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Is Leader Standard Work Valuable?

Nov. 18, 2014
ASK THE EXPERT: LEAN LEADERSHIP  Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

QUESTION: What do you think about leader standard work? Is it valuable?

ANSWER: First of all, I think of leader standard work as being fundamental to any company that is committed to continuous improvement and culture change. Leader standard work is part of what I include in my third principle of manufacturing excellence, i.e., it is the disciplined use of an authorized formal system.

Typically, manufacturing companies are meticulous about creating standard work for machine operators, e.g., job instructions. The job instructions for a particular process are very detailed and represent the required behavior to produce products that meet the customer specification. I hope we always collect the operators' input before an engineer or technician retires to the office to formalize the instructions.

 But once the job instructions have been committed to the formal system, then we don’t vote anymore about how to do this work. We expect the instructions to always be followed until and unless someone comes up with a better idea to be vetted and tested before changing the standard work and retraining the affected people.

Larry Fast

On the other hand, the closest thing many companies have to leader standard work is the position description. Even a very well-thought-out and written position description is far too general to be used on the day-to-day responsibilities.

Leader standard work requires the commitment to detail the important responsibilities of a leader, some of which do not happen from the comfort of the office.

Leader standard work, in the case of the first line supervisor, involves having a daily plan of what the leader’s key duties are. Those might specify, for example, at least three gemba walks and dialog with each person in the area each day.

As we go up the ladder, the plan could become weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc., depending on the level in the organization. For example, a plant manager might commit to a daily gemba walk to touch base with the value stream managers, supervisors and a few hourly associates in each area just to understand how the plant is running each day, what the issues are and, yes, to be visible to everyone.

Too many gemba walks fail to be purposeful and fall into the annoying category of just wandering around so the box can be checked off the daily management sheet.

The plant manager also is behaving in a way that serves to coach people along the way. If the manager sees a potentially unsafe condition, does she walk on by or stop and engage the issue? The leader’s response will speak volumes to all those who are watching to see what happens next.

It’s a teachable moment if handled properly and helps to reinforce the new culture that would expect operators, material handlers, etc., to step up themselves rather than wait on a member of management to respond. Hourly folks typically see these things first, and we want to help them know what to do and feel confident enough to speak up and help keep their teammates safe as well as themselves.

The same kind of coaching opportunity could occur on a quality issue, schedule issue, maintenance, whatever. This important work cannot be done from the office.

The plant manager might also plan and execute a monthly “state of the business” meeting for everyone once a month. The VP of manufacturing/operations might do it quarterly along with a gemba walk. The CEO might do a video for companywide viewing on full-year results and expectations for the new year.

You get the idea. These opportunities to be visible and interactive provide the means to ensure that leadership’s expectations are clear for the results and behaviors that we seek.

Can Leader Standard Work Fail?

My experience is that often these gemba walks cause more harm than good. Which leads me to the second part of the question: “Is leader standard work valuable?”

 My answer: It depends.

It depends on whether or not the discipline is in place to conduct the leader standard work both in terms of content and intent. Too many gemba walks fail to be purposeful and fall into the annoying category of just wandering around so the box can be checked off the daily management sheet.

This counterproductive behavior is seen by the associates in the area, and they are smart enough to see that their boss is simply pencil-whipping the exercise. There’s, of course, no value being added in this case. It’s a negative return.

Back to the gemba walk example: I always like to do my own personal audit when I’m in a plant. You might want to try this if you don’t already do it.

For example, if you're the plant manager, before you do your gemba walk, take a look at the supervisor and value stream manager standard work to understand the requirements they’re committed to. Then take a walk and “dip stick” a few people in the area and simply ask questions like: How often do you see Frank come by each day? What do you talk about when he makes his rounds? What help do you receive from these communications? How can we make them more helpful?

On my first job fresh out of college and the Air Force, I worked for a wise veteran of 40 years in the plant where I started. One of the first things he taught me was: “People respect what you inspect.”

Nothing could be more true as it pertains to leader standard work. Each leader should be purposeful enough to essentially have done an audit on the process next level down. This kind of leadership often comes from the senior operating leader of the business.

Finally, if you aren’t currently using standard work in your job, take 30 minutes to think about what the appropriate standard work is for you in your current position. Discuss and seek input from your people; then review it with your boss. Get started!

If you’re already using a formal system, take a few minutes to think about it -- and decide if you’re getting the value your people and your business need from your leader standard work.

“Leadership is an intentional act.”--Author Unknown

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