The Lean Office Blog

5 Benefits of Standard Work in the Office

Today’s post focuses on the many benefits of standard work within an office setting.

Standard work is a pillar within many high-performing manufacturing firms. For some reason, even in these organizations, standard work is often reserved for the manufacturing floor. Below we’ll highlight five benefits of implementing standard work in the office.

1. Setting a standard establishes a baseline

In my first professional leadership role, I faced a constant baseline temptation to encourage my team to improve at a frantic pace. The problem was, we were changing so many things at once, it was impossible to tell what changes were having a positive impact on our work. On a daily basis, it felt like the right decision, but when you looked up at the end of the week/month, it often felt ineffective (think “three steps forward, two steps back”). Surely, I thought, after all the improvements we’ve made, there’s got to be more to show than this?! Then, I received a bit of knowledge from a mentor:

“Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen.”

-Taiichi Ohno (or Masaaki Imai)

Kaizen is another way of saying small, incremental improvement. If you think back to the scientific method we all learned in school, when testing a hypothesis, it’s important to have a control group in place. The same concept applies to our work, except that if you have standard work in place, you can effectively call yesterday your control group. Without standard work, yesterday was just a different iteration of your experiment. Imagine having 20 variables, and letting your team change any five every day. How can you tell if the results you observed from yesterday to today were actually caused by any one of the variables you changed? It’s the equivalent of playing the board game Battleship, but the other player gets to move ships between rounds.

The point here is recognizing the value in capturing the baseline so you have a starting-off point.

2. Standard work codifies tribal knowledge

Have you ever gotten in trouble for doing information exchangesomething that you honestly didn’t know was wrong? There’s a certain feeling of righteous indignation that comes over a person when this happens. Maybe the sign saying “don’t climb on the statue” wasn’t visible, maybe the flight attendant hadn’t included “don’t be rude by reclining your seat” in the pre-flight briefing. Whatever the cause, that feeling you get when someone points out your mistake is awful. Why would we want to do that to our employees? In some companies, there’s a ritual similar to hazing that plays out where seasoned employees keep knowledge away from new hires, saying things like “Well, I had to learn the hard way, shouldn’t they, too?” And beyond making your newer team members feel frustrated for committing preventable mistakes, your customers often feel the impact, as well.

Tribal knowledge can be a dangerous side effect of a culture that focuses on individual performance. It’s human nature to want to protect yourself in highly competitive situations, so it’s important to counter that culture prior to making standard work a priority in your office. If your employees become convinced that sharing information actually frees them up for more responsibility, possessing tribal knowledge will be seen as a career limiter instead of a career preserver. 

3. Standard work is an extremely effective training tool

I remember my first hire as a manager, and circling her start trainingdate on the calendar. I created an action item for myself to “create training manual”, and generously gave myself a week to get it done. There was one problem with my plan-we had so much work to get done, my time was taken up with actually doing the work and putting out fires. I looked up on Friday evening, and my past-due action item wasn’t even started, and my new hire was starting Monday. I’d love to tell you I spent the whole weekend creating the training manual, but I used a typical Friday evening technique-bargaining-to convince myself that “I learned by doing, and I turned out OK. Hey, trial by fire is actually preferable to some formal training process. Let’s just go with that!”

Monday morning came, and I can tell you she was not as confident as I was in my training strategy. The results were mixed, and the week ended with me telling a customer that a mistake was made because we had a new employee on the account. For future reference-don’t try that! The real root of the problem had nothing to do with the new employee, and everything to do with my lack of effective training.

Fast forward a few months, and this same new employee had used this sequence of events as motivation to create standard work for her position. When the next new hire arrived, we used this documented standard work in lieu of a training manual. Not only did the new employee get up to speed faster while making fewer errors, but as the process changed over time, the standard work was kept up to date, and new hires always received training on the latest process.

4. Standard work ensures the same inputs produce the same outputs*

This one is especially relevant within an office setting. For inputs outputssome reason, when people sit down at computers, they think of the workspace as more of an art studio than a production line. The problem with this? The concepts of cycle time and quality are non-existent in the world of purely creative pursuits-nor should they be. There is certainly room for flexibility in an office setting, but there should also be a “right way” of performing a process. Maybe you’ve heard one of these: “I really prefer to email instead of talk on the phone;” “I save all this type of work until the end of the day;” “I created a macro to do all of those steps, but no one else knows how to use it.” If some people prefer to respond to a specific issue via phone call, while others prefer email, and either the quality or cycle time differ considerably between the two, a standard way of handling the issue should be established and expected. The goal isn’t to stifle creativity-it’s to focus the creativity on improving from a specific standard.

Quality is sometimes difficult to measure within the service industry. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to discover what the customer wants, and meet those expectations. Creating and holding people accountable to standard work is the absolute best way to ensure your team delivers the same quality of output to your customer every time. If your standard isn’t producing the quality your customer expects? That’s where process improvement steps in.

*There is something called natural variation. No matter how hard you try to standardize the process and inputs, a small amount of variation will always exist. Compared to what you live with if you don’t have standard work, though, this represents a very, very small amount of your overall variation.

5. Standard work provides a safe scapegoat for problem solving

We’ve mentioned in the past the importance scapegoatof separating people from process when conducting problem solving. A really easy way of facilitating these discussions is to make the standard work the object of that discussion. When asking someone about why a defect occurred, there are a few questions to be asked:

  1. Does standard work exist for this task? If not, the action is for standard work to be created, ensuring that this specific defect will be prevented within the created standard work
  2. Was standard work followed? This is the only question that could potentially lead to the person. However, most of the time, there is a perfectly logical reason why it wasn’t followed-it’s out of date, we don’t have the tools needed to do standard work, it was too complicated, I was never trained on it, etc. While the response to each of these varies, it is surprising how often talking about the standard work allows the person to open up about the real problems present in trying to do the work
  3. If standard work was followed, why did the defect occur? Again, back to the process here. A defective output was actually designed into the process. The team can now focus on adjusting standard work and/or adding a poka-yoke (error-proofing device) into the process to prevent defects going forward. Don’t forget to update standard work once you’ve fixed the process!

The next time you have a “what went wrong” discussion with a team member, try focusing the discussion on the process (standard work) instead of who was executing the process. Your team will appreciate it.

Conclusion

There are additional benefits (predictability, organization, lead time reduction, improvement opportunity identification, etc.) that we could cover. Hopefully, the above 5 reasons are enough to convince you that standard work in an office setting is a valuable pursuit for your organization.

I think we’ve laid out a pretty compelling case for why standard work is valuable, even in an office setting. Now, it’s your turn. Do you use standard work for your office-based processes? If no, why not?


The Lean Office is a software tool designed to help organizations implement Lean principles in an office setting and better manage their Lean Management System. Click here to find out more!

2 Comments

  1. Mark Graban

    There’s a typo in the post:

    “Where there is no standard, there can be on kaizen.”

    Should say “no kaizen.”

    That quote is attributed to Ohno, but the only real source that can be found in print is Masaaki Imai writing that… but he learned from Ohno.

    Imai wrote:

    “Where there is no standard, there can be no improvement. For these reasons, standards are the basis for both maintenance and improvement”
    https://kindle.amazon.com/post/GBA0QH2MAOFP

    1. Randy Siever

      Thanks for the input, Mark!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.