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Lean Leadership: Understanding the Why and How of Standard Work

Once standard work is approved, it is the only right way the process should be operated, until...

Question: We are trying to create some standard work around several processes in our plant. Who should “own” this—the operators who run the process or an engineer? I’m not sure I can get everyone to agree there is the one best way.

Answer: First, I’m delighted that the reader and others at work have recognized the importance of having standard work in place for all processes. Over the years we’ve referred to processes by a variety of other names -- set ups, specification limits, detailed bills of material, operating instructions, preventive maintenance, et cetera. All these, and many more, should properly be understood and documented as standard work.

My favorite definition of standard work is this definition used by Toyota: “Standard Work is a detailed definition of the current best practices for performing a process.” 

OK. So, what is the purpose for creating accurate standard work? It is to document, in detail, the process steps necessary to deliver quality product as efficiently and cost effectively as possible.

Larry Fast answers your questions in this column, called Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership. Submit your questions here

The first input of ideas to create standard work should come from the machine operators themselves. Nobody else is closer to the reality of the current process issues than the operators. Listening and asking these workers relevant questions is always the place to start to understand the current state and then brainstorm improvements as a team.

Once the standard work has been signed off by the team, follow up by training every person in each function that needs to be updated. Once the new standard work is in place, then execution of the standard work for running machines is the responsibility of the machine operator.

Also, be sure and consider what the best way is to implement standard work.  Hint: Hard copy in 3-inch binders is the wrong answer. Use visual management techniques wherever possible so it’s easily read from the operator’s position. Document poka-yoke’d online systems and machine controls for the operator.

In short, simplify the communication of standard work.

Who Should Lead?

With that in mind, who should lead the team to accomplish this? My preference on shop-floor standard work is the first-line supervisor who is accountable for processing execution and supporting the operator. Depending on the technical sophistication of the area, a process engineer may be a critical player, or a quality tech or a mechanic or an IT person.

The makeup of the team is dependent upon what expertise is necessary to touch all the bases and make sure you get the standard work right. As the needs arise, pull in whatever help is required from other functions.

Finally, don’t burn any calories trying to figure out who should lead the creation and/or updating of standard work. Just use your common sense about where the accountability falls for the process in question. Then surround the leader with the critical players necessary to get it right.

Most importantly, once the standard work is approved, that is the only right way the process is to be operated until and unless someone comes up with another improvement to make the process better. In a continuous improvement culture, it is likely that someday down the road, another improvement idea will surface and cause the standard work to be vetted and updated once again. All standard work in the company is to be managed the same way.

(As a side note, people managing any process in any area of the business can improve the process quality and impact using the same approach that is used on the shop floor. Yes, finance/accounting, marketing, IT, engineering, HR, et cetera, seldom use this thinking but it can be just as impactful on other business processes.)

"Today’s standardization…is the necessary foundation on which tomorrow’s improvements will be based. If you think “standardization” as the best you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow – you get somewhere. But if you think of standards as confining, then progress stops." - Henry Ford in 1926

“Standardized work is one of the most powerful but least used lean tools. By documenting the current best practice, standardized work forms the baseline for kaizen or continuous improvement. As the standard is improved, the new standard becomes the baseline for further improvements, and so on. Improving standardized work is a never-ending process.” - Lean Enterprise Institute

Larry Fast answers your questions in the IndustryWeek feature Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership. Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd. Edition.

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