Standards are one of those simple things that, for some reason, are easily misused. Maybe because they are simple, some don’t take them seriously. However they are serious stuff and definitely one of the building blocks of improvement. It is common to hear some concerns about standards, these are some of the most popular:
- Standards kill creativity: The enemy of creativity is not standardization. Standards make clear how to do a task in the best way (safe, with quality, quickly, cost-effective). All the information is available for you at one single point, to use it and to challenge it. You don’t have to waste your time and mental energy remembering how and why things are done this way, you can focus in understanding and creating. The enemy of creativity is not standardization, it is fear (https://twitter.com/DanielJonesLean/status/565844039376060417)
- Standards kill flexibility: Standards put together all the available knowledge today to do a task right. Whenever an urgency comes, you don’t need to recall how to do things, everything is at your fingertips easily. You will react quicker and your chances of success are higher. Is “safe, fast and with quality” a good definition of “flexible” for you?
- Standards kill improvement: Standards define how things must be done and create controlled conditions for improvement (see Lean DNA). Standards are probably the only way to consolidate best practices and to enable robust PDCA learning cycles. Without standards, it is almost impossible to define experiments to improve the work.
- Standards don’t make sense in my department/ my company: Yes, we all feel unique but, if you really try, you will find out that the amount of processes that won’t benefit from standardization (due to extreme unpredictability, incredible complexity) is lower than you think. Even in those cases, some portions of the process could be standardized and will help stabilize the rest of the process.
- Standards don’t add value: Please read the previous bullets again… 🙂
Standards are great, but don’t forget that over-standardization is as bad as under-standardization.
Picture from: http://harmful.cat-v.org/standards/
I remember a conversation with a person who worked in a kindergarten. I saw her taking care of over 20 children at the same time, keeping a more-than-acceptable atmosphere of control. I asked her about her secret and she told me: “you just have to make them finish what they are doing before they start doing something else”. And she was right. For example, if children were playing, they were told to put their toys back in their place before they would go to the playground. It did not work all the times, of course, but the idea was there.
With process standards you have pretty much the same. It’s important to consider 3 different phases:
- What things you need and what are the necessary steps to start the process (aka “shopping cart”)
- What things you need and what are the necessary steps to do the process (aka “standard worksheet”)
- What things you need and what are the necessary steps to finish the process (aka “quality check-sheet”)
Nobody ever forgets phase 2 when standardizing a process. However phases 1 and 3 can not always be found in work standards, although they are equally important to get the benefits of standardization. Making sure that everything is ready to use (phase 1) and providing instructions on how to check that the work has been performed correctly (step 3) are as important as describing how to do the work (phase 2). The combination of all 3 phases creates robust work standards that improve work flow (preventing people from starting new things before they have finished their previous work), reduce defects (helping people now if all critical quality attributes are present), and are also great training documents.