The Crucial Role of Lean Standard Work

008 – The Crucial Role of Lean Standard Work

The Crucial Role of Lean Standard Work


Today I am talking about the concept of lean standard work and why it is crucial to your success with lean. I’m actually especially excited to talk to you about standard work because it is a very very undervalued lean tool. Most people don’t care much about it. They would rather be learning how to do kaizen, or value stream mapping, or 5S, or some other lean thing. I do keyword research of course at Lean Smarts, and I’ve noticed that there are 75 times more google searches a month for the word “kaizen” than for the word “standard work.” I find that very interesting, and also disappointing, as I will go on to explain in this episode.

So what I’m going to do is focus on three things for today:

  • What is Standard Work
  • Different Types of Standard Work
  • Four Reasons why Standard Work Matters

What is Lean Standard Work

Standard work is the best known method for producing a product or service. It’s the best known method for producing a product or service. That’s it!

Here’s a few more things to help define what lean standard work is and is not, and how it works.

It’s a recipe. standard work has ingredients such as the materials used, the sequence of steps to take, the timing for those steps, the number of people needed, and the equipment used. Of course it can also include expert advice and techniques to use as well.

Standard work is a recipe, because it combines these ingredients in the best known way. It’s the mixture that makes it the best. But at the same time, the mixture is subject to continuous improvement. It is not set in stone.

People can have this idea that standard work is a fixed thing. It’s set in stone and it never changes. That’s incorrect. It’s a living document that is constantly changing and evolving by way of continuous improvement and scientific experimentation.

You see, if you think of one of your favorite family recipes, it’s probably been passed down many years. Maybe even multiple generations. It’s been perfected over time through the experimentation of many, many people. It was never set in stone as, “this is the end-all-be-all way to bake a cookie.” Instead, the moment one of your relatives conceived of a better way to do it, they updated the recipe.

This is how lean standard work is supposed to function within an organization.

What often happens instead is that people don’t maintain their recipes–their standard work–and instead they do it their own way offline. No one is following the recipe to the “T,” and you don’t actually know what makes one person’s cookie so magical. This happens in real life, but it’s no way to run an organization.

Lean organizations–on the other hand–develop high respect for standards. Standard work is a part of everything they do. It’s used in manufacturing, yet. But it’s also used in the office, in sales and marketing, and also leadership. Even the Plant Manager or CEO has Leader Standard Work in a lean organization, and it describes the best known mixture of leadership activities and behaviors that he does every day. It may standardize a lower percentage of his or her time compared to a front line team member–who has far more predictable and repetitive work–but even leadership has standard work.

I should clear something up though before I move forward to different types of standard work, and that’s this: standard work also goes by the name of standardized work. Standardized work is the more traditional way to name it, and I think it’s the better way, but it appears that standard work is more popular. At least when it comes to usage online, people tend to search for standard work much more than standardized work.

Standardized work is–in my opinion–a better way to name it, because it suggests that the work is subject to better standardization. It can be standardized again. Whereas standard work can suggest that the work is fixed and standard and not subject to change. But I’m chosen to use standard work in order to capture the attention of a larger audience who is already using that phrase.

Now, let’s move onto different types of standard work.

Types of Lean Standard Work

There are many different types of lean standard work. In fact, I suppose there are an infinite number of ways to do it. The truth is, I could pick up a crumpled piece of paper, scribble a few notes on it describing a process, and then use that as my standard work. Don’t let there be anything magical or mysterious about it. It’s just the best known method to do something. However it’s documented doesn’t matter, as long as it contains the method.

That being said, there are a few ways I’ve seen it done that I can recommend. They each have their pro’s and con’s, so keep that in mind. And if you want to see visual examples of them, check out my Lean 101 page on Standard Work at Lean Smarts.

I’ll start with the simple, move towards the complex, and end with the innovative.

The Simple 8 Step Process

The first one we’ll consider is the “simple 8 step process.” It’s a one-page document with eight pictures on it. Of course you could have more or less pictures or pages depending on the length of the process you’re wanting to document. But one page can comfortably fit 8 pictures, hence the name “8-step process.” Under each picture is a brief bulleted list of key points. In this way, you can quickly and visually define a process. It’s actually very effective in many applications, but it may lend itself more heavily to less-regulated industries or smaller organizations.

Traditional Standardized Work

The next one I want to discuss is traditional standardized work. This is the stuff that is heavily leveraged at Toyota. It’s permeated much of the automotive industry but also spread to countless others as well.

Traditional standardized work applies basics concepts of time studies and industrial engineering to define a process in space and time. That means it’ll draw the physical floorplan of a process and the steps taken by the operator, along with the time requirements of each step.

There are four primary documents required for standardized work: the standardized work process capacity sheet, the standardized work time observation sheet, the standardized work combination table, and the standardized work instruction sheet. That’s a mouthful! I’ll briefly talk to each sheet, but really you should see an example of them at Lean Smarts. Checkout the shownotes for this episode for some handy links.

The process capacity sheet lists each piece of equipment in the process and calculates capacity. This capacity is important in order to stay mindful of potential bottlenecks with customer demand. If demand is higher than the capacity of a piece of equipment, you’ve got a problem. This sheet is also used to measure the cycle time of equipment for use in the other sheets.

The time observation sheet is used for recording time studies of the process. Typically 10 or more trials are conducted, and then a lowest repeatable time is taken. This lowest repeatable time represents the best-demonstrated time that can be achieved while working the process.

The combination table combines the time studies obtained from the process capacity sheet and time observation sheet. We get machine time from the capacity sheet and man time from the observation sheet. These man and machine times are then graphed on the combination table, which then allows for you to visualize the interaction of operators and machines over the cycle. This sheet functions much like sheet music, in that it coordinates the activities of operators and equipment in time so that they remain synchronized and in step with the overall cycle.

The last is the instruction sheet. This is a summary sheet for the operator that identifies his or her work sequence, the time required by each step, and a diagram of the walk path on the production floor.

Again, I highly recommend checking out the shownotes for some good visuals on each of these documents.

TWI Job Instruction

The next example is TWI Job Instruction. This is a method also used at Toyota but that originates from the United States as far back as WWII. TWI standard for Training Within Industry. It’s essentially training instruction documentation. But it has a very powerful design.

The job elements sheet used in TWI Job Instruction is a standalone lean standard work document. It contain three primary criteria. First, there’s the major steps of the process. That’s perhaps no surprise. But the next criteria are the key points associated with each major step. These are the make-it-or-break-it key points that make all the difference for the team member doing the work. A key point could be related to quality, safety, or just a tip for technique. Lastly, the third criterion is the reasons why. This is the reason why the major step and key points are done the way they are. It’s justification for the process as it stands, which is useful for adults, and also helpful for encouraging continuous improvement.

So on one page you’ll typically see three columns from left to right: major steps, key points, and then reasons why.

TWI Job Instruction is also used following a very disciplined training process which I won’t get into today. But it’s worth investigating further.


So far we’ve looked at simple examples like the 8-step process, then more complex examples like traditional standardized work and TWI Job Instruction. Now I want to look at an innovative example, which is the use of video.

Video can be used very effectively for lean standard work depending on how you structure it and use it. Of course, this method requires completely different support systems and equipment such as cameras, a video hosting service, and some kind of screen to replay video. But some companies find ways to get past these hurdles to use video to tremendous effect. FastCap is the simplest example I’ve seen, who use iPhones and upload videos directly to an unlisted YouTube channel.

If a picture is worth a thousands words, then maybe a video is worth a million. Of course it all depends on the presentation and editing skills of the person creating the video. But there are some cool things happening with it.

More recently a friend showed me a company that puts GoPro cameras on an operator’s head, has them run the process and record it in video–you know… one of those cool videos where you can see the person’s hands stretching around the screen as you watch from the person’s point of view. The video then gets uploaded to a software that allows TWI Job Instruction elements to be embedded with the video. Team members and trainers can then replay the video on a iPad and pause, skip forward, or skip back to watch each major step, the key points, and reasons why. That’s pretty awesome!

Four Reasons why Lean Standard Work Matters

Alright… lastly, before we conclude this episode, I want to overview four reasons why all of this matters. As I mentioned at the start, standard work is less popular than other lean tools and it shouldn’t be that way. So here’s a few reasons why it’s so important.

1. It reduces variation and preserves output

The first reason why standard work matters is because it reduces variation and preserves output. When you don’t have a standard in place, you process performance is variable and all over the place. Said another way, there is a best known way to perform the work, but not everyone is following it. Therefore, the variation is causing performance losses. You are losing output because you don’t have a standard in place. So a good reason to implement standard work is to reduce this variation and preserve output.

2. It’s the baseline for continuous improvement and making kaizen stick

Another reason why it matters is because lean standard work is the baseline for continuous improvement and making kaizen stick. If you are going to claim kaizen and continuous improvement, then you’re claiming that your new way is better than an old way. But what old way is there if you don’t have a standard? If you can’t point to a standard defining how things are done, how can you claim that a new way is better? You might just be adding to the noise and creating yet another way of doing things and adding variation! This is why Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, was known to say, “Without a standard there can be no kaizen.” If you’re into kaizen, you should also be into lean standard work.

Additionally, lean standard work makes kaizen stick because when it is implemented and also maintained with lean management and leader standard work, it serves to sustain the gains achieved in your kaizen. Without this in place, many improvements suffer the gravity of entropy and revert back to the old status quo. It’s just human nature and the way of the world.

3. It’s useful in problem-solving and solving to root-cause

A third reason why lean standard work matters is that it’s useful for problem-solving and solving problems to root cause. Whenever something goes wrong, the first question to be asked is, “Is there a standard, and was the standard followed?” If there is no standard, then your corrective action should be to create one. And if there is a standard but it failed to prevent the problem, then it’s easier when auditing the standard to detect for where things when wrong. In this case, your corrective action will include updating the standard work to prevent the issue from coming back.

4. It puts a tool in every team member’s hands to participate in continuous improvement

The fourth and final reason that I’ll give you for why lean standard work matters is that it is essential for creating team member engagement. It puts a tool in everyone’s hands to participate in continuous improvement. Without this tool of lean standard work, you can march around saying, “You’re empowered! Go make improvements!” But you haven’t given them a tool or process to create those improvements. But when lean standard work becomes the language of the organization, and when it’s used and created by every team member, then it becomes much easier for people to participate in continuous improvement and engage with lean. The barriers to entry are lower, and team members can more reasonably contribute.

Okay, that covers it for this episode! I went over what lean standard work is, provided you a few examples of standard work, and also gave you four reasons why it’s so important. Check out the shownotes if you want to find some useful links. And also consider reading my Lean 101 page on standard work as well. Also, in case you forgot from the start, if you’re tired of searching for lean videos on YouTube, get my Master Collection for free. Just click on “Courses” from

References & Resources