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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation

Standardized Work: Avoiding the Complexity Trap

No matter how great the principles behind a manual are, it has no value if it cannot be applied in practice.” – Taiichi Ohno*

One of the most critical but challenging elements of an organization’s lean transformation effort is the adoption of standardized work.  Often underestimated by those just learning lean, the benefits of standardized work include among others, reducing process and product variability, providing a starting point for investigating problems, helping people identify when a problem is about to occur, and enabling improvements to be sustained.

Within the oil and gas industry, it is common to face resistance from people recounting images of one of the major players known for creating large, overly complicated instructions that strangle innovation and, in reality, cannot be fully followed – and oil and gas is unfortunately not the only industry where this happens.  There are companies in virtually every industry that complicate documentation to the point of ineffectiveness and crushing the creativity of team workers.  Documents in these companies tend to be long, complex, and rarely change, and as a result, create a false sense of security that the standards are helping achieve consistent, predictable, and inherently safe performance throughout the operation.

How Much is Too Much?

So what is the difference between a lean thinking approach to standard work and one where the documentation is ineffective and stifling?  Both approach standardization with the objective of reducing variation in the way work is done.  Both use standards to assure the most important aspects of the process are followed and work is done safely and with a high level of quality.

To prevent heading down the wrong path when rolling out standardized work, it is important to understand the key differences between the two approaches and what it is that makes one more effective than the other.

Guided by Scientific Method

Although there are numerous differences between a lean and traditional approach to standardization, the most glaring is that work in lean thinking organizations is guided by scientific method or a PDSA (plan-do-study-act) mindset, while traditional organizations are not.  Although a seemingly simple difference, the effect on standardization, as well as other aspects of the business, can be dramatic.

In both types of organizations, standardized work is the best current practice known at the time it was developed and is expected to be followed as written.  Organizations guided by PDSA thinking, however, consciously accept the notion that following the practice to consistently producing safe, efficient, and high quality work is a hypothesis – and people are always looking for the hypothesis to fail.  Whenever a defect, delay, or incident occurs, it is understood that the hypothesis has failed and that a quick adjustment – or improvement – is necessary to prevent a similar failure from occurring in the future.  The resulting change to the process becomes a new hypothesis that it will operate as expected and, when it fails, will drive further action.

Traditional organizations do not approach standards in this manner because it is not normal behavior for people to be looking for something they created to fail.  A significant amount of time would be spent creating the perfect document that includes enough detail to accurately describe the prescribed process.  When the instruction is released, the work would be considered “done” and the person would move on to his or her next project.  The document would only be revised when a big problem occurs that identifies a glaring weakness needing attention.  And since people are not specifically looking for the practice to fail, the small issues would be ignored.  As a result, continual improvement of the process does not occur and variability between operators in the way work is actually done grows.

A Shift in Thinking

Keeping instructions short, visual, and easy-to-follow requires more than just telling people to do so.  It requires a far more significant shift in thinking than many people realize or are ready to accept.  When standardized work is approached standardized work as part of a continual experiment toward creating the perfect process, it will become seen as far more than just a way to convey information.  It will become seen as the anchor to learning and effective problem-solving, and a critical element to the company’s overall success.

Copyright © 2014 Gregg Stocker

* From The Toyota Mindset: The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno by Yoshihito Wakamatsu (Enna Products Limited, Bellingham, WA, 2009)

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About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.

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