The Value of Standard Work

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about standardizing and documenting some of our work. He commented, in a mix of humor and exasperation “nothing we do here is standard.”

I’ve spent most of my career in R&D, and usually management have stated things a little more seriously and strongly: “we can’t standardize what we do; it’s not possible.” Their argument usually takes one of two forms: (A) this is R&D, so we can’t possibly know what the next step is, and therefore we cannot standardize; or (B) this is R&D and standardization is the enemy of the creativity that is needed.


What I’ve found, and others have also reported, is that standard work is the best and surest way to improve R&D effectiveness and efficiency. Standard work enables and facilitates

  • Avoidance of errors, assuring that lessons learned are utilized and not forgotten;
  • Team learning and training;
  • Improvements to make the work more effective;
  • Reduction in variability;
  • Creation of meaningful job descriptions;
  • Greater innovation by reducing the mental and physical overhead of repetitive or standardized work.

In one job, I had the responsibility to develop a small problem-solving group, responsible for initiating and overseeing root cause analysis and corrective action activities. The problem solving activities had been performed on an as-needed basis by another group of experts, but were largely ad hoc. There was an element of customer interface, and my job was to maintain customer satisfaction through timely resolution of problems while reducing the overall cost of the work.

The workload increased by five to ten times during my tenure, but total, bottom-line costs remained roughly constant, representing an increase in efficiency of roughly eighty percent. These cost savings came about almost entirely by developing standard work: documenting processes and developing a suitable set of tools

Mind you, this wasn’t cut-and-dried work; it was problem-solving at its most difficult and “creative.” We were identifying and tracking down new problems with no idea of where we would end up and little indication of where to start. We didn’t have a pre-defined roadmap for tracking down the problems, and the information we had going into each case sometimes looked the same as other cases, yet we would end up with completely different root causes and corrective actions. The work required a high degree of thoughtful assessment and planning of next steps, with a very narrow look-ahead window (in almost every case, the next step would depend on what we learned from the test that we were initiating).

Despite the fact that we were learning at each step and determining what to do next based on newly-available data, we were able to standardize much of the work, reducing the error rate, reducing the effort required for each case and reducing the variation in effort required from case to case.

Standard work does not preclude flexibility. You can still do a lot of different jobs, and be able to address new problems. Standard work just takes the things you do repeatedly and makes them routine, so you don’t waste time thinking about them.