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In Lean and in Life, start with a work standard

Yesterday, I attended a short webinar by Lean Frontiers and the TWI Institute entitled “An Introduction to Standardized Work and the 5 Levels“. This webinar is free so if you’re interested, feel free to watch it through my personal link above.

The title is a little daunting I know but bear with me and hopefully you’ll make the same connection I did when starting to think about standards, lean and life.

Having never worked in a lean automobile company or any company that was at the highest levels of lean, I have never had the fully hands on experience of working somewhere where ‘standardized work’ was a part of daily life. After watching the webinar I wonder how many companies actually do have the holy grail of Level 5 effective standardized work. The reason I say this is because until I watched this webinar I had struggled to truly grasp the difference between standards, standard work, standard operating procedures and standardized work. Whew! who wouldn’t be confused?

While watching the webinar I had one of those great moments of clarity where you go ‘Wow….oh …wow…yeah I get it now.” I love those.

In our company we are working hard on updating and revamping our standard operating procedure system. Myself and another team member have been battling through the way we have done procedures in the past and keep saying to ourselves. “This is way more than we need, who uses these anyway, what do our team members really need?” In some ways we had quietly already come to the answer but not realized it. During the webinar it suddenly dawned on me that we had been on the right track all along. What we really needed to focus on was Work Standards, not Standard Procedures.

In Toyota, everything starts with the Work Standard. Taiichi Ohno once famously said, ‘without standards, there can be no improvement.’ I, probably like many people, thought he was talking about standard procedures but actually its way simpler than that.

When you remember that everything at Toyota is based on the elimination of waste it makes perfect sense. In order to improve, you must have a source of waste. Waste is anything that is outside of the normal, or perfect condition. So the first thing you do is establish what is ‘normal’. This is the Work Standard. It could be a standard for quality, machine operation or people. Once the standard is established, anything outside of normal is an opportunity for improvement and the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle begins. The penultimate result of this process is Effective Standardized Work, the holy grail.

In our company, we need to spend less time focusing on perfecting standard operating procedures telling people how to do a process and more time making sure that the work standards are clearly established and understood. Only then, will the procedures we develop be worthwhile as they will cover what has been discovered to be needed through the PDCA process rather than trying to cover everything for everyone.

So how does this apply to our daily, outside of work lives? It’s simple. Up until yesterday, it had never occurred to me that I could create a ‘work standard’ so to speak for my own personal ‘quality or process requirements.’

For example, imagine I was a product in a lean company and I had to weigh within a certain weight range. Unfortunately when I was checked I was over that specified range. The leadership in my company could see that I was outside the normal range and so put in place a Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) problem solving process that resulted in the right corrective and preventative actions. The next time I was processed, I was back in the normal range.

For this concept to work I would first have to clearly establish what the work standards were for myself. Now this is going to be pretty personal for everyone but you could use this idea on any aspect of your life that needed to kept within a certain level of control. For example: weight, eating habits, exercise plan, learning activities, playing an instrument and so on.

We all manage these things to some extent and of course notice when things start to slip. I think think that this is somewhat like the difference between a lean company and a traditional company. In a lean company, the standard is not met and the PDCA cycle begins immediately, quickly correcting the small issue. In a traditional company, it is more likely that the standard will slip to the point that there are further negative ramifications and then there is a crisis meeting. Let’s face it, who hasn’t had a post New Year’s crisis meeting with themselves? “We really have to get it together here guys, that waistline is not going to shrink itself!” When we do that, we are a traditional company rather than a lean one.

While it might seem a bit crazy and OTT to set work standards for ourselves, I think in my case, that’s exactly what I need to make sure that my personal, continuous improvement program keeps moving forwards and that problems are corrected before reaching crisis point. Because who really has the time or money for buying bigger jeans anyway?

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