Standard Work: The Flywheel of Society

The American psychologist, William James, believed that creating habits was essential to productivity and efficiency. If you'll bear with me (and his turgid, 19th century prose) for just a bit, you'll see he was quite eloquent on the subject:

Habit is the flywheel of society, its most precious conserving agent. The great thing, then, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. We must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against growing into ways that are disadvantageous as we guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automation, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their proper work. There is no more miserable person than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of deliberation. Half the time of such a man goes to deciding or regretting matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

So what does this have to do with John Wooden, the Army, medical training, Toyota – and you?

For those who don't know, John Wooden was the most successful college basketball coach in history. His teams won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, including 7 in a row. (A little perspective: no other coach has won more than three titles.)

Wooden is famous for teaching his players on the first day of practice. . . how to put on their socks and shoes. He didn't want his athletes to get blisters because they put on their socks wrong, and he didn't want their laces to come untied in the middle of a game. And the best way to ensure that their socks and shoes were put on right was to make a system, and then drill it into the kids until it was a habit.

The Army does the same thing in basic training. Soldiers are trained to store, maintain, and strap on their gear in exactly the same way every time. The Army doesn't want soldiers in combat to have to think about where their gear is or whether or not they've maintained it properly.

Similarly, doctors are trained to have a system for everything: from how to conduct a physical exam, to the order in which to lay out their instruments. They even have a system for washing their hands. The sequence for any of these tasks is in and of itself irrelevant. The important point is simply to have a system so that the action becomes automatic and is done the same way every time.

Toyota is famous for defining "standard work" for all its processes. The company has a well-tested, thoroughly documented technique for completing each job, from tightening a bolt to installing an engine to performing a 5S cleanup at the workspace. Like Wooden, the Army, and hospitals, Toyota wants to ensure that each job is done the same way every time. This reduces variation in the process, and results in better quality products.

But as William James pointed out, there's an additional benefit: making tasks routine frees up the individual to think and to be creative. Wooden's basketball players were better able to improvise during games because they didn’t have to worry about their shoelaces coming untied. Soldiers are better able to deal with the chaotic mess of actual battle because they don’t have to think about where their ammunition is. Doctors can respond to emergencies faster because they don't have to fumble to find their instruments. Toyota's workers have more intellectual room to solve problems that crop up on the assembly line because they don't have to decide how to do each step.

And what about you? How do you handle the tasks that should be routine for you? Do you have standard work processes for dealing with email? Phone calls? Filing? Project management? Have you made these tasks routine, automatic, habitual? Or do you deliberate every minor activity? (Hmm, #2 pencil or pen? Designate time on the calendar to handle this email, or just mark it as unread and hope I remember it?)

If you haven’t relegated these tasks to habit, you're less efficient and productive than you could be. You're not adding all the value you can to your organization. And that's not fair – to the organization or to you.

Give yourself the mental space to think, create, and innovate. Give yourself the freedom of discipline.

[Update, June 12, 2007: Tim Walker of the What I've Learned So Far blog, points out that Adolph Rupp has actually won four NCAA men's basketball titles. I stand corrected.]