Lean standards are about teaching to change


Standards are not about compliance and making sure every one does the same thing everywhere. Those are procedures. Standards are about teaching people to change for the better, by themselves.

“Improve!” Isn’t that instruction clear? Well, actually, not so much. As a mental experiment, think about it in your own job. Not “improve the situation” (you can’t control that), not “improve how someone else does their job” (you can’t control that either), but “improve how you do your job!” Most of us will reasonably feel:

  1. What should I improve? Everything I do, I do for a reason
  2. How can I improve, there are procedures everywhere and no one lets me change anything!

Think of Michael James Delligatti, who recently passed away. He ran a McDonalds burger joint and had the idea of creating a bigger sandwich. Would corporate let him do that? Oh no! Wrong positioning, does not fit on the standards bun, one more thing on the menu, it will alienate customers, blah blah blah. In the end, two years after it was introduced, the Big Mac accounted for 19% of the companies sales. I mean, if you can’t even change the size of a burger…

How can we help improve their work autonomously? Well, the first step is to make them study their work. That’s where standards come in.

Pick an activity, write down the sequence of tasks to do it right within the allotted timeframe (standardized work), now, write down the essential standards to get each task right (the tricky points). Study how you do it in practice, let’s say 10 to 20 times, and… voilà, identify the spots where, for whatever reasons, you don’t follow either the standardized sequence or the operations standard. Reasons will mostly be:

  1. In this specific case, there’s a reason why the standard doesn’t apply or is wrong
  2. I don’t grasp how to do one specific task well enough (I don’t master the existing standard)
  3. The machine/equipment/tool is not reliable enough on this spot
  4. The material or information I get doesn’t help me succeed at this task

As you narrow it down, you get naturally to thinking about what you’d need to change to do this better.


But what about the procedure? After all few of us work completely on our own.

This is when you need support from a team leader to:

  1. Test your idea for a change simply, running a few off-line trials
  2. Convince your co-workers this is a good way to do it
  3. Know who’s go-ahead you need in the organization to actually make the change
  4. Get everyone to change how they work
  5. Change the support condition so that the new way will stick

In an ideal world, if every one does is working on such a project at any one time, the organization as a whole will improve organically.

But the starting point of improving the whole business from individual improvements and initiatives, requires that corporate (yes that means YOU corporate guys) understand that standards are not a set of instructions to turn people into robots, but a device to help people study their own work and generate new ideas.

As you do so, and the teamwork increases, you’ll find that teams converge very naturally towards working the same way – if that way makes sense. So now we also get “standardization” without the rigidity of management imposed uniformization.

Standards are the first step of change.

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