Out of Step: What’s Important to Standardize?


Ironically enough, the drummers in this photo are out of step. One is forward with the left foot, one is forward with the right. As a drummer and former marching band member (8 years in high school and college), it's embarrassing to find a stock image with the drummers out of step.

So what's my point? This came up the other day in a discussion about “what do we standardize?” As with many lean methods, a risk with “standard work” is that we start using the tool for the sake of using the tool. “Let's go standardize things!” might be the rallying cry without stepping back to think “why?”

I'd argue that we should focus first on standardizing work methods that impact safety, quality, on-time delivery, or cost. If we have something we can standard, we should ask first “should this be standardized?” and “what will the benefit be?” If the benefit of standardizing the location of tools on a surgical tray is a reduced risk of grabbing the wrong instrument, then that should be standardized (and it probably already is). You don't have to FORCE people to standardize when they see benefit to it.

Thinking back to the example of the UK Office 5S effort (corrected link 6:39 PM), was there benefit to standardizing the location of a stapler? I'd argue not, especially if it's not a shared workspace. There's probably much more important waste to be attacked first. Now, in a hospital lab, where a stapler is part of a shared work process that many people participate in, there might be value in marking the stapler location, so people aren't searching for it and delaying the processing of the lab paperwork.

I think it's a matter of context. We're not looking for excuses to NOT standardize. But, we're thinking about “what should we focus on first?” in our standardization efforts. The purpose of standardization is to reduce waste and to do a better job for the customer.

Back to the marching band analogy. In band, there are many things we standardize because it looks good visually in a parade or on the field:

  • What foot we step with first (always the left)
  • How big our steps are (22.5 inches if you're marching in traditional “8 to 5” style, 8 steps for every 5 yards, a method invented at my alma mater)
  • How we turn, etc.

In the marching band context, it was VERY important that we all took that first step with the left foot and you always “hit a yard line” with your right foot. It probably didn't matter which foot went first, as long as it was standard.

In a non-marching band setting, whether in a factory or a hospital, will “standard work” go to that level of detail, telling employees which foot goes first? Of course not! It doesn't add any value in that context.

If you start standardizing things for the sake of standardizing (including 5S-ing for the sake of 5S-ing), you'll run the risk of looking silly and alienating your employees who will wonder why you aren't helping them go after the real waste in your system. Ask them what needs standardizing, as opposed to telling them (as an engineer or manager) what you think needs standardizing.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I agree with you, you have to be careful.

    At our facilities, we are surrounded by windows. A couple of years ago it was decided by the owner of the company that we should have all of our window blinds set to the same spot (he had come back from a visit to our New York office and was distracted by the variability of the window blinds across the street).

    I got to be the messenger to the staff. We explained to them that our organization is focused on reducing variability in ALL aspects of the organization. This includes window blinds. Plus it looks nicer. This announcement was greeted with eye-rolls and snickers as you would expect. Someone even brought in a yard stick to measure the blind height!

    But a few weeks later, people started reporting that they were doing the same thing at their homes because they could not stand the “messy” look of having their blinds set to different heights.

    This is one of those unknowable areas Dr. Deming talks about — I cannot provide a number that says this has given us X dollars on the bottomline. But when you here people talk about a mindset change that is going on in their personal lives as well — that is priceless.


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