Leader Standard Work has become a major component of most lean systems. It goes by a lot of names such as control point standardization and management operating system, but it is fundamentally a lean-principled way for managers at all levels to execute their work.

The centerpiece of most Leader Standard Work systems is often checklists of what to spend your time on. This starts with the routine of meetings to attend, adds to it key people to check in with, and then important items to check such as metrics and standards to ensure a well-performing system.

When all this is added up, it often completely fills the schedule from front-line manager to executive. In one example, at a semiconductor plant, we were asked to look at the meeting structure for the management team. The first observation was that just the standing meetings – ones that existed on everyone’s schedule that they should attend each day or week – added up to over 40 hours per week. On the typical schedule, each hour was triple booked. You decided which meeting to go to depending on what was most important (by opinion) at the moment. Clearly that doesn’t lead to consistency or allow for a deep dive into anything.

If you have no white space on your schedule, you add the problem to a list which is an inherent promise to fix it sometime in the future. This is a promise easily and often broken.

Having white space in your management system is essential for success. Why? Because much of Leader Standard Work is about surfacing problems, either requiring problem-solving or coaching. So if you follow your standard work and walk around the operation checking control points, and you find an abnormal condition, you have to react. If you have no white space on your schedule, you add the problem to a list which is an inherent promise to fix it sometime in the future. This is a promise easily and often broken.

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To enable Leader Standard Work to be effective, coaching and problem-solving must begin in the moment it is needed. Most failures of both of these practices are failures of quality, because those executing the practice do not have enough time to do it correctly. White space must be built in to your Leader Standard Work to allow coaching and problem-solving to occur by the right person, at the right time, at high quality.

How do you build white space into your Leader Standard Work?

1. Determine your safety valve. No matter what, there will be surges in workload. You must define the safety valve of what can be deferred if something must go. If this isn’t defined, then the effective response to problems is likely to be the first thing to go.

One operation I worked with had a “focus” mode that teams would enter when their problem solving efforts required that focus. Several other tasks would be suspended, and other supporting organizations would give that group priority status. Suspending lower-priority activities meant that the surge in efforts required didn’t have to be squeezed in, but instead other tasks were squeezed out.

2. Allocate time blocks. Coaching and problem-solving require collaboration, which means you have to find time on both people’s schedules. Therefore, an individual planning time out on their calendar is insufficient. Block off the organization’s time as broadly as you can.

During a visit to an automaker in China, I saw a practice that I’ve recommended to many others who have adopted it. At 2 p.m. every afternoon, it is problem-solving hour. There are no other meetings; schedules are already blocked off. Everyone is scheduled to attend a huddle. These happen on the floor and the conference rooms are empty. They can either review current problems they are working on, or work on them, or split up to do whatever collaboration is necessary. This approach assures that at least one hour of problem-solving occurs each day.

Whether it is working on strategic initiatives or solving problems, you can’t get the important stuff done if you fill everyone’s schedule with the day-to-day. Being efficient is good, but not at the expense of the important.