Standard work, by any other name....


Peter Bregman, head of his eponymous management consulting company, makes a compelling case for standard work in a recent blog post at Harvard Business Publishing. He writes that recently his work day went quickly and quietly down the toilet as he was ambushed by emails, solving other people's problems, and fire-fighting, all of which kept him from getting done what was really important. He points out that even with his daily to-do lists,
the challenge, as always, is execution. How can you stick to a plan when so many things threaten to derail it? How can you focus on a few important things when so many things require your attention?
Bregman looks to Jack LaLanne for the answer:
At the age of 94, he still spends the first two hours of his day exercising. Ninety minutes lifting weights and 30 minutes swimming or walking. Every morning. . . . So he works, consistently and deliberately, toward his goals. He does the same things day in and day out. He cares about his fitness and he's built it into his schedule.

Bregman argues that
Managing our time needs to become a ritual too. Not simply a list or a vague sense of our priorities. That's not consistent or deliberate. It needs to be an ongoing process we follow no matter what to keep us focused on our priorities throughout the day.

Call it ritual, as Bregman does, or call it standard work. It's the same thing. Just as standard work defines the current best way to do a task, you can define a best way to manage your day. For knowledge workers, that's no easy trick: the lack of level flow of incoming work, and the variation in types of work, makes it difficult to create standards. And let's face it: there's nothing standard or predictable about your company's new line of titanium escargot forks. So it's difficult, but not impossible.

But just as emergency room nurses can't predict what kind of patient is going to be wheeled in through the front door, they can still create standard work for the predictable aspects of their job like rounding, or management of medical supplies, or administrative scut work.

Similarly, you can create standard work to help you manage your day. Bregman suggests three steps:

First, set a plan for the day:
Before turning on your computer, sit down with a blank piece of paper and decide what will make this day highly successful. . . . Write those things down.

Now, most importantly, take your calendar and schedule those things into time slots, placing the hardest and most important items at the beginning of the day. And by the beginning of the day I mean, if possible, before even checking your email. If your entire list does not fit into your calendar, reprioritize your list. There is tremendous power in deciding when and where you are going to do something.

Second, refocus every hour:
Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour. When it rings. . . look at your list and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour.
Third, review:
Shut off your computer and review your day. What worked? Where did you focus? Where did you get distracted? What did you learn that will help you be more productive tomorrow?

In many respects, Bregman is simply creating standard work for daily PDCA activity. There's the morning plan, the hourly production checks, and the end of the day kaizen opportunity.

Bregman writes that
the power of rituals is their predictability. You do the same thing in the same way over and over again. And so the outcome of a ritual is predictable too. If you choose your focus deliberately and wisely and consistently remind yourself of that focus, you will stay focused. It's simple.

And that's true of any standard work. It reduces variability, brings the process under control, and allows for continuous improvement.

Really think about this for a moment.

Standard work is NOT just something for the metal stamping line, or for the invoicing process. Standard work can be -- should be, must be -- applied to the way you work on an individual level as well. Because when you start applying lean principles to your own work, you'll not only improve your own performance, you'll set a model that will inspire others as well.

(Other related posts on applying standard work to knowledge workers available here, here, here, and here.)

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