What is 'Standard Work?'

Everyone’s lean journey starts in a different place for a different reason, at a different time. Regardless of when or why, all the same rules apply, and underlying almost every lean principle is Standard Work.

What is Standard Work? In short, it is creating, and documenting a way of doing a task. The fundamental principle is: Everything is a process, and every process can be improved. The catch is, despite what we typically think, we cannot improve a process until it is standardized.

Sure, the owner or manager can run around showing people how to do it better, but the minute they walk away, I’d bet it’s a matter of minutes until workers go right back to what they were doing before, or even if they continue to try to execute as directed, it won’t be as good as you were hoping.

Without standards
Let’s quickly examine an operation or process that doesn’t have any standard work. The first thing you will notice is when people are asked who is good at what, there are usually specialists.

For example, “Joe is our best assembler” or “Mark is the fastest saw operator.”

This makes it hard to change tasks because they are specialists. Moving them off their best position will have an adverse effect on production, which no one ever wants to risk.

Quantum Lean
The best standardized procedure documents are low on text, big on pictures, and clear for anyone to understand. Videos are also a great SOP tool. (Click on the image to enlarge.)


What’s the harm in just leaving people where they are good? Nothing, if they never get bored, never call in sick, will never retire and don’t mind working 24/7. There is an overwhelming likelihood that you will have to have another worker doing that task at some point.

This would be the equivalent of your baker taking the day off, and today it’s your job to bake the cookies, with no recipe. I personally will not be first in line to eat your cookies, no offense.

Other impacts
What about the effects of no standards on another two very important aspects of the business: your process and your customer?

Most of us have more than two or three steps our products go through before they are ready for shipment. If we neglect standardization, we might find that our processes seem fast one day, and slow the next.

This could be the effects of step 2 having to compensate for something step 1 didn’t quite do the same as last time. This also can cause excessive inspection of incoming parts because subsequent stations cannot rely on their parts always being right, or to their expectations.

Best Damn Doors
Even something as basic as sanding needs a standardized procedure. (Click on the image to enlarge.)


They only need to receive bad parts a few times for this paranoia to set in. I can’t tell you how many factories I have seen this in, and I say, “But the parts look good, aren’t they?”  And the response is something like, “Well, back in 1976 I had to resend a whole order, I don’t want to do that again.”

Not realizing the excessive inspection is much more laborious than fixing a bad part every 45 years.

Impact on customers
And finally, there’s our customers. Arguably the most important part of the business. They might not use the word “standard” when they talk about you, but they sure will use words like: reliable, quality, on time. If every third install or shipment isn’t the same as the rest, to the untrained eye, they will easily see you don’t have standards. If all your shipments are perfect in the customers’ view, the trained eye will likely suspect a lot of over processing in your operation.

Time for standards
So why don’t we all make standard work the backbone of our operations if it’s so important?

I believe mostly because it’s extremely painful to spend the time to create standards when you could be doing the actual work.

There is also the “I don’t have time” reason. And even if you’re one of the few who digs your heels in and starts creating standards, typically they aren’t perfect the first time, and the onslaught of revisions is enough to take the wind out of anyone’s sails.

Is there a quick and easy cure for this? Sadly, no. It’s like anything, whether it’s playing the guitar, going on a diet, or starting a workout routine, the results are never instantaneous, the beginning is hard, and the more time you dedicate to it, the easier it becomes. The most important part is to start. 

Keep it simple
The key to creating and keeping up on your standard work documents is three-fold. Number one is it must be simple. Easy to create, easy to edit and easy to go between revisions. If you’re doing them in a cumbersome fashion, I promise you will give up on it. If you want to see a great example of an online tool to create standard work, check out the video link in this article. You can see how we make standard work documents a breeze.

Second, expect to revise your first attempts 10 times. Once you start doing this, you will see how much information is hidden between those ears and what we just take for granted. You might get it right in fewer than 10 tries, but then you will celebrate a seventh-try success rather than be angry they keep coming back.

Last but not least, you must use them. Every time someone has a question, you must resist answering it, and revert back to “What’s the standard say.” Every time, the moment you don’t is the exact moment people stop looking at them and bog you down all day with questions.

Tips for standards
Here are some hints to make life just a bit easier on yourself. Three simple rules are:

  1. BIG pictures
  2. Small amount of writing
  3. Make a video

Now that you’re all excited and ready to start introducing your team to standard work, brace yourself for a bit of pushback from existing employees. Generally, it will be along the lines of, “We are custom, you can’t make standards,” or “You just want us to be robots.”

The response to “we are custom,” is “Yes, you are correct. We might not be able to standardize everything, but what things can we standardize?” Then start there.

The robot rebuttal is a personal favorite. The response is:  “Standards actually set you free, I don’t want your creative genius trapped thinking about how to execute the process. I’d much rather you be thinking about how to improve it.”

If you’re still not sold on investing in standard work, take a moment and think up five of your favorite big companies and ask yourself, “Do they have standards?” Then follow up with, “Would they still be my favorite company if they didn’t have standards?”

If McDonald's had a different tasting Big Mac in each city, would you still eat there? Or if every iPhone worked just a little different, would you buy it? Could you even scale a business that didn’t have good standards in place?

Aside from increased production, improved quality, and making training new people much easier and faster, there is another side benefit you might not have considered. I know I didn’t until it unfolded in front of me. I can promise 95 percent of every argument between people in the plant is because there is no standard. Next time you’re mitigating a dispute ask why five times and see if a standard work document would have prevented the disagreement.

If you need any help creating standard work, I’m here to help. Just remember to start every sentence with, “What’s the standard” and you’re on your way.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].