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Jeff Liker

Dan Jones: Standardization and Lean

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Thursday, April 4, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Discussions about standards and standardisation should always include a discussion of the context. Establishing standards in a traditional “command-and-control” environment or even using Tayloristic “do-it-to-people” consultants is very different to the intent and experience in a lean environment. What is important is how standards are established and for what purpose.

In a lean situation standards are a manifestation of the scientific thought process that underlies lean thinking. Deeply understanding your own work and how this creates value for customers and end users and how to improve it is the right place to start learning how to think using the scientific approach. Standards are arrived at and changed by team members carefully gathering the facts to reveal the current or future way to perform this task. Following a standard not only enables the work to be done right first time every time but is also fundamental to linking this work with the work of others upstream and downstream.

While standards establish the base line for proposed improvements they are also the key to building common capabilities and ways of thinking amongst the team, and a common language for communicating with managers and experts and across the organisation. Getting everyone to use the scientific approach to perform and improve their work to create value for customers and users and sustained results for the organisation is the ultimate goal of lean thinking. I think of lean as the scientific approach to working together more effectively.

Away from the machining or assembly line standardisation is usually the end result of a long process that begins with trying to create order out of the apparent chaos of customer demand or a broken process. In transaction processing this might begin by identifying unnecessary demand created by the broken process itself and eliminating it by tracking the root causes, separating out the routine many from the complex tail of real demand, and then simplifying and standardising the handling of the routine work. In healthcare this might start by analysing demand and variability, identifying the common presenting problems and associated routings before analysing and standardising the work and removing delays along the patient journey.  In every case the objective is to find the core flows of work and eliminate special cause variation before linking steps together and creating the stability necessary to standardise the work.

The end result of standardising the routine work is that it frees up time to spend on the more complicated cases and turns front-line staff into problem solvers. This is true in even the most creative environments like design and engineering. This overcomes one of the great fears knowledge workers have about lean and any form of standardization — that it will kill the creativity they came to work to do. In fact the common experience is that it does the opposite, removing much of the hassle, waste, and chaos that otherwise interrupts their creative work.

Finally standards are relevant at every level in the organisation, from the front-line to the top management, and they never stand still. Every time Toyota establishes a new plant they distil the learning from their existing facilities and try to go one better – to establish a new standard. In effect this is their chance to carry out a new experiment with a different way of organising the work, such as assembling cars sideways rather than nose to tail. The same could be said for each new product launch, where the product will embody new product features and lessons will have been learnt in the process of designing it. In every case it is the reflections on the lessons learnt from challenging the last standard that defines the experiment to establish the new standard.

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