly called Leader Standard Work, can be a powerful mechanism to create alignment, build consistency, improve management and shift from reactive to proactive.

1. 5S your time. The first steps of 5S are to get rid of what you don't need, and organize what you do need. You should do the same with your time. Too much of your time is consumed based on nothing more purposeful than habits. We spend our time the way that we do because that's how we've always spent our time. But know what you would replace it with. You shouldn't replace your newly found free time with just more email. You should be doing something proactive with it.

2. Determine the key control points. The real benefit of management standard work is ensuring that we're doing the proactive activities that keep us out of the firefighting mode. We call these the control points. We often call manager standard work Control Point Standardization. These control points are the proactive points in our system that ensure good outcomes. To accomplish this, we need a clear understanding of cause and effect in our systems and processes. It will never be perfect, but we must determine the proactive checks and activities that ensure good outcomes.

If you consider yourself as an example, there are control points that you know are proactive. Some of them are checks, such as monitoring your blood pressure or cholesterol. Some of them are activities, such as exercising. Managing the right frequency of these control points has a significant impact on the overall outcome, your health.

3. Don't standardize the obvious and routine. This is less of a task and more of a task to avoid. However, it's the most common mistake that I see when organizations engage in manager standard work. Don't build standards for things that are already routine. The purpose of standard work is to help build a consistent practice. If you already have a routine, then you already have a consistent practice of the best kind.

You shouldn't need to put on your daily checklist to brush your teeth. You hopefully do that without the reminder or paperwork. You don't need the reminder to check your e-mail. Those would be silly, yet I repeatedly see efforts to standardize things that are already routine.

4. Make it dynamic. The second most frequent failure mode on manager standard work is designing it and then leaving it alone as a static standard. Manager standard work should change frequently. It should change based on business conditions, new initiatives or improved stability.

Something might move from a daily check, to weekly, to monthly as it proves itself to be stable and incontrol. If you change a process, you might add increased checks into process standards in that area. You should constantly be asking: What do we need to add? What do we need to drop? What do we need to modify?

Manager standard work is one of the harder practices to get right. We spend a lot of time coaching on it. Don't start until you're ready to commit to get it right. But if you treat the process as continuous experimentation, you can adjust and improve and turn it into a true competitive advantage.

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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