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OpEx 101: Standard Work Needs to Start at the Top

By Roger Price - June 14, 2017

leader-standard-work.jpgStandard work involves organizing all tasks in the best known method and sequence, using the best combination of people, material, and resources to deliver consistent, timely, and repeatable results. This is one of the foundations of Lean, helping to deliver the predictable and consistent output upon which reliable processes and satisfied customers depend. 

We often think of standard work as it applies to operators doing repetitive production operations. We can evaluate their processes and identify best practices, then define the three critical standard work elements of rate of production (takt time), work sequence, and standard inventory.

What about the work of leaders? Can that benefit from application of standard work? Although a leader’s work may not be seen as a repetitive production operation, it is, in fact, a process and can be improved, particularly with the help of leader standard work. We simply need to identify the process elements and apply standard work methods. Most operational excellence leaders will agree that leadership standard work is critical to sustaining the gains of Lean and other operational excellence improvement efforts.

Remember: “All work is a process and all processes can be improved,” even leadership. 

What do leaders do?

The first step of defining standard work is understanding what the work is. As in assessing standard work in operations, we can answer this question about leaders by observing their day-to-day activities, ideally looking at leaders who demonstrate best practices.

In general, leadership roles include supporting production goals, improving processes, and sustaining progress. Specific tasks involve tracking performance, holding meetings, coaching team members, and visiting the workplace (Gemba walks). These activities can actually be documented in a checklist that leaders can use to track their own performance.

What does leader standard work look like?

Leaders, as well as operational excellence practitioners, can benefit from general best practices in standard work:

1. Structured Daily Calendar

This can help the leader and his team make best use of time. Allocating certain hours of each day for items including workplace visits, one-on-one meetings, open-door time, improvement efforts, and management accountabilities can keep things organized and avoid end-of-the-day scrambles to get things done. While these activities don’t have to follow the prescribed schedule, having a set work sequence is helpful for predictability and organization.

2. Standard Meeting Structure

These can help everyone in the workplace be better prepared and more efficient in using precious time for meetings. For example, all meetings should require communication of prerequisites, statements of desired outcomes, required participation, time required, and follow-up action documentation and tracking. Leaders can use this standard work method to improve their rate of production or takt time.

3. Structured Processes

Examples such as change management and control, can help to limit unwanted variation, both in production operations and in leadership processes.

4. Standard Work

Leaders can use standard work to nurture a motivated workplace. Rather than thinking they are delivering reinforcement, leaders can establish a measurable goal for delivering meaningful positive reinforcement and track performance against that goal.

5. Accountability

This is important in standard work. Leaders can use radar charts or other visual tracking methods to monitor their daily results and make them visible for anyone to see in a walk-by of their offices. What gets monitored gets done, especially when the whole workforce can see the leader’s results, or lack thereof.

On a daily basis, leaders engage in activities to support goal achievement, drive continuous improvement, and make sure gains are sustained. The related leader standard work varies within the hierarchical organization, with top management focused on long-term performance and team leaders and supervisors centered on daily and weekly performance.

Top management will spend more time on goals, performance, and improvement processes while lower managers will spend more time in the workplace, including coaching, process reviews, and problem-solving related to individual operators and workstations.

A day in the life…

Let’s look at the standard work components of a typical day for several levels in the organization.

The operator...

participates in a shift change review to ensure he’s up to date on the process, follows the standards defined for his process, takes breaks when assigned to avoid disrupting the flow, documents his process observations, and participates in the end-of-shift review with his relieving counterpart.

The team leader...

conducts a start-of-shift huddle, visits operators at each workstation to monitor performance and provide coaching as needed, posts performance tracking information, and holds continuous improvement meetings.

The supervisor...

monitors aggregated performance, reviews visual controls, identifies areas for improvement and leads improvement meetings, visits spot locations in the workplace, and holds personnel reviews.

The area manager...

reviews overall trends, identifies improvement needs to achieve longer-term goals, verifies the standard work of supervisors, and makes Gemba visits.

The closer to the workplace, the greater the amount of standardized work. Even at top levels, however, leaders should expect to spend 10% or more of their time in standard work.

Meeting the resistance

Standard work identifies processes involved, establishes a baseline for improvement, documents the best way to do things, ensures consistency, and makes training and transition easier. These elements clearly apply to operational processes, but it should be just as clear that they can all be beneficial for leadership roles.

While some leaders struggle with the idea of having their work defined in such a structured way, many are won over after they actually put leader standard work in place and give it a fair trial. It’s hard to argue with the gains from predictability, efficiency, and cultural influence that are likely to result.

If leaders don’t show they believe in and practice standard work, they can have difficulty getting the rest of their team members to jump on board. Lean leader Tim McMahon articulates this concern quite well: “There is no such thing as self-sustainability, it requires ongoing effort.” On the other hand, leaders who apply standard work to their own processes demonstrate the commitment that is important in their positions as role models for cultural change.

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