The Error of Standardization

Standardization is the foundation of all continuous improvement. If you have an organization where work is performed with variation, the work output will typically be fraught with errors, occasional (or frequent) poor quality and high cost. Whether you are a fan of McDonalds’s or not, pay attention to how similar the food and coffee is when you visit different franchises. I like my coffee hot, fresh and served promptly. MickeyD’s wins on all counts – and I like the senior’ pricing. (there are some blessings to getting older). Think about your own organization a moment. Are products and/or services performed in a standard way? Most manufacturing companies have a high degree of standardization on their factory or assembly floor but often completely miss the opportunity in office and business systems.

The cornerstone principle of this blog is that standardization is a good thing. Improve the standard and you are engaging in continuous improvement. But, the point of this blog is that standardization presents an opportunity for making significant errors. This situation occurs when managers do not truly understand their current state and the variation that may exist between workers doing seemingly similar tasks.

A typical approach is:
• Assess best practice within industry / own organization
• Develop standard work
• Train
• Implement
• Continue to battle with why workers are not following the standard
If you find yourself feeling like you are constantly pounding a round peg in a square hole and don’t know why, perhaps the words of Dr. W. Edwards Deming can shed some light. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of Deming’s The New Economics, second edition:
“The prevailing style of management must undergo transformation. A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside. The aim of this chapter is to provide an outside view-a lens-that I call a system of profound knowledge. It provides a map of theory by which to understand the organizations that we work in.
The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.
Once the individual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to. The individual, once transformed, will:
• Set an example
• Be a good listener, but will not compromise
• Continually teach other people
• Help people to pull away from their current practice and beliefs and move into the new philosophy without a feeling of guilt about the past
The layout of profound knowledge appears here in four parts, all related to each other:
• Appreciation for a system
• Knowledge about variation
• Theory of knowledge
• Psychology”
Our experience suggests that Deming was right on all points. If you do not gain the trust of workers and listen to what is really happening in the current state, any attempt at standardization and continuous improvement will typically ignore existing variation and issues in the political and social system. Remember that workers did not create the existing system – they merely try to do work within the system.

Leaders must respect their workers, gain input while teaching them how to think differently – and have appreciation for systems and variation. With these foundation skills, senior management can begin leading the never-ending journey of real continuous improvement.

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