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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Work standards are both individual and collective

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Saturday, June 23, 2012 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I was in a plant this week where assembly operators filmed each other and compared how they work on the same station stopwatch in hand, and get to an agreement on the standard way to build a specific part. On most aspects they agreed there was a “best way” in the stopwatch sense, on some they agreed to disagree as each individually preferred to do this gesture this way or that. As they went through the exercise repeatedly, they also highlighted many opportunities for kaizen to improve the workstation to make the job easier.

I’m not sure the source of the standard matters much as long as people agree that this is the way we know how to do the job with the less muda at this point in time. I believe that the important dimensions are 1) we know rather than think – that is there was an objective test method to decide this is true and 2) we agree that this is, so far, the best way.

In this sense, some standards will be individual – for instance the leading engineer expert in one specific topic can establish a standard individually that others will follow, trusting that she knows best – or collective as operators can agree together on one best way of doing a task. Certainly, in engineering we’ll see a lot more of standards “to be applied” that standards “to be collectively crafted”. This is not due to standards but to the knowledge context.

Which leads us to a second point in which the cultural context makes a difference. Standards work when operators or engineers voluntarily seek to apply the standard as best they can in order to work as best they can. If the person is keen to do their job well, applying the standard is not a constraint, but a natural thing to do. Striving to apply the standard correctly is a personal goal, as a tai chi student trying their best to achieve the perfect form.

In a poor culture of work that fosters defiance, where people feel helpless and surrounded by arbitrary rules, then applying standards is seen as a burden. Employees will seek their individual space in not applying standards and, on the contrary, doing things their way, persuaded the outcome will be better in the end (they’ll get the job done without all that red tape).

So rather than the origin of the standard, I believe the issue is the managerial understanding of what standard work is and how to create the right work culture for standards to be voluntarily sought by people as opposed to rules they reject in the name of autonomy. Obviously, in this light, having standards come out as the result of team efforts as I saw last week is far more effective, since the individual and collective blur in a joint action and agreement, as opposed to have standards imposed by an expert (which is also necessary in many cases, particularly with engineering problems). Insisting on team efforts will make the adoption of “imposed” standards so much easier.

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