Standard Work - A Must for Improving Organizations

Published May 2011

In past columns I’ve introduced 5S as a logical first step for organizations beginning a continuous improvement journey. As a quick reminder, 5S is a process so-named because its five components all begin with the letter S:

  • Sort – Remove all of the stuff from the work area that doesn’t support the job
  • Showcase – Return the work area to a good-as-new condition
  • Set in Order – Identify the absolute best location for storing each of the survivors of the Sort phase
  • Standardize – Establish clear, visual standards which make it obvious where everything belongs as well as required cleanliness levels
  • Sustain – Hold everyone accountable to maintain the clean and orderly workplace

The first three phases of 5S result in a cleaner, more organized workplace. But mastering Standardize and Sustain is even more important, because they establish the habits which will determine if virtually any future performance improvement will be maintained.

This month I’d like to introduce Standard Work as another continuous improvement tool which has universal application, regardless of whether your organization bends metal, educates students, processes insurance claims, or provides healthcare.

Standard Work is defined as the documented known best process for completing a critical, repetitive task. By “best” I mean the safest, highest quality, or most efficient sequence of steps for getting the job done.

In a healthy environment of continuous improvement, employees are constantly challenging themselves to use their creativity and knowledge to improve Standard Work, thus resulting in an improved process for everyone (not just the person who has the idea).

Thus the final two phases of 5S – Standardize and Sustain – are basically the Standard Work for keeping the work area neat and tidy.

Standard Work provides numerous benefits to an organization:

  • Standard Work is the training document for the process, thus providing training consistency. Without it, each trained person adds, omits or changes various lesson points as they subsequently train the next person in the chain. Before long the training resembles the message passed on via the Telephone Game which we played as children.
  • Standard Work is the baseline against which future suggested improvements will be measured. This provides an objective means for determining whether an idea is truly better or not.
  • When a true improvement is discovered, Standard Work assures that everyone is educated on the better process and understands that they are expected to use it.

Like almost all tools, the degree to which Standard Work contributes to the success of an organization depends on how it is used and not if it is used. And like other tools, determining how it is used depends on leadership.

Here are several best practices to maximize Standard Work within your organization:

  • First and foremost, make it clear that Standard Work must be followed. It is the law for the process covered rather than a tip or suggestion. Thus is should be applied judiciously to only those processes where the sequence followed is critical to safety, quality or productivity.
  • Standard Work must be clearly identified so there is no question as to its existence. Many organizations utilize a logo to make Standard Work documents obvious.
  • Employees performing the task must be represented in the creation of Standard Work. A supervisor or engineer imposing their Standard Work on experienced workers is a recipe for disaster.
  • Standard Work documents must be easily accessible to employees while they are performing the covered task. For hands-on workers this may mean a laminated hard copy while office workers may require a link to an electronic copy on their computer’s desktop.
  • A regular audit process to ensure that employees are able and willing to follow Standard Work is important. These audits start with the assumption that people want to follow the process and work to remove barriers that keep them from doing so. Employees who are not willing to follow Standard Work, however, must be held accountable.

Employees in organizations that have established a healthy Standard Work culture appreciate the confidence it provides them knowing they are doing the job in the best known manner. It also eliminates the frustration of co-workers utilizing a less than optimal method, the root of many “shift wars.” Most importantly, customers recognize the benefit by receiving consistently great products and services.

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