The Case for Standardized Work

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The steady hum of machinery added to the palpable tension recently on the shop floor.

“But Freddy on second shift told me to run the bagger like this,” a production worker yelled, trying to be understood. “And that’s how we’ve done it for the last five years.”

“I don’t care,” his supervisor answered. “Tonight you’re going to do it the right way — my way. We’ve got to hit our numbers this month!”

Does this go on at your plant? If so, your work might not be as standardized as you think.

These kinds of cracks in standard work can lead to errors, downtime and lost productivity.

Breakdown Happens

Breakdowns like this can happen even if you have bright, smart people who do good work. If your standard operating procedures (SOPs) are passed from person to person in a disorganized way, or not written down and kept “alive,” your folks will not all agree on what good looks like. And you’ll struggle to create a shared culture that ensures everyone is pulling in the same direction.

It’s time to fix that. It’s time to ensure your system of standardized work, works. That means:

  1. Getting buy-in from key stakeholders and experts—the folks who do the work—to define the key standards that create results.
  2. Training qualified trainers so they can pass along standards and help hold those standards in place—keep them alive.
  3. Developing feedback mechanisms so processes can constantly improve.
  4. Designing organized ways to raise issues, to solve problems in a way that engages the workforce.

Today we’ll talk about the first point—getting the buy in to define, organize, and document standardized work.

Systematically Document

Documenting the step-by-step of how to do the work seems like a daunting task, yet it’s the best way to reach a collective understanding and ensure safe, high-quality results. I’ve seen many companies that have partial documentation, documentation that sits in a binder and is vastly out of date, or “documentation” that is in long-time workers heads. If you have any combination of these various states, your shop floor is likely not producing standardized work to its capacity.

It’s definitely a process to ferret through the details of the work to establish the most efficient way of running the machines on your floor. There are often heated debates about how stuff works and what to call parts and processes. And believe it or not, the debate is constructive! The process of figuring it out is the glue, the buy-in, the engagement that helps set the workforce on a coordinated course.  In the old days, the dictum was, “Do it the way I say because that’s what I say.”  Yet, the complexity of modern business and the need for manufacturers to innovate and remain nimble is a bottom-line growth tactic. Seeing standardized work the same way is a building block for the organization—and is a necessary foundation for growth and innovation.

The top operational challenge facing manufacturers of all sizes is improving
 internal production processes

Let’s be clear. The job of writing everything down isn’t just to get everything in compliance, but to create the collective understanding in the organization from the top to the bottom—and side to side. It’s the actual debate, consensus, and codifying of the terms and processes that address momentum-stopping disagreements that routinely break out during production. A common lexicon is often an important validation of common understanding.

Know the Difference Between Standard and Deviant

The more you can get to collective agreements, the clearer work is and the better positioned you are to identify and solve problems. The old dictum simply ignores that fact that there is not common agreement. Investing in capturing standards of work the right way  communicates that people's input is important, which goes a long way toward communicating respect and improved performance.

Standardized work is your insurance policy amid an ever-changing workforce and customer expectations. It’s more than writing down your work and making the documentation usable. The process of aligning on work standards will help build a culture where people feel respected for their unique contributions and the shop floor has the opportunity to pull in the same direction.

What do you think? Does your experience compare? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.