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Guest Post: Standardized Work is for Leaders, Not Just Assembly Lines

Guest Post: Standardized Work is for Leaders, Not Just Assembly Lines

Mark's note: Today's post is by David Meier, a former Toyota group leader, and co-author of the excellent books The Toyota Way Fieldbook and Toyota Talent: Developing Your People the Toyota Way. He is currently working on a project to renovate and re-open a Kentucky distillery. I've learned a ton from David and I'm happy to share his thoughts and insights here. He's also a contributor at The Lean Edge.

David is answering the question: “How does standardized work apply to leaders?”

david meierWhat we can say for sure is that people will by nature “skim” any topic and formulate a hypothesis based on a limited view. In this case, they read about or see someone performing a repetitive task like on an assembly line along with a declaration that the person is performing “standardized work” and thus make erroneous assumptions about what standard work really is.

This rather simple association between things is a means for our brains to deal with the billions (trillions?) of bits of information flowing in from our senses. Humans, like all other organisms in the universe, must adhere to the laws of thermodynamics, namely the conservation of energy.

Our brains are roughly 5% of our body mass, but consume almost 20% of our energy! And that is in the “economy” mode. Over the millennia, we have developed “shortcuts” to help with the process of data management. One of the shortcuts is “compartmentalization.”

In this mode we tend to make quick, simple associations and skim over the details. There are numerous studies what show this phenomenon. The classic example is the “switching person” experiment.

In this experiment, the test subject appears at a desk (like a hotel) and begins a transaction. During the transaction, the clerk ducks down behind the desk and a different person pops up to complete the transaction. The vast majority (I think it is about 80%) of people NEVER NOTICE! They may notice features such as glasses, or height, and sex of the researcher. But, they often miss not so subtle changes.

We can predict, then, that many people will consider the question of standardized work and conclude that it must mean it applies only to work that is repetitious in nature. They will say, “My work is not like that, so standardized work is not possible for me.” This is true for leaders and many other people in the organization who do not have cyclical repeatable work.

Another part of the challenge is that standardized work is one of the elements of Lean that is philosophical, conceptual, and tactical. This means that it is something that we hold as a value or belief about how to get the best results.

It is also a way of thinking about work processes. There is no “set way” to do standardized work, nor a set definition of what it means. It is a concept, an idea or way of thinking about how to do the work. The good news of this is that there is no right or wrong way to do it (but we love to know the “right” way so that actually frustrates us!).

It is necessary to go back to the philosophical level to understand why we believe that standardized work will somehow be better. At this level, we also will see that there is a connection with another philosophy (standardized work is really a subset of this) – that no problem should be hidden.

From there, we know that the basis for any problem is a reference point for the way something should be or is intended to be. This is known as a standard. Standardized work provides a reference to compare the actual condition to so that it is possible to see a deviation (problem).

One note of caution here — be very careful in your decisions regarding what to standardize! The philosophy states that NO problem should be hidden, but there needs to be some clarification. Nothing in this world is at a state of perfection, therefore, EVERYTHING is technically a problem, and it is certain that you will never correct everything! It is imperative to create standards where there is significant risk, and not to “over standardize.”

Here is another part of the challenge to our thinking. We tend to think in absolutes. We might believe that everything can (or should) be standardized. We also tend to think that if everything is not possible then nothing is possible (why bother).

Another skill that humans are inherently poor at is determination of risk. If the threat is imminent, then we are reasonably good at assessment. If the risk is separated by any length of time or distance (we can't see or feel it personally) our ability to effectively assess the probability of occurrence or the consequence if it occurs is diminished greatly.

I often ask groups of people to determine what percentage of their work is critical. I often get numbers at 80% or more! (By the way no one ever has asked me to clarify the meaning of critical before answering). By definition, things that are critical are those for which any slight deviation from a KNOWN standard (way of doing something) will lead to a KNOWN problem with a significant consequence.

Even within that definition, it is necessary to clarify the terms “slight” and “significant” as we may have some differing opinions. In reality maybe 5 to 10% of all tasks are critical. Maybe it is even less.

Many tasks are important to varying degrees, and many things don't make much difference at all. We know this from the Pareto principle.

But, you can see this analysis of tasks and work methods takes EFFORT and, if we go back to the first challenge, our brains are designed to avoid excessive effort. (It might even be argued that the genetic predisposition to avoid thinking was historically beneficial for survival. Those who consumed less fuel would have been more likely to survive times of famine. We really need to stop bemoaning the fact that some people “just don't think!” They are natural survivors!))

One more thing and then I shall wrap this up (at last!).  For some reason, people tend to see the elements of Lean in a “go, do, check the box, next” mentality. The fact is there is no “done.” The point is that people see standardized work as a task on a list, and when the task is complete they move to the next task.

Like all other aspects of this process, standardized work is best approached in an iterative fashion. Identify the most critical aspects of work and standardize those. When those are stable move to the next most critical items. If you are able to sustain that, then move on to the next items. This is really the nature of continuous improvement anyway.

Ok, now for a simple answer. Try to move people away from absolutes. The entire work of a leader is not repeating on a cyclical basis, but ELEMENTS of the work are. Some of those elements matter a great deal and there should be a defined process for how, when and/or where to perform them. We don't want operators on the plant floor just “winging it” so why would we want the leader to “use their best judgment”?

If you take a look at Toyota Talent (with Jeff Liker), you can see that teaching people the process of making decisions (judgment ability) is a unique challenge. The actual outcome varies BASED ON certain factors taken into consideration. How do you teach people to make decisions effectively? You clarify the factors taken into consideration and continuously validate the outcome. In other words, set a standard and measure performance based on following the standard.

At Toyota this was referred to as “leveling up,” meaning to collectively become more consistent in our judgment ability (bringing skills to a similar level).

One challenge I see is that people who become leaders struggle because the process to do their work has not been carefully defined. They are left to “figure it out” and often end up creating non-value adding activities to fill time (meetings and reports).

If we step back and consider the work elements, we can see that there is a level of consistency within those elements. Think about it like a subroutine in a computer program. The program uses “if-then” logic to determine which subroutine to execute. The subroutine is a standard loop within the larger program.

There is one more thing that occurs to me. I see leaders resist standard work because of the fear that if they don't follow it exactly they will “fail”. Think about that and imagine how people on the line feel when we set standard work! Again going back to the philosophical level we remember that we create a “no fault, no blame” environment.

Failure to follow a standard is not a fault. When the standard is not followed, the result is exactly what we wanted — recognition of a deviation. From there, we need to evaluate to determine if the deviation was anticipated and whether there is a “systemic” failure (our process is broken), and what corrective action is needed to fix the deviation.

For the leader standard work is more like a “plan” and we know that the best laid plans are subject to change. We must all remember that the point is to “do our best.” If we agree that something is important (critical items for sure), then we should strive to do our best and follow the defined process.

Keep in mind that EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of work is not defined to the nth degree! Some items will have some latitude, or will have a decision tree- an if/then scenario with multiple possible options. Just because there is variance in possible decisions does not mean it is not standardized.

Just an aside — ask people how they standardize a material handler, or maintenance person, or secretary. There are many jobs in every organization that are not like repetitious factory work. It is possible to create a standard. It just does not repeat in a certain way over and over.

Once again I am reminded of the answer I got when I asked my trainers this type of question. They would always answer very sincerely and the same way.

“It depends.”

Meaning think about it and decide what works for what you are trying to achieve.

Sorry for the lengthy answer, but people ask these seemingly simple questions as if there is some simple answer, silver bullet that if applied will magically work. Every situation is the same — think about it, decide what action to take, take it, and evaluate results. If results match expectations do more. If not go back to thinking and try again! That's all this Lean stuff really is.

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David Meier
David Meier is the founder and president of Lean Associates, Inc., and is the co-author with Jeffrey Liker of the best-selling books, <em><a href="http://amzn.to/1Y0YpXG">The Toyota Way Fieldbook</a></em> and <em><a href="http://amzn.to/1Y0YoDe">Toyota Talent: Developing Your People the Toyota Way</a></em>. David learned the Toyota Production System as one of the first leaders hired at Toyota’s Georgetown, KY, facility where he worked in the plastic molding department. Over a 10-year period in Kentucky and Japan, he received training and mentoring in TPS principles including full-time coaching by TPS experts. As a trainer and speaker on how to launch and sustain lean transformations, David has worked in North America, Russia, Europe, Brazil, and Asia for a variety of service and manufacturing industries, including healthcare, food processing, automotive, aerospace, wood and plastic products, chemical processing, metal machining, fabricating, welding, and assembly operations. He currently helps companies implement lean principles through Lean Associates, Inc.


  1. Great explanation. We tend to learn more from what doesn’t go well [failure] that what does go well. My mentor, John Maxwell, refers to it as failing forward. The real gold is within the learning process of adapting to change which drives continuous reflection, awareness and new opportunities to improve. Right on the target of doing more of the good or adjusting and moving towards good which is what the lean (continuous improvement) stuff is all about.


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