Monday, June 25, 2012

How Standard is Standard Work?

By Al Norval

Are standards like straightjackets? There to limit our movement and our creativity? Many people think so.

In fact, standards are there to help put order into things and thereby reduce the waste and variation in how we work. The key is understanding that Standard Work is the current best way of performing a task. That doesn’t mean it’s the ultimate best way of doing the work. It means it’s the best way we know how right now. As we learn more, we’ll figure out more ways to reduce waste in the work and a new standard will be created. That standard will then become the new least waste way to do the work but again as we identify and remove waste through kaizen, the standard work will change.

Most people can understand the linkage between standard work and the elimination of waste but get confused when it comes to standards and creativity.

I like to think of standard work, like sheet music for musicians. The standards provide the base melody. As people are learning to play an instrument, they need to follow the standards closely but as they obtain mastery of the instrument, they begin to riff on the music and create new standards.

In the words of Taiicho Ohno;

“Without standards there can be no kaizen.”

Standards are the foundation for improvement. They form a stable platform upon which we can experiment and set a hypothesis for improvement using the scientific method. Without a stable base built on standards, we’re just building improvement upon a variable base. Our improvement becomes like a house of cards. One slight deviation and the whole thing comes tumbling down.

Sometimes we can’t follow the standard work due to interruptions and disruptions that occur during the execution of the work. When this occurs, there are two choices;
  1. Ignore the cause of the variation and find a workaround

  2. Signal for help and indicate a problem has occurred

Unfortunately most organizations do the former and the workarounds eventually become locked in as the new standard work and the cause of the disruption never gets addressed.

What should happen is that a signal for help goes up. Often this is called an Andon. Help arrives quickly and the standard work is completed and a temporary countermeasure is put in place. The team then goes into problem solving mode and works to eliminate the cause of the disruption so that it doesn’t occur again.

Organizations that understand this know that standards are there to tell us when we can’t meet the standard so that we surface problems. The problems are there anyway, we just need a formal way of surfacing and addressing them or they will become the way we do the work via workarounds.

The key is to make the disruption visible and engage the team in problem solving the root cause.

So, how standard is standard work? It’s standard in the short term but should be constantly changing over time. A rule of thumb I use is that if the standard work hasn’t changed in six months, something is wrong.


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