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Standard Work


Avoiding hiring debacles with standard work

I was fortunate last week to join the Lean Enterprise Institute for a gemba walks class at TaylorMade Golf. While they will be the first to admit that they have a long way to go before they can be considered a lean organization, I was struck by the emphasis placed on standard work. TaylorMade’s business is highly seasonal, which means that each year they have to hire—and train—large numbers of new workers. (Volume from the low season to high season increases about 800%.) Getting these workers up to speed to receive and handle materials, not to mention assemble clubs, is a formidable challenge for the company.

That’s where the standard work comes in. With the standard work, team leaders and supervisors are able to train new hires more quickly, and they’re able to objectively and fairly assess how the new workers are doing in relation to the agreed-upon standard. This assessment allows the TaylorMade to determine whether to keep a new employee, promote them to another role, or to let them go.

Of course, many companies understand the value of standard work for front-line employees on the shop floor. But consider the benefits at the managerial or executive level. What would happen if there was standard work for new managers, VPs, and C-suite employees? What if they had a regular cadence of work that brought them to the front lines to observe and coach employees? What if they had a structured and defined management method that they were expected to follow in your company?

Having lived through more than my fair share of poor hires, bad fits, and cultural mismatches, I believe that they could have been largely avoided if we had had standard work for leaders. Standard work is no guarantee of a perfect hire, of course. But even if we did hire poorly, I know for sure that the mismatch would have been spotted earlier, and the person replaced, more promptly, with a better fit. What’s your way of assessing performance? How do you know (before the annual performance review) if an employee is panning out?


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Reversing the vector of accountability


One of the most unappreciated benefits of leader standard work is the powerful way in which it reverses the “vector of accountability.”

When we talk about accountability in an organization, typically we refer to the way in which lower level staff is accountable to executives (or managers, or supervisors) for certain actions. Workers must be held accountable if we want to execute and perform well. In this view, the vector of accountability always points upwards, from the front lines to leadership.

This is where leader standard work comes in. When a CEO makes a commitment to visit the shop floor (or the marketing department, or the warehouse) each day and learn what her people are doing and what obstacles they face, she’s now accountable to her team for performance. When a VP creates standard work obligating him to participate in 5S activities once per month, he’s making a promise to his team that he must fulfill or risk compromising his leadership credentials. The vector of accountability flips: the leader is now accountable to the team.

The psychological implications of this reversal are profound. Any organization comprises a web of human relationships, and for those relationships to be healthy and successful, there must be some degree of symmetry. Demanding that lower level staff be accountable to leaders without a corresponding accountability of leaders to lower level staff is a recipe for unhealthy, weak relationships. Reversing the vector of accountability brings balance to the interpersonal relationships in an organization. It’s a concrete way of leading with humility, of being a servant leader.

To implement this idea, post your standard work in the open, visible to the entire company. Create a simple check sheet for the activities that shows what you’ll do and when, and bring it with you when you do that standard work. Then—and this is key—your team checks the boxes to show that you did, in fact, fulfill your commitment. They validate your standard work. Lastly, post the filled in check sheet where everyone can see it.

Try it. It’s one more way to show respect for people. You’ll be amazed at the transformation in your relationships with your team.

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Standard work, creativity, and Apple

I've written before how checklists are a valuable element of standard work, and certainly the use of checklists in the military, aviation, and healthcare has reduced errors and improved outcomes. But did you know that checklists lie at the heart of Apple's new product development process? When we look at an iPhone, it's easy to get seduced into thinking that its creation was a magical piece of genius, that it sprang full-grown from Steve Jobs' forehead like Athena from Zeus. However, according to a recent post on Quartz (and Leander Kahney's book about Jony Ive) the iPhone -- and all other Apple devices -- are the result of a rigorously detailed product development process.

Embodied in a program that runs on the company’s internal network, the ANPP [Apple new product process] resembled a giant checklistIt detailed exactly what everyone was to do at every stage for every product, with instructions for every department ranging from hardware to software, and on to operations, finance, marketing, even the support teams that troubleshoot and repair the product after it goes to market. "It’s everything from the supply chain to the stores," said one former executive. "It’s hooked into all the suppliers and the suppliers’ suppliers.Hundreds of companiesEverything from the paint and the screws to the chips.”

Now obviously, the ANPP is much more than a simple checklist. At the same time, however, it's also much more useful than one of those coma-inducing, 500-line Gantt charts that many companies use to drive and monitor projects. The ANPP ensures that standards are followed, that silly mistakes are avoided, and most of all, that knowledge becomes explicit and reusable, rather than tacit and tribal.

When you have an ANPP, you eliminate the non-value-adding drag on people's time and attention caused by rework, loopbacks, and superfluous confirmations and approvals. You give people the time and space they need to create something genuinely wonderful.



How lean improves individual productivity

I'm a rabid believer that lean concepts and tools can improve personal productivity enormously -- hell, I (literally) wrote the book on that. But it's nice to see validation from the go-go world of internet startups. Bill Trenchard, founder of LiveOps and now partner at First Round Capital, just published a piece that supports my argument. He believes that 70% of a tech CEO's time is spent sub-optimally, and his countermeasures come straight out of the lean playbook.

Creating Standard Work: Bill suggests identifying the core processes -- which are often repetitive -- that drive the company, and creating standard work around them.

For anything you do more than three times, write down your process in detail. Build playbooks that you can hand off to someone else, so they can execute something exactly the way you would. Never get held up by people asking what the next step is or whom they should ask about a process.

This is how Uber in particular scaled so quickly. They’ve grown to over 70 cities and they’ve killed it in all of them. How did they do it? With a playbook. They have a list of the things they do in every single city when they launch, with slight regional adjustments. They have practiced this method and tested it and wrote it all down. So now they just execute, like turning a key.

The startups that I have seen succeed the most at scaling are the ones who have systematized their common actions and core procedures early, and made a habit of it as they grew.

Reducing the Waste of Over-processing: Bill takes on the always thorny issue of managing email and sees stupendous over-processing waste in the way we read and re-read our messages:

Think about postal mail for a second. Do you pick your letters up, look at each one and then put them back down only to pick them up and put them down again and again? This is the definition of insanity. Yet that’s exactly what most of us do with our email.... If you can respond to or act on any email in under two minutes, just do it immediately. If it’s going to require more than two minutes, move it into your task manager to process later. When you do this, you have the ability to prioritize tasks and emails in relation to each other, and your inbox no longer owns your time.

Improving Flow: The psychological research is unanimous on this point -- multitasking doesn't work. Email interruptions, whether self-inflicted or from someone sending you a message, kill your ability to create psychological flow. How to improve the situation? Like me, Bill recommends doing it in chunks to avoid fragmenting your attention:

I recommend the batch route. It lets you focus on email when you need to, and give other tasks the attention they deserve. Constant context-switching makes you mediocre at everything.

Go and See, and Leader Standard Work: Using daily standup meetings (or something similar) as part of leader standard work so that you can identify and solve obstacles quickly is critical in the factory and in the office. Cribbing from both the agile software and lean playbooks, Bill goes to the gemba:

[One of the most productive CEOs I know] circulates the office, stopping to talk to his team members one-on-one or in small groups throughout the day. He asks them:

  • What’s holding you back from getting more done?
  • What are your blockers? Are there any bottlenecks or barriers I can remove for you?
  • What resources or processes would let you move as fast as you want to?

Get the answers to these questions and get it done for your team. If you want them to model speed, you need to model speed yourself. Give them the help they need to do their best work in record time. Responsiveness is key.

Bill's post is a good reminder that lean concepts are not just applicable to factory -- or office -- processes. They're applicable to the way that you, as an individual, work. You can remove waste, improve quality, and increase the value you create in the time you spend at the office. It's the only truly non-replaceable resource. Use it wisely.



How can you bring standard work to communication?

I'm back from the annual Shingo Conference, where my book, A Factory of One, received a Shingo Research Award. A common topic of conversation at the meeting was the importance of standard work in an organization. Seems that whether you're talking about the factory floor or "carpetland" (the office), companies aren't reaping nearly as much benefit from standard work as they could. The R&D engineers at one of my clients have done some interesting work in this area. They're inundated with email (like most people), and they're obligated to check messages as they come in because there might be something urgent. Of course, most messages aren't urgent at all, but the possibility -- and the anxiety -- exists that they might miss something critical, like a major product quality problem.

Their situation is hardly unique, of course. But unlike most groups who simply wave their hands feebly and bemoan their fate, they've deployed standard work to fix the problem. They created a new, standard communication protocol:

Communication Protocol

Pay attention to the critical benefit here: everyone has agreed that email is NOT to be used for urgent or complex issues. This agreement really is significant, because it unshackles people from their BlackBerries during meetings, or product development work, or strategic planning. Or their kids' soccer games. Or dinner. Or sex. Which means that there's now a fighting chance to have some uninterrupted time to, you know, think.

This protocol isn't a breakthrough along the lines of, say, cold fusion. (Or duct tape. Or Oreos, for that matter.) However, the clear expectations and standards around the use of communication tools give the engineers license to ignore the beep of their smartphones and focus on real value-creating activities.

This exact protocol might not work for you. You might want to account for text messages, or IM, or even old-school memos. Every company has an idiosyncratic culture and needs. The important thing isn't how you define your communication protocol, but that you define it.

Give it a try, and let me know how it works out.



Barack Obama and knowledge work kaizen

The October issue of Vanity Fair features a long article by Michael Lewis on Barack Obama -- what it's like to be him and how he deals with the burden of the presidency. One tidbit that struck me was the way that Obama has tried to improve his ability to make decisions. In keeping with recent research that shows that people have finite mental resources for decision-making, Obama has tried to eliminate the trivial decisions that most of us face on a daily basis. In an NPR interview, Lewis explains that

The president started talking about research that showed the mere act of making a decision, however trivial it was, degraded your ability to make a subsequent decision. A lot of ... the trivial decisions in life — what he wears, what he eats — [are] essentially made for him. He's actually aware of research that shows that the more decisions you have to make, the worse you get at making decisions. he analogizes to going shopping at Costco. If you go to Costco and you don't know what you want, you come out exhausted, because you're making all these decisions, and he wants to take those decisions out of his life. So he chucked out all his suits except his blue and grey suits so he doesn't have to think about what he's going to put on in the morning. Food is just arranged for him and he's not making any decisions about what he's eating. What most people spend most of their life deciding about, he's had those decisions are removed from his life. He does this so he creates an environment, a mental environment, where he's got full energy for the decisions that are really important decisions.

As I've described before, Bob Pozen (chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and board member of Medtronics and Nielsen) does much the same thing as Obama. When you have to make many decisions -- and what's the presidency but an unending series of very, very difficult decisions? -- you inevitably become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your mental energy. That hoarding typically leads to one-dimensional analysis, illogical shortcuts, and decisions that tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs.

Toyota -- the high temple of lean -- gets it, too. Over at LeanBlog, our friend Mark Graban once wrote,

I’ve heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that’s not fatigued from constant decision making.

The premium that Obama, Pozen, and others -- not to mention Toyota -- place on simplification is really is another aspect of lean thinking (and probably brings a smile to Matt May's face). I'm not arguing that you have to toss out most of the clothes in your closet, or give up your cereal bar (after all, it works for Pixar). But I am suggesting that you take a hard look at the decisions you make in your daily work and eliminate as many as possible. Spreadsheet, memo, or presentation design; sales call frequency; meeting format -- all these things can be standardized so that you don't have to make decisions. And that will result in better work and better thinking for the stuff that's really important.




Nick Saban and the (lean) Crimson Tide

If you told a football coach that he could learn from Toyota's lean manufacturing methods, he'd probably tell you that a football team isn't a factory -- and then he'd have an offensive lineman throw you out of his office. But it you told that to NIck Saban, University of Alabama football head coach, he'd probably agree.

A new Fortune Magazine article on Saban describes how his "Process" has led to remarkable success in college football: 48-6 in his last 54 games and two national championships in the past three years. Recognizing that his time and attention is the critical, non-renewable resource that he brings to his work, Saban drives out inefficiency -- no matter how small -- wherever he can:

As he sits down at a small table in his expansive wood-paneled corner office, the coach grabs what looks like a garage-door opener and presses the button. Across the room, the door to his office softly whooshes shut. Boom! Nick Saban just saved three seconds. Multiply that enough times and you have a couple of extra months, or years, to recruit more high school stars.

Then there's lunch itself. He has it down to a science -- another in a series of small efficiency measures. Every day, Saban sits at this very table and works through his lunch hour while eating the same exact meal: a salad of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing. No time wasted studying a menu.

What are these examples except eliminating non-value added activities (getting up to open and close a door, or thinking about what to eat) through the use of technology and standard work? (Bob Pozen at the Harvard Business School approaches breakfast, lunch, and even dressing for work the same way.) Saban even standardizes the overall flow of his work, reserving his mornings and afternoons for core football-related work, and scheduling meetings for the middle of the day. This is a classic time management trick, of course -- doing the most important work first.

Above all, Saban focuses on process rather than results. He believes that doing things the right way will inevitably lead to the right outcomes:

What really separates Saban from the crowd is his organizational modus operandi. In Tuscaloosa they call it the Process. It's an approach he implemented first in turnarounds at Michigan State and LSU and seems to have perfected at Alabama. He has a plan for everything. He has a detailed program for his players to follow, and he's highly regimented. Above all, Saban keeps his players and coaches focused on execution -- yes, another word for process -- rather than results.

And of course, by creating standard work for the innumerable tasks comprising the football program, Saban creates the time and mental bandwidth to engage in kaizen and improve the process:

"When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what's important," says Saban. "And then you spend a lot more time on thinking of things that would make it better."

Make no mistake: I'm not saying that Saban runs a "lean" program that adheres to all of the principles outlined by Toyota. I'm arguing that the disciplined focus on identifying value and waste, and the creation of standard work, can be applied to any field of activity, from manufacturing cars to running a football program to writing software. The key is to standardize the non-creative part of the job, so that there's more time and energy available for the creative components.




Monkey bars physics

Kyle is a VP at a large manufacturing firm. His ascent up the organizational food chain has been fast and impressive, and now he's reaping the financial rewards of all his hard work. Kyle also works horrific hours, between 90 and 100 hours per week. He doesn't spent nearly as much time with his family as he'd (or they'd) like. More importantly, he's got a pile of strategic initiatives and projects as long as his arm that are lying moribund on his desk. He knows they're important to both his and the company's future success, but right now they've got about as much chance of completion as Transformers 3 does of winning the best picture Oscar. It just ain't gonna happen.

Kyle's obviously competent, but he's being held back by his own proficiency. He's still doing work that he did earlier in his career because he's really, really good at it. He's forgotten the essential physics of monkey bars that he learned on the playground: you can't move forward until you let go of previous bar.

Kyle is holding onto work that should be -- must be -- delegated to others. It's almost certain that it won't get done the way that he would have done it. And it's possible that it won't be done as well as he would have done it. If that's an issue, then it's his responsibility to create standard work to ensure that it's done his way. In any event, he can't keep doing it. If he's holding onto those lower value activities, he can't turn his attention to the bigger picture issues that the company needs him to address.

I often see companies struggle with execution because managers and executives aren't able to devote the time and attention to the critical initiatives facing their firms. They haven't internalized the physics of monkey bars. They have to let go before they can move forward.



Building consensus? Try standard work.

I recently visited a company that's almost totally consensus-driven. Virtually every decision that influences other groups or functional silos is made through consensus; no one makes decisions by fiat. This is neither good nor bad -- the world is full of successful organizations that are run autocratically. People self-select to work in that kind of environment, and they accept the benefits (speed, autonomy, a sense of progress) as well as the drawbacks. For this company, it works: it's a vital part of their culture, and while it does slow them down a bit, when they actually decide to move, everyone is on board.

But here's the thing: gaining consensus is a grueling process. Meeting after meeting after meeting, usually ending ambiguously with no clear direction and no clear action items to move forward. A nearly unending string of email conversations that are frustrating at best and confusing at worst. Two steps forward and one step back.

What this company is crying out for is a process for building consensus. In fact, let's call it by its lean name: standardized work: a clear method by which a person can build a case for the initiative, communicate it to colleagues, incorporate their feedback, gain their support, and thereby move forward. Slowly, perhaps, but consistently.

Sound familiar? Maybe a bit like an A3?

In fact, I think the A3 is a perfect structure for building consensus. It replaces difficult-to-schedule, bloated meetings with shorter 1:1 meetings between stakeholders. It eliminates turgid Powerpoint decks with a concise story told on one page. And it structures a dialog so that people don't have an opportunity (or at least, less of an opportunity) to climb up on their favorite soapbox and air their grievances about the proposed initiative. In other words, the A3 can help mitigate the downside of consensus-building.

This company -- or any consensus-driven company, for that matter -- probably won't ever be the fastest to market. But once they have a decision, they can act with overwhelming discipline and coordination. And that spells success.



Choice kills.

Choice kills. Okay, that's a bit dramatic. But as Bob Pozen (chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and board member of Medtronics and Nielsen) demonstrates, eliminating complexity and making choices simpler can go a long way towards keeping you focused on your strategic goals.

In a recent HBR blog piece, Pozen explains how he makes he reduces the number of choices he has to make.

On a daily basis, I try to keep the material aspects of life as simple as possible. I get up every morning around 7 a.m., shave, shower and dress by 7:15 a.m. Then I read two newspapers while having breakfast and leave around 7:30 a.m. The night before I set out what I'm going to wear. I have five winter outfits and five summer outfits to simplify my life. I get up, take a shower the same way, and sit in the same place to tie my shoes. I basically eat the same thing for breakfast every morning in the same place at our kitchen table. I'm very boring in the morning.

This is a common theme among prolific people. I've written before about the way Stephen King gets himself ready for work:

There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.

Sheena Iyengar, Columbia University professor and author of The Art of Choosing, designed a famous study in which she demonstrated that too much choice is paralyzing: after we hit about seven items, it's too difficult for our brains to sift through the competing options. As a result, we default to the easiest choice: doing nothing. And since doing nothing at the office is usually frowned upon by your boss, the default choice usually ends up being email, instead of real work. (Incidentally, this is another reason why I'm not a big fan of the infinite to-do list: too many options makes it difficult to settle upon the things you really need to do.)

Mark Graban once wrote that

I've heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that's not fatigued from constant decision making.

You may not want to go to Pozen's extremes -- you may want to have more options in the morning than Cheerios or Life cereal -- but it's worth thinking about what you can do to reduce choice, routinize what can be routinized, and free yourself up to make complex decisions.



If Jon Stewart can do it, so can you.

To paraphrase the US Army, you're a factory of one. Stuff lands in your inbox, or on your desk, or is handed to you in a meeting -- market research, budgets, trend forecasts, lots of venti soy half-caf pumpkin lattes -- and out pops beautiful, creative, groundbreaking solutions. Answers to all the biggest questions your organization faces: should we expand into Latvia or Estonia? Should we extend our lobster bib product line by adding oyster bibs? How can we convince our CFO that we really need the Aeron chair "true black" colorway?

And if you're a factory of one producing this stellar work, like any other factory, you should have a process.

But what I hear all the time is, "My work is too unpredictable to define a process." Or, "My work is different. I'm not like the sales admin staff processing invoices, or the mail room guy whose job is just to send out letters. My work is creative."


Of course it's creative. But even so, you can define a process. In fact, I'll go so far as to quote W. Edwards Deming:

If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you are doing.

Yeah, yeah, I know -- you're not a factory drone, stamping out widgets. But there's a process, a system -- standard work --  for everything that's done well. Even comedy.

Don't believe me? Here's Jon Stewart, explaining to Fresh Air's Terry Gross how he and his team of writers produce their comedy:

You'd be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is, and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized.

People always think "The Daily Show," you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We've instituted -- to be able to sort of wean through all this material and synthesize it, and try and come up with things to do -- we have a very, kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything, and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.

I'm a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don't know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it.

Get it? It's a process. Even for something as creative as writing jokes, there's a structure to follow. And by establishing that structure, they can unleash their comedy. Without it, they'd probably be a bunch of unfunny fat guys eating donuts and wondering why their show just got canceled.

Now, take another look at your work. Sure, you have to be creative. But whether you'd a doctor in an emergency department, the marketing director for a shoe company, or the coach of a professional football team, you can define a process. I'll go even further: you can create standard work.

Of course there will be variability: the doctor never knows whose going to walk through the hospital doors, the marketer doesn't know what customer will complain about an ad campaign, the coach doesn't know which player will get injured (or in the case of the NY Jets, get arrested for stupidity). But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule.

If you try to manage your work for the exceptions, you'll never get anything done. Jon Stewart said that it took him six years to write his first 45 minutes of material. Now, with a rigidly defined process (and, to be fair, a team of writers), he creates 30 minutes every single day. The structure, and the standard work you define, enable you to manage the unpredictable crises.

If something as evanescent as comic inspiration can be turned into a process, there's no excuse for you to not create a process for your own work.



"I'm not stressed out."

Mark Graban tells the following story about his visit to VIBCO:

The two women who were working at the front desk (answering phone calls and customer requests, among other duties) were describing the impact of Lean on their work – how they standardized many of their activities and applied a Kaizen mindset to making their work easier. There were lots of little Lean improvements in place, stuff they had worked on themselves. They mentioned how they were able to get much more done during their day.

A visiting healthcare executive asked one of the women if she was working harder as a result of those changes. She responded,

It doesn’t feel like I’m working harder. I’m not stressed out. I’m getting more done and there’s a sense of accomplishment.

There's an important point here, and it's easy to miss. Generally speaking, the front desk job is incredibly demanding: there's no time for planning and there's no predictability to the schedule -- when you're working the phones and tending to the front door, you have no idea what's coming through the door or when. In a lot of respects, it's a lot like working in the emergency department at a hospital: you never know what kind of patient will come through the door next.

What's noteworthy is that even in a position where the worker has to be immediately responsive to the unpredictable incoming work (after all, they can't just not answer the phones, or lock the front door), they were able to standardize some element of their activities and make those activities easier. And the establishment of standardization resulted in less stress and more work completed. (Not to mention that nice feeling of accomplishment.)

If you're reading this blog, there's an excellent chance that you're not a receptionist, and therefore that your job allows for a more measured response time. For the most part, you don't have to answer the phone on the first ring, or respond to an email within a minute of its arrival (even if you feel you do). Think about the effect that standardizing -- and improving -- some of your work could have on your ability to accomplish your work.

Analyze your responsibilities. Break out the recurring, predictable work (ordering supplies, processing email, dictating cases) from the creative, unpredictable work (writing ad copy, choosing a color palette for the product line, choosing a medication protocol). Standardize and kaizen the predictable stuff. Get more work done. With less stress.

If a receptionist can do it, you can too.



Why do we spend so much time putting out fires?

What does your typical day look like? It's probably not very predictable, except insofar as the first thing you do is check email to see what crises broke out between the time you went home for dinner and the time you finished your morning blueberry Pop-Tart. As for the rest of it, it's probably a series of fire-fighting exercises, studded with pointless meetings and punctuated by the occasional 20 minute oasis of calm where you get to, you know, think. Not so for Jim Lancaster, president of Lantech. Jim has brought standardized work and problem solving to all levels of management -- including his own. At Lantech, there's a strict cadence for the plan-do-check-adjust cycle. Even if you're not in manufacturing, bear with me for this description -- I promise to make the connection to your banking, or alumni development, or accounting job.

Individual operators check their machines and review production at 6:00am. Then the team leader meets with all the operators at 6:10 to discuss the day's work and any potential problems. Then the area supervisor meets with all the team leaders at 6:20. Then the plant manager meets with all the supervisors at 6:30. Then the VP of manufacturing meets with all the plant managers at 6:40. Then all the VPs meet with the executive team at 6:50, and so on. Problems are solved right then and there at the location of the problem and at the affected level. If solving a problem requires a trade-off of resources, then the decision is escalated to the next level -- but the analysis and the countermeasures are done at the location of the problem, where the work is done.

Now the coolest part: this process is repeated throughout the company, not just in the factory. Accounting, sales, marketing, credit -- pick the department, and you'll  have the supervisors, managers, directors, VPs, and president at your desk at the same time everyday. They're there to see your work and help you solve problems, right then, right there. You don't have to try to herd cats and schedule a meeting with the necessary people three days later (a meeting in which half the people are checking their Blackberries anyway). You don't have to suffer through the spirit-sapping chain of emails that somehow seem to only confuse the issue and delay its resolution.

As you'd imagine, this standard work of going around to where all the work is done takes a lot of time. But the power of this standard behavior is that it eliminates much of the wasted time, effort, and energy that we unthinkingly spend trying to solve problems in a conference room long after they've occurred. The process keeps everyone up to date on where things stand throughout the organization -- no tedious, long-winded, meanderings in the 60 minute weekly (or god help you, 90 minute monthly) meeting.

When I used to work in product marketing at Asics, I remember the frequent conflicts and problems that cropped up with sales. There were miscommunications about pricing and inventory levels that we didn't identify until it was too late -- after the sales rep had made a promise to a customer. And we had frequent issues with the product development team that could only be resolved through tedious meetings long after the fact, when it was expensive to make product changes. I've seen the same types of problems crop up between sales and the credit department, with a customer being put on credit hold, taken off, put back on, taken off again --  and all the while, his shipment of product languished in the warehouse.

In hindsight, I think that most of these problems could have been avoided in the first place with standard work that formalized communication and brought problem solving down to the place where the work was being done. Think about it: firefighting vs. standard work. Sexy vs. boring. Stressful vs. calming. How do you want to spend your days?