Standardized Work: “Unity in the Essential, Liberty in the Non-Essential…”


Our Kaizen Institute guide, Brad Schmidt (pictured above) talked to us on Monday about standardized work. He said, of the practice at Toyota, that it's “voluntary standardization.”

This is revolutionary thinking, I believe, for much of the Lean community and it's something I'd like to explore and reflect on a bit.

I've always cringed a bit at the enthusiasm with which traditional “command and control” organizations embrace the idea of “standardized work” with Lean. They might not embrace “Kaizen” (improvement) or other TPS management philosophies, but they love the idea of standard work.

“We can finally force people what to do, in the name of Lean and standardization!,” they might think and say.

“Toyota standardizes everything, so therefore we have to!”

But, do they?

Think again about “voluntary standardization.” Brad elaborated by saying, “They don't force an idea on people, because they will so no anyway.”

This lines up with Taiichi Ohno's idea that standardized work must be written by those who do the work.

I've always found that standardized work means that you standard-ize… there's a spectrum between being completely robotically identical and everybody doing everything completely differently (see my blog post on this).

Instead of standardizing for the sake of standardizing (and forcing this and a specific practice on people), we have to ask 1) for what purpose do we standardize it? (for better safety or quality) and 2) how standard does it have to be? As Brad said, we engage people by having them create a standard and improve it (Kaizen).

Brad said there is:

Unity in the essential

Liberty in the non-essential

Charity in all

Starbucks, for example, is using this principle in teaching Lean in their stores. From presentations I've seen them give, they said they really only have pretty specific standardized work for about FIVE key processes (like making espresso drinks, etc.). They want people to be creative about everything else. They might have standardized work that says you greet each customer, but they don't have to say the exact same thing every time (it shouldn't be too identical or too standardized). Starbucks is giving liberty in the non-essential.

The same idea can apply in healthcare – what do we need to standardize and how standardized does it need to be?

I think people get really upset about standardized work when it's too prescriptive (dictated top-down or no room for judgment) and when there's not liberty in the non-essential.

japan lean healthcare tour postsAt Toyota, we could see how the team metrics boards were not all exactly the same, even in different parts of the same assembly line. The boards are for the team members, not the senior leaders, said Brad. The boards can be different, but I'm sure they don't let people assemble cars in different ways (that's more essential than the boards).

At ThedaCare, the boards are similar (they always measure the same four high-level categories of performance), but there's different measures used specifically in each department. I'd imagine if you want to make your team board colorful and fun, you should be allowed to do that rather than having a rigid standard dictated by senior leaders.

Brad said that the boards being different are “a sign that it's alive.” He compared a “faith” to a “cult” – in the former people are thinking and, in the latter, their minds are turned off.

So, I think we all need to work harder to bust the myth that standard work means everybody doing everything exactly the same way (as it's described in some sources). And then we'll work on busting the myth that Kaizen is only about weeklong events!

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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 saw a presentation last year by Dr. Brent James where he started a protocol for treatment of ARDS almost 20 years ago. His research team continues to monitor and change the protocol. For those that follow the protocol mortality has been reduced several fold even though there hasn’t been a single case where the protocol was followed 100 percent of the time (all patients are different).

    • Dr. James is brilliant… and his work is really based on Dr. Deming’s teachings (as James studied directly with him) so it’s a better approach than the sometimes overly strident view some take (I think incorrectly) with Lean where standardization means identical and some push standardization for the sake of standardization (an approach I find more L.A.M.E. than Lean).

    • The annual quality improvement theme for the hospital we visited yesterday, as stated by the CEO, is:

      “Think for yourself and take action.”

      I’d refer people to Dan Pink’s book “Drive” and the discussion about autonomy (and our podcast where we talk about autonomy versus standardization:

  2. ‘The same idea can apply in healthcare – what do we need to standardize and how standardized does it need to be? I think people get really upset about standardized work when it’s too prescriptive (dictated top-down or no room for judgment) and when there’s not liberty in the non-essential.’

    In fact, it is impossible in healthcare to get work done well if we standardize too much: too many priorities, too many options, too many decisions for multiple patients all at the same time makes it impossible to devise the ‘one right’ way. It takes on-the-fly creativity within the standardized guidance to create the ‘one best way’ at that time.

    And that takes ‘engagement,’ ala “Drive”
    Great trip! Thanks for sharing

  3. While visiting a facility with some senior leaders, we were shown the continuous improvement boards of two different teams. Once was nicely formatted with tape and had pre-printed cards; the other was scribbled on post-it notes stuck on a white board.

    The team using the post-it notes had far more ideas and exhibited much more passion around their improvement work.

    I’m sure you can guess what happened next. One of the leaders wanted to know why we didn’t have standardized improvement boards across the corporation.

    There needs to be a purpose to standardization. It is a countermeasure, and thus should actually solve a problem.

    Standardization for the sake of standardization can be very counter-productive.

  4. Mark,
    Thank you for sharing that quote:

    “Unity in the essential; Liberty in the non-essential; Charity in all”
    I think it highlights the best way lean should be implemented. We can encourage and empower people to think and be creative because their not wasting their time reinventing the wheel on work that should be standardized.

    I’ll share these thoughts with my team – thank you.


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