Standard Work: The Foundation of Lean

Standard Work: The Foundation of Lean

“Where there is no standard, there can be no improvement. For these reasons, standards are the basis for both maintenance and improvement”Masaaki Imai

Standard Work is part of the foundation of all Lean activities.  Without Standard Work, it is nearly impossible to make any improvement.  Therefore, if there is no standard work, the only improvement you can make is to implement standard work.

Standard Work is one of those aspects of Lean that touch so many things and it’s important that you deeply study and understand its value.

First of all, let’s understand that Standard Work is not a noun, it’s a verb.  It’s not a document, it’s the practice of performing a process in a repeated, consistent method.  There is a level of discipline that exists within standard work, otherwise there is an absence of standard work.  In other words, if you don’t repeat the prescribed standard work every time, you are practicing random work.

As Mr. Imai states, you cannot implement an improvement in a process that is not standardized.  If you introduce a new practice into a process that is random and chaotic, you are only making it more random and chaotic, aren’t you?  You must stabilize and control the process by establishing a method and repeating it.  Only then, can you properly understand the process and identify the improvement opportunity.  After you understand, you can determine a course of action and implement an improvement. This will lead into a change in the standard so that it becomes a real practice.

What are the benefits?


Do you know how almost all industrial accidents occur?  When somebody does something out of the norm.  “Norm” would be the standard.  It could be that someone wasn’t following the 5S standard and created a trip hazard, or it could be because someone decided to make a shortcut and move material into a place that accidentally fell over.  If you establish a practice and there are no negative consequences, it is sensible that if you continue that same practice, you will continue to not have negative consequence (unless something changes).  If a problem does occur, you can implement a countermeasure and repeat that improved process.  Unfortunately, I am sad to say that I worked at a company that had a fatality that could have been avoided had that person maintained the standard.


Quality issues basically work the same way as safety issues.  Just like with accidents, the majority of quality problems are caused by a deviation from the standard.  Variation in the process is the biggest enemy of Quality.  I remember the first year that I was introduced to Lean and we focused very hard on improving efficiency through stabilizing the standards and removing waste from the process.  At the end of the year, it was extremely clear that we had made an outstanding improvement in efficiency, and upon reflection, I realized that our Quality issues had dramatically decreased as well.  I was a bit confused and I asked my teacher if this was just a strange coincidence, or if I was missing something.  His explanation was simple, but it made complete sense.  He said, “Efficiency consists of Method plus Tempo and Quality consists of Method”.  Since we were stabilizing and improving the standard methods, quality also improved.


Speaking of the efficiency improvement, my main techniques for improving the production floor were time study and line balance.  Believe me, doing a proper time study on a process that is not standardized is impossible to do correctly.  Even if you were to piece together some times on each process, all you’ve done is captured the time for one of the variations, so that’s really not worth much.


I don’t know of any manufacturing company that doesn’t have some type of scheduling system and cost accounting system.  If a proper time study can’t be done for efficiency improvements because there is no standard to study, you also can’t create a reliable schedule of cost accounting program.  This is where companies commonly get started on the wrong foot because they can’t properly plan their production or accurately account for their costs.

What do you do?

So what do you do if your company does not practice Standard Work?  First of all, you will need a document that will be used to capture the standard.  This is called a Standard Work Sheet and it has several features and each provide a benefit.  Each operator in the production area will have their own Standard Work Sheet.

What is on a Standard Work Sheet?sw3

The Standard Work Sheet should include some pertinent information about the line such as Takt Time and Cycle Time.  Many times there are spots for approval signatures as well.  It is also useful to show a chart of the utilization of the operator and how the cycle time compares to the Takt Time.

Another element that should be found on a Standard Work Sheet is a diagram of the work area that explains the operator work flow.  You will often see numbers and arrows indicating the order and direction of the operator.  This is also a place to identify the standard inventory of Work In Process (WIP).

The other half of the work flow diagram is the work combination table where the steps are listed and a standard time is listed for each step. The time is the charted on a horizontal time line to visually illustrate the entire cycle.

How do you use a Standard Work Sheet?

Now you have a tool that can be used for training.  Companies often confuse Standard Work Sheets with Work Instructions.  The basic difference is that a Standard Work Sheet is specific to a “position” or an employee and it describes the steps that the employee engages in from the beginning to the end of the cycle.  The Standard Work Sheet is also affiliated with measurement of time and is somewhat general in regards to detail.  A Work Instruction is also a training tool, but it is more detailed and geared toward specific processes.  Think about it like this: a Standard Work Sheet will show the work flow for one operator to run several machines and it will indicate what order and how long it will take.  Each machine will have its own Work Instruction and it will describe the details of how to operate each one.  It is definitely ideal to have both documents and it’s important to not confuse the two.

Another thing to understand about Standard Work Sheets is that they are primarily used as a training and auditing tool.  This is why you will commonly see them posted on the end of a line for the leaders rather than inside the line for the operators. Once a new employee is trained using the Standard Work Sheet, it is not likely that they will forget the routine.  If they do, they can reference the Standard.  A highly critical step is for the leader to audit the standard work to ensure the employee is adhering to the expectation.  Operators commonly stray from Standard Work when a problem occurs.  Ideally, the problem is reported before hand, but Standard Work Audits are well worth doing as extra insurance.  If standard work audits don’t occur, it is highly unlikely that the production employees will maintain standard work.

One last point about Standard Work

It  may appear that it is a very rigid and disciplined system, therefore employees may feel like their freedom for creativity is taken away.  Actually, the opposite is true and it is critical that the operators understand that they should always try to improve the standard.  Special attention should be brough to the fact that now, when a better way is discovered, the standard can be improved and the value is actually truly recognized, where without the standard, an improvement is just another variation.

“Today’s standardization is the necessary foundation on which tomorrow’s improvement will be based. If you think of “standardization” as the best you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow-you’ll get somewhere. But if you think of standards as confining, then progress stops.” – Henry Ford, 1926


How do I get a Standard Work Sheet?

Making a Standard Work Sheet from scratch is time-consuming and  it can be difficult.  You might as well start by using a template that is already pre-designed based on what the best companies in the world have already figured out.  CLICK HERE to download the one that I recommend.  It is ideally designed and fully automated to do many of the calculations and charting for you.

CLICK HERE to download your Standard Work Sheet template

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