'Horses', 'Chestnuts', 'Standard' and 'Work'


Work Standards are one thing. Standard Work is something different all together. In talking to a lot of folks pursuing lean, however, I can only think of the remark Lincoln made to Douglas in the first of their historic debates. He said one of Douglas’ allegations about him “is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.” To hear some people, they similarly describe lean in a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which they convince themselves that Standard Work is just another form of Work Standards.

When one talks about work standards it conjures up images of industrial engineers with stop watches, a clipboard of forms created by Maynard and the boys back in the heyday of MTM - Methods Time Measurement. The purpose is to derive time allowances down to fractions of seconds for measuring efficiency and productivity. To derive numbers to feed incentive pay systems and to keep cost accountants happy. To generally paint workers into tight corners to be sure there is no lollygagging going on.

Standard Work is not just old school time standards dressed up with pictures and described in simple language. It is an entirely different animal aimed at an entirely different set of objectives. Rather than a measurement and control device – an accounting input – the primary purpose for Standard Work is communications. It is the way best methods and an ongoing pattern of small improvement ideas are documented and passed on to other people doing the same thing. The person working on first shift comes up with an idea – it is documented in Standard Work and the person doing that job on second shift gets the benefit of the improvement.

It is the baseline for improvement. Standard Work sets the way a job is done – good, bad or somewhere in the middle. But the job is done consistently in a certain manner. Once consistency is established Standard Work is the launching point for ideas to do the job better. Without a Standard approach the job is never done the same way twice, or the same way by different people, making it very difficult to come up with better ways.

Standard Work is the training tool. It spells out the job for the new employee, making it easier for him or her to get up to speed much faster.

In short, Standard Work is a living, breathing document that is continually updated as ideas pour forth. It is the cornerstone for the kaizen effort. That is a far cry from the old IE centered stopwatch approach to setting work standards.

There is nothing wrong with IE’s – they can be critical contributors to facilitating the kaizen effort. Too often, however, the notion that Standard Work is just an enhancement of Work Standards sets IE’s squarely in the middle if the Standard Work effort, and often makes the constraint.

Standard Work should be owned by the people doing the work, with IE’s and team leaders helping, but not sitting squarely on the critical path of that living and breathing. When that happens – and it happens far too often – the IE is the bottleneck in the kaizen effort. Improvements are not continuous, happening at the pace at which people have improvement ideas. Instead it happens at the pace the IE can review, approve and implement ideas.

Just as switching the order in wording between horses and chestnuts changes the meaning entirely, changing the order of the words ‘Standard’ and “Work” makes all the difference in the world.

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