The most powerful but least-used tool to inspire efficiency

Posted by Rick Winkler on Apr 25, 2018 4:12:18 PM

Written by Rick Winkler, IMEC Technical Specialist 

Throughout my 20+year journey with continuous improvement, I’ve helped individuals experience a wide array of necessary “tools” for executing lean continuous improvement (CI). But none are perhaps more integral for success than standard work.

Cogwheel Gear Mechanism Icon on Blue Arrow on a Grey Background.Standard work is likely the most powerful—but least used—lean tool available for individuals and organizations hoping to make change and inspire efficiency improvements. By documenting the current best practice, standard work creates the baseline for kaizen or continuous improvement events. It is important to understand that the baseline standard created initially is expected to be improved upon (hence continuous improvement); the new standard becomes the baseline for further improvements, and on and on.

Like all lean events and actions, improving standard work is a never-ending process. I’ve referred to these programs with my clients as “the project that never ends.” By constantly employing the CI philosophy, in time you will change the culture of the area in which the techniques are deployed. I can give no time frame in which this change will be accomplished; too many factors will affect it. I can say that it does take an inordinate amount of discipline and dedication to implement—and maintain—a successful lean transformation. The indicator I like to use is when you hear an employee saying, “This is the way we’ve always done it” after a transformation program has matured; that tells me the cultural change has been made. 

Standard work consists of three elements:

  • Takt time, or the rate at which products must be made in a process to meet customer demand.
  • The consensus best work sequence in which an operator performs tasks within takt time.
  • The standard inventory levels in raw inventory, work-in-process (WIP) and finished goods (FP), required to keep the process operating smoothly.

Establishing standard work relies on collecting and recording data that defines the sequence or order of events to accomplish a task in the required takt time. These tasks are analyzed by a team typically made up of engineers, CI personnel, supervisors and the operators responsible for the area in question. The idea is to draw upon the diverse knowledge and experience of all to design the process and make improvements.

Benefits of Standard Work
Quite simply, the benefits of standard work include documentation of the current process for all shifts, reductions in variability, easier training of new operators, reductions in injuries and strain, and a baseline for improvement activities.

Standardizing the work adds discipline to the culture, an element that is frequently neglected but essential for lean to take root. Standard work is also a learning tool that supports audits, promotes problem solving, and involves team members in developing poka-yokes.

Standardized work answers the 5W+1H of a process: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Who operates the process, and how many people does it take? What does the final product look like? What are the quality check points and what are the tools required to complete the job? When is a part completed and ready for the next step (how long should the cycle time and takt time be)? Where is the process completed and what does this location look like (standardized work cell, point of use storage of tools, etc.)? Why is this step necessary or value-added, or why is this a quality check point? And the “how” is the process that is followed, within the time and resource constraints.

Overall, the process should not be ambiguous. That being said, standard work is not hard and fast. Standard work is a collection and implementation of the best practices known to that point using a diverse team to help create them. Because improvements in quality, safety, and productivity will appear from time to time, the standard work is to be updated via work instruction documents, training, and practice. If there are ideas that improve quality, safety, or productivity why not share them across multiple shifts?

Portrait of manual worker and manager scanning package in the warehouse

Standard work incorporates what is needed to start the process as well as the finished state of the process. This includes how much raw, WIP and FG material to have on hand and how often component levels must be replenished, as well as defining how often finished goods are retrieved from the work cell and how they are to be positioned for optimal flow.

Standard work is NOT the goal – optimized productivity, safety, and quality are the goals. Standardizing is merely a tool to ensure that those real goals are met. Standardization done to check a box is a waste of time and should not be pursued. All lean tools should be implemented only if they will produce improvements.

Standard work is more than a work instruction document – it’s created by the process users, based on customer requirements provided by management and supervisors (and users too). A manager making a work instruction document and telling his subordinates “Here, this is the process we will follow” does not make work standardized. The process must be created by the users because they are more knowledgeable about the process than anyone else and they’re the ones who have to buy into the standard process.

With standard work, disputes over improvements can be settled using data gathered for quantitative analysis and a touch of “common sense”. No need for hair-pulling arguments – simply go out and prove one method works better than another. Standard work should always be questioned and improvements sought. Feel free and empowered to question everything and employ tools such as the 5-Why’s method.

Standard work is not perfect, but it is the best practices known to that point. Expect standardized processes to change as advancements in technology and mini-kaizens occur to identify opportunities for improvement. In fact, questioning standardized work should be welcomed by all, including management.

For additional content in continuous improvement visit:

Rick Winkler

Written by Rick Winkler

Topics: lean Manufacturing, continuous improvement, process efficiency, standard work

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