Many companies have jumped on the Lean/continuous improvement bandwagon since the 1990s. Most have failed to sustain the changes. Even many of those that have achieved some level of success have failed to achieve true standardized work.

For the sake of convenience, in this article standard work and standardized work will be interchangeable, although my mentor taught me that the two are different practices.

Standard Work Requires Cooperative Effort

I was sitting among approximately 50 peers at a large Lean-focused conference. The topic of discussion was standardized work. I sat and listened to human resources (HR) managers, industrial engineers, process engineers, production managers and team leaders discuss how they have had limited success implementing standard work. Each shared how important it was to capture how the job is done before the tribal knowledge associated with longevity disappears from their companies. Each shared how difficult it can be to get the more experienced operators to adjust to standard work.

As I listened over the next hour, I discovered that many in the room seemed to have a different view of the process than I was taught. Some mentioned training within industry (TWI – the foundation for Toyota’s standardized work process), but even then, the advice was to train others to follow their standard work. I had to break my silence.

My mentors were from Toyota, although I have never worked for Toyota. I shared what they taught me. The primary idea of standardized work is that it is an agreement between leaders and those who perform the task (usually operators, but they can also be customer service specialists, HR generalists, engineers, etc.) developed through a cooperative effort. It is not something certain people develop, then “distribute” to those doing the work. It is not something someone off the floor creates, then uses TWI to train those doing the work.

Several others agreed. It generated some discussion as we walked out of the room to the next session. It was then that I realized it amazes me how wrong we are doing standard work, even in the Lean community.

I chalk this up to too many people who were improperly trained who are now training others. So, let’s take a closer look at standardized work.

Definition of Standard Work

Standardized work is the safest, easiest and most waste-free way of doing a job that we currently know. It is developed and owned by operators, team leaders and supervisors working together. It provides a baseline for future improvements. It is highly flexible, able to change through Kaizen and to meet takt time as it may change. It is working smarter – not harder or faster.

Standardized work is not work instructions developed by industrial engineers, focused on standard efficiency and moderately inflexible due to ties to cost accounting. Nor is it a work standard – a guideline for quality and/or safety, developed by quality, safety or design engineers, and extremely inflexible due to industry quality or safety standards.

Three Elements of Standard Work

Standardized work consists of the following three elements.

  1. Takt time. This is simply how often a part is needed to be produced based on customer requirement. It is calculated as: TA (time available, excluding breaks, usually expressed in seconds) divided by [K]T ([K]ustomer take – forgive the spelling – simply the customer demand expressed in units). The result is time needed per piece.
  1. Work sequence. This is the main element, and so often the only element that organizations determine when developing standard work. It can be defined as the specific order in which an operator (or operators) performs the steps of the process for one part. The goal is to be able to separate the worker from the machine and provide flexibility to share steps or change workload to meet changing demand.
  1. Standard work in process. SWIP, as it is often referred to, is the minimum amount of parts on the line that will allow the operator to flow product effectively. It has a calculation to determine appropriate quantity. The calculation is: (lead-time of a process) divided by (takt time). This calculation works both for internal and external processes. However, when determining external processes, I highly recommend adding a buffer, or “safety stock,” to the SWIP calculation.

Five Components of Standard Work

The main element of standard work is work sequence. That simple element has five key components.

  1. Content. Standardized work is highly defined work. The first step is to define the content. What are the steps needed to complete a product or service? Initially, these steps may be vague or broad. The goal is continuous improvement of the standard, so it is okay to start vague or broad.
  1. Sequence. This is the meat of the second element. Now that the steps have been determined, what is the current best sequence to perform those steps? This ensures all operators are performing the process in a similar manner – the cornerstone for both standardization and improvement of the standard.
  1. Timing. Timing is a critical component of standardized work. It is required for operators to be able to run self-diagnostics and seek help on their own. It drives respect for people in this manner. It also provides the leader with a means to perform leader Kamishibai (visual controls) on the process.
  1. Location. Location defines where the work is done. This is important when an organization’s standard work becomes more defined. It denotes which steps in the process are done where. Thus, when demand changes and the tasks (or content) are separated between two or more operators rather than a single operator, it is clear where each operator conducts that task.
  1. Outcome. Outcome defines the expected quality of the product, in the safest manner, within the expected amount of total time to complete one piece.

Success Measures of Standard Work

Standardized work is successful when:

  • It drives the organization to Kaizen. A mentor always told me if your standardized work hasn’t changed in three to six months, it isn’t standardized work – you should always be striving to improve. As the current best way, it allows an organization to capture small changes between operators, so all can learn and benefit. In this way, it helps capture that tribal knowledge that so many people seem to struggle to capture.
  • It functions as a diagnostic device. Having standardized work allows operators to analyze their work, identifying which steps they are not able to perform at the current standard. This gives them the opportunity to ask for help rather than waiting to be disciplined for poor performance after the fact. It also allows leaders to review the process in real time, observing operators as they conduct tasks (part of leader standardized work). When they vary from the documented process, leaders can determine if their process is more effective (thus driving Kaizen) or less effective (driving coaching opportunities).
  • It functions to drive out waste and eliminate problems. It gives everyone a chance to see the waste in the process. Many times, as we create standard work, I hear individuals say, “I never realized I walked that much” or “Wow, I use a combination wrench, not the air ratchet.” Without a standard, everyone performs the task differently, making problem-solving difficult. As Taiichi Ohno, the founder of the Toyota Production System said: Without standards, there can be no Kaizen.

When Lean is a focus on reducing people or adding work (without the elimination of waste) or is focused too heavily on manufacturing (meaning no enterprise focus), the transformation will fail. Will some improvements be made? Absolutely! Will they be sustained or, more importantly, continuously improved upon? Absolutely not!

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It is a simple theory. The difficulty lies in understanding the reaction, preparing for the reaction and working with the reaction. Failure to understand the relationship a Lean transformation has with the entire business will cause an unexpected, and unwanted, reaction.


About the Author