A Lean Deal – A Work Standard for Maintaining Improvement

March 20, 2018 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

All too often, the relationship between (fixed) standardized work and (flexible) creativity is viewed as if it were a snail’s attempt to convince a bird that it’s better to crawl on the ground.  The truth is: Standardized work is a powerful tool for gradual improvement.

Who Wants to Be Standardized?

For many entrepreneurs, designers and product developers, the word “standard” has a technocratic connation, and standardization seems to denote something “ordinary” and reminds us of dull mediocrity. The terms seem to apply to electrical appliances more than to the work we do.  According to the Israeli ethos, the achievements of our “Start-Up Nation” are rooted in our ability to break down standardization and disrupt frameworks.  Often, the initial excitement about Lean thinking starts to die down when I try to explain the importance of standardized work for the maintenance of constant improvement. In the context of a variable and stormy marketplace, we find it difficult to think ahead for the long term.  If nothing can be anticipated, and there aren’t any rules anyway, maybe it would just be better to count on our creativity and on our ability to improvise, rather than to depend on standardized work that leads to gradual improvement.
Standardized work, without any connotations, refers to the accepted (and hopefully the most effective) way to complete a task.  The standard is merely the tip of the iceberg that is visible above the water line – the “artifacts and behavior” part of the pyramid that represents the organizational culture, most of which is hidden:

Artifacts and Behavior:

What we do.  For example, dress code, organizational flow charts, overt behavior, degree of formality, organizational logo, division of labor.  This is where our work standard is actually located.

Shared Norms and Values:

What we say.  The answers to questions about why are, and must be, the way they are; philosophies, norms, and justifications that serve as a set of traffic signals to direct the organizational traffic.

 Shared Basic Assumptions

What we think and may not even be conscious of.  The unconscious feelings that we take for granted, with regard to the organization and its work/purpose, with regard to the workers, and with regard to reward and punishment.

There Can Be No Organizational Change without Standardized Work

Designing standardized work is the leadership role – an integral part of designing organizational culture and of any organizational change that we seek to create, and it is constantly and consistently occurring within the framework of organizational learning. This is also the root of the resistance to the term “standardized work,” stemming from the basic assumptions, norms and behaviors that make up the organizational culture.
Overt behavior – work processes and routines (meetings, discussions, interviews, events and casual conversations) – take place within the standards (customs) that frame the life of the organization.  According to the basic assumptions of the managerial culture in the traditional (hierarchical) organization, these standards are dictated by management from the top of the pyramid. It is clear that skilled knowledge workers view this as an affront to their judgement and freedom of creativity and perceive it as a vote of no confidence on the part of management, and their attempts to ensure a work setting that is safe from interventions is essentially their vote of no confidence in management and in the “technocratic” managerial culture that is being forced upon them.

Not by Force and Pressure

Forcible enforcement of standardized work threatens the personal and group work setting that enables knowledge workers to operate in their own way and creatively fulfil their professional and personal vision.  But is it even possible to design standardized work as value producing for team members without forcing it upon them?
Maybe we should be asking this the other way:  What values lead to enforcement of standards? The purpose of an organization’s management is to design a setting that provides teams members with accessible resources so that they can complete their tasks in the best way possible while maintaining high levels of safety and environmental responsibility.
It is impossible to ignore the advantages of a stable setting in a changing environment, or the value of connecting with and involving the professional community in the wisdom of the masses.  Because of the alienation and sense of lack of trust that engineers and knowledge workers have in the traditional views of management, they are willing to pay the price of giving up on the advantages of work in a shared stable setting in which a gradual improvement in team work is taking place and, instead, to waste previous time in attempts to improvise in order to find the resources necessary for their work and reinvent existing knowledge.

Sustainable Standardized Work is designed by the team members

The sources of authority and design of work standards in a Lean enterprise are substantively different from those in a traditional organization.  In a Lean enterprise, the standard is designed at the Gemba by the workers and managers as they perform their work.  The expectation and norm in a Lean enterprise is to simultaneously perform within the framework of the existing work standard while being open to disruption, change and improvement (Kaizen) of that standard.  The existing situation is always an interim stop and the base for the design of the next standard, once its superiority has been proven.

The knowledge in a Lean enterprise belongs to everyone who uses it, not to those who create it.

The work standard is based on respect and trust for people and encouraging each individual to share his or her experience (difficulties and mistakes!) as a contribution to the wisdom of the masses.  Management of an organization that is setting out on the journey to integrate Lean culture strikes a deal with the peoples: management will stop sending down messages from above in exchange for creation of accepted language and work norms – that is, in exchange for a dynamic work standard that creates true value for all teams members; and thus, managements earns the people’s trust without any application of force.
I return to my partners in sophisticated advanced hi-knowledge organizations who are in the midst of a journey to change their managerial perspectives and ask them to reexamine the deal that is being offered within the framework of a Lean enterprise.

Boaz Tamir,

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