Knowledge WorkersThe goals of standard work are simple and straightforward. They are to:

  • Provide everyone who performs a task with a well-documented, visual system that guides them through the proper execution of that task.
  • Ensure that everyone performing a task follows a consistent reproducible process that minimizes opportunities for variation and error.
  • Ensure that work flows smoothly through the process in a stable, predictable and consistent manner with acceptable cycle times and quality.
  • Provide for a consistent sequence and layout of activities so that the task can be easily shared with multiple workers during periods of high demand.
  • Make training easy, consistent and effective.

When these principles are thoughtfully applied, the result is to free individuals from the tedium and stress of ensuring that work is done properly so that they have bandwidth to think more broadly about the purpose and effect of their jobs and to innovate. Most knowledge workers, however, resist the application of standard work because they feel it limits their professionalism and autonomy. This is unfortunate because, when done right, standard work creates autonomy.

The problem dates back to Fredrick Taylor and Henry Ford when work became over-standardized. Over-standardization is not so bad when the work is repetitive and physical but that is not the world most knowledge workers live in. When work is over-standardized, it becomes dehumanized. Over-specification and over-management of work reduces people to the status of machines and they will rebel. This is an inappropriate application of standard work.

Another problem that creates resistance with knowledge workers is the partial application of standard work. Many managers are eager to impose standards on their staff but not willing to accept leader standard work as part of the bargain. When highly skilled workers see restrictions placed on how they execute their work but do not also receive the feedback loops and communication channels inherent in having their leaders follow the same guidelines in  the jobs they do, they see only the restriction and none of the benefits. A significant part of the value proposition for standard work is lost when management does not also deploy standard work for leaders.

The key is to stick to the fundamental principles: guide, do not dictate. Focus on ensuring the work is consistent rather than expecting regimental precision. Encourage people to create a predictable stable flow rather than blindly following standards. Balance the need for process uniformity with the expectation that we will respect the intelligence of our workers. When doing these simple things, teams hit a win/win solution. Swing too far toward over-standardization or over-deference to the employee and the resultant situation is neither productive nor stable.

There are five challenges to make standard work effective in any organization. If these challenges are appropriately addressed, standard work is easy to deploy and generally well accepted.

1. All work instructions must be written, reviewed and approved by the employees who actually do the work.

This is probably the most critical factor in ensuring that standard work is effective. All too often, supervisors, industrial engineers, quality assurance or process designers dictate how work should be executed. Beyond the fact that this fails to respect the employees who do the actual work (many of whom have years of practical experience doing these tasks) these other professionals generally do not learn the practical issues needed to do the process and over-focus on select details that may or may not impact the final product.

The employees who do the work have learned the best way to get quality results and this must be acknowledged as part of the standard work. Furthermore, the process of writing the work instructions makes accepting and following these instructions more palatable for the teams on the front line. While others may need to have input and review, the core activity of writing standard work instructions can only effectively be done by those who do the work.

It is not enough, however, to just allow the teams to write their own instructions. Care must also be taken to ensure that:

  • The work instructions are written in language and jargon that is common to the work teams; this may be different from the language and jargon used by those who manage and audit these teams. Standard work instructions are written for those doing the work not those overseeing that work.
  • Work instructions are written from the perspective of the operator doing the job not the work being produced. This seems trivial but it must be taken into consideration that the employees doing the task will be under pressures from outside the process (e.g., customer on hold) while they are working so these instructions should be simple, direct and tangible.
  • Work instructions should focus on standardization only where deviation from the standard has been demonstrated to result in deviation in either the final outcome or the cycle time for the task. Minor style issues should be tolerated in order to achieve team compliance with the important parts of the standard work.

2. Whenever possible, visual controls should be used instead of textual process documentation.

Chances are your team has numerous standard operating procedures and other process documentation that could be used for standard work instructions. Most of these documents are not accessed during the execution of the work because to do so would be cumbersome. These documents are about the workflow but they are not part of the workflow, which means they are not accessed and referenced while the work is being done and sit unused until training or audits occur.

Standard work instructions should be incorporated directly into and referenced as the work is done (point of use). Proper standard work instructions are visuals rather than narratives. Instructions should be incorporated into the tools (e.g., databases and forms) and referenced as the task is completed – not displayed or referenced alongside as the task is being done.

3. Standard work must provide real-time feedback to the workers that the tasks they are doing are being performed correctly and at the correct speed.

Nobody likes to hear after the fact that they have made an error. Avoiding errors is a critical part of the value proposition for anyone employing standard work instructions. When employees agree to use work instructions rather than perform a task they know well from memory, they need tangible benefits – being on-time and correct.

4. Standard work should facilitate line balancing both within a value stream and as takt fluctuates.

Most service processes neither are load balanced nor do they receive a constant and predictable workload across the day or month. This means that some employees are overworked while others are sometimes idle. Work comes in waves. Load balancing through cellular production allows a shifting of resources to alleviate this overburden but work cells only work when the standard work is defined in such a manner to allow task sharing.

The best analogy is that of a sous-chef. Work is broken down so that the chef, in charge and accountable for the entire process, can focus on the tasks that require the most expertise while delegating smaller tasks (e.g., chopping food) to cooks who are not yet experts. In this way people are trained to handle ever more complex tasks but the masters are kept from being overwhelmed when demand is high.

5. Leaders must also adopt standard work that governs how they interact with their employees.

Allowing leadership to engage with workers in an unpredictable or random manner, even when well-intentioned, destroys morale and accountability. Leaders must learn to integrate themselves into specific touch points (e.g., team huddles) rather than micromanaging or ignoring work done by their teams. More damage can be done by a leader who is seen as the random, drive-by observer and commenter than by a leader who allows teams to flounder and struggle without support.

Leader standard work should include these critical components:

  • Daily team reflection: This can be as simple as routinely asking team members how well they did, what problems they have encountered and where they need help.
  • Gemba walks: Nothing substitutes for seeing how work is being done. Where is the team struggling, where they are excelling, where they need help and where a leader should stand back and let them work it out.
  • Response to upsets: Every process will have times when something breaks. There needs to be a mechanism for shifting resources, priorities and demands fluidly in response to these upsets.
  • Mentoring: If a leader does not develop your people, who will? If leaders do not do it now, when will they have time? Making sure a team is prepared for the future, making sure people advance and making sure a team has a pipeline of new leaders is the work of a great leader.
  • Strategy deployment: A good leader is focused on the future. What needs to change, how and when? Employees look to their leaders for assurance that if they do their jobs today, the process changes needed to keep the business flowing will be done by leadership so that tomorrow is also successful.

If it is desirable that knowledge workers use standard work, leaders must remember what standard work is there to do. Use it where it is important, and be flexible enough to allow some style to creep in when a lack of conformity does not create variation or delays. Above all, leaders should respect the intelligence of their staff.


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