Friday, June 25, 2010

Standard Procedures Do Not Have To Be Regimented

Sometimes standardization smacks of regimentation. Workers say, “We each have our favorite way of doing things.”  Implicit in this is, We like it the way it is.  Don’t try to shoehorn us into a one-size-fits-all mold.
Standard work is essential to mass production, even to fairly small-scale mass production.  It is at the core of a quality process that provides a quality product.   A defect is essentially something that deviates from what it should be. The best way to get consistent results is by having a consistent--that is standardized--process.
Standardized work can be regimented, but in the best cases it is organic.  Standards are developed based on our experience of what needs to be controlled in the process.  The standards are implemented.  Their effectiveness is studied and adjustments are made to improve them.  New standards emerge on the basis of our experience of what needs to be controlled in the process.
A standard should be the best, easiest, safest way to accomplish something that we do repeatedly. Best includes the approach that gets us the most consistent results in terms of quality, cost and delivery.  Best includes procedures and devices that prevent mistakes from happening.  Easiest includes avoiding strain and wasted effort. Safest is the way least likely to cause injury or harm to oneself or others.
The standard way is not the right way.  It is the best, easiest, safest way until we come up with a better, easier, or safer way. Thinking of it as the right way shuts out the possibilities for improvement.
Keeping standards organic helps us get compliance by everyone involved.  If there are opportunities to participate in improving standards, people will be more willing to abide by them, while studying their results.
Here is an example of a standard (the best, easiest safest way) to make coffee in an automatic coffee maker that has a thermos carafe.
To make coffee we:  Remove the old coffee and filter, put in a new filter and put in the appropriate amount of fresh coffee grounds, empty the carafe of any left-over coffee and rinse, add fresh water to the tank, start coffee maker.
What does our experience say can go wrong?  If we don’t put in a fresh filter, with fresh coffee, we will get an awful drink.  If we don’t put any water in, we will not get any coffee at all, until we remedy the problem.  If we do not empty and rinse the carafe, we may flood our counter, because the new coffee added to the old overflows the thermos.
Let’s rank things that can go wrong from worst consequences to least:
·      Flooded counter
·      Awful tasting coffee
·      No coffee gets made until we add the missing water.
I can minimize the possibility of these consequences by following this standard procedure:
1.     Empty and rinse the carafe (insures no flooding).
2.     Discard the old filter and grounds and replace with new filter and fresh coffee grounds (insures good tasting, fresh coffee).
3.     Add water and start machine (insures there will be coffee after the necessary interval).
If our counter becomes flooded when we have this standard, it is easier to tell what went wrong. Not only do we suspect that the standard was not followed, we also can quickly discern what part of the standard was missing in the practice.
Standard procedures can be extensive and complex. The best, easiest, safest way to start up a piece of equipment may include dozens of steps. To make sure that all steps are followed we use a checklist of all the things that must be done in their standard sequence. Using a checklist insures that we do not leave any steps out and that everything is done in the best possible sequence.
Experienced pilots use checklists before takeoff and landing and in other circumstances. Their experience might suggest that this is unnecessary, but we know that when there are a lot of steps, critical steps can be forgotten. In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande  gives us a fascinating description of how checklists came to be used in aviation and in other fields, including building skyscrapers.  He has been a pioneer in the use of checklists in surgery and post surgical care, and cites cases in which their use has saved lives.
A world class organization has many standard procedures, and many of them are spelled out in checklists. A fire-fighting organization, rushing from one crisis to another, has few standard procedures.  Each person being able to do his or her work guided only by personal preferences is likely to contribute to crises.  The world class organization has organic standards that are continuously evolving one the basis of the organization’s collective experience.
Asking employees to participate in developing and improving standard procedures is one of the ways to bring out the best in people and in the organization.


  1. I agree that standardisation is definitely the foundation to consistent quality in a product or service, however what would you say to the argument that a set way of working can demean and discourage workers, as it removes their freedom to work how they prefer? I have personally faced workers who find it difficult to adopt a standardised way of working, and am interested in how you would approach this issue.

    Thanks in advance,


  2. I have faced the same problem. It's not a magic solution, but really doing an S-D-C-A cycle and refreshing the standards, finding better, easier, safer ways with employee involvement is what I find offers the most promise. It takes work and leadership to accomplish. All too often standards are reviewed infrequently, with or without operator participation.