Sunday, July 27, 2014

Standardized Work: Avoiding the Complexity Trap

No matter how great the principles behind a manual are, it has no value if it cannot be applied in practice.Taiichi Ohno*

One of the most critical but challenging elements of an organization’s lean transformation effort is the adoption of standardized work.  Often underestimated by those just learning lean, the benefits of standardized work include among others, reducing process and product variability, providing a starting point for investigating problems, helping people identify when a problem is about to occur, and enabling improvements to be sustained. 

Within the oil and gas industry, it is common to face resistance from people recounting images of one of the major players known for creating large, overly complicated instructions that strangle innovation and, in reality, cannot be fully followed - and oil and gas is unfortunately not the only industry where this happens.  There are companies in virtually every industry that complicate documentation to the point of ineffectiveness and crushing the creativity of team workers.  Documents in these companies tend to be long, complex, and rarely change, and as a result, create a false sense of security that the standards are helping achieve consistent, predictable, and inherently safe performance throughout the operation.

How Much is Too Much?

So what is the difference between a lean thinking approach to standard work and one where the documentation is ineffective and stifling?  Both approach standardization with the objective of reducing variation in the way work is done.  Both use standards to assure the most important aspects of the process are followed and work is done safely and with a high level of quality.

To prevent heading down the wrong path when rolling out standardized work, it is important to understand the key differences between the two approaches and what it is that makes one more effective than the other.

Guided by Scientific Method

Although there are numerous differences between a lean and traditional approach to standardization, the most glaring is that work in lean thinking organizations is guided by scientific method or a PDSA (plan-do-study-act) mindset, while traditional organizations are not.  Although a seemingly simple difference, the effect on standardization, as well as other aspects of the business, can be dramatic.

In both types of organizations, standardized work is the best current practice known at the time it was developed and is expected to be followed as written.  Organizations guided by PDSA thinking, however, consciously accept the notion that following the practice to consistently producing safe, efficient, and high quality work is a hypothesis - and people are always looking for the hypothesis to fail.  Whenever a defect, delay, or incident occurs, it is understood that the hypothesis has failed and that a quick adjustment - or improvement - is necessary to prevent a similar failure from occurring in the future.  The resulting change to the process becomes a new hypothesis that it will operate as expected and, when it fails, will drive further action.

Traditional organizations do not approach standards in this manner because it is not normal behavior for people to be looking for something they created to fail.  A significant amount of time would be spent creating the perfect document that includes enough detail to accurately describe the prescribed process.  When the instruction is released, the work would be considered "done" and the person would move on to his or her next project.  The document would only be revised when a big problem occurs that identifies a glaring weakness needing attention.  And since people are not specifically looking for the practice to fail, the small issues would be ignored.  As a result, continual improvement of the process does not occur and variability between operators in the way work is actually done grows.

A Shift in Thinking

Keeping instructions short, visual, and easy-to-follow requires more than just telling people to do so.  It requires a far more significant shift in thinking than many people realize or are ready to accept.  When standardized work is approached standardized work as part of a continual experiment toward creating the perfect process, it will become seen as far more than just a way to convey information.  It will become seen as the anchor to learning and effective problem-solving, and a critical element to the company’s overall success.

Copyright © 2014 Gregg Stocker

* From The Toyota Mindset: The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno by Yoshihito Wakamatsu (Enna Products Limited, Bellingham, WA, 2009)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Making Learning a Habit

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be only sustainable competitive advantage.” – Arie de Geus 

Ever since the The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization was published back in 1990, business leaders have talked about the need to transform their companies into learning organizations.  And although the concept of organizational learning and its connection to competitive success is logical, there seems to be significant differences in what people think the term learning organization means.  As a result, in the 25 years since Peter Senge wrote the bookit seems that very few companies have successfully implemented the concept and truly become learning organizations. 

Learning and Performance 

The first point to clarify about organizational learning is that knowledge means nothing if it doesn’t eventually result in improving performance in some way.  The value of knowledge is in the ability to use it to improve qualitycost, safety, revenues, or some other aspect important to the organization’s success.  It should be noted that the value of knowledge could also be indirect - e.g., by coaching others to improve performance. 

Secondly, it's important to understand that there is a difference between individual and organizational learning.  Although there is obviously a relationship between the two, competitive success will occur on a much more consistent basis when people improve their ability to learn as a teamIf we think of success as resulting from a continual cycle of learning and applying, the faster an organization is able to move around the cycle, the more success it is likely to achieve. 

Making Learning a Habit 

Creating a learning organization requires establishing the culture, methods, and systems that support learning and make it become a part of the work people do every day.  Leaders can talk about the importance of learning, but without a method that institutionalizes it in some way, it will never become a part of the organization's DNA.  Besides enabling is to occur on a consistent basis, effectively standardizing an approach can make learning an expectation of everyone in the organization. 

This is where many people fail to understand the significance of the PLAN-DO-STUDY-ACT (PDSA) cycle.  Often thought of as only a tool to address problems, the PDSA cycle is a method to drive individual and organizational learning. 

Based on scientific method, the PDSA cycle drives learning through conscious understanding that every action is  based on a hypothesis that a specific outcome will occur and, when the outcome does not occur as expected, the hypothesis needs adjustment.  It is in the failure and subsequent adjustment of the hypothesis where learning occurs. 

As an example, the current design of a process is a hypothesis that it will enable work to be consistently produced in the right quantity and at the right quality and cost when needed.  Whenever this doesn't occur - e.g., defect, delay, cost overrun, etc. - the hypothesis is proven wrong and something about the process needs to improve.  Team learning occurs through the understanding of the root cause(s) of the problem, and in experimenting with countermeasures to address them.   

Learning driven by the PDSA cycle can be applied across the organization from the leadership team to the shop floor.  Selecting where and how to set up a new factory, deciding whether or not to enter new markets, or choosing where to focus capital investment in the coming year are all hypotheses that can drive learning.  The key is to consciously understand that the hypothesis, to study outcomes closely to know whether or not results met expectations, and to discover how to close the gap between the two. 

The Classroom is Where the Work Occurs 

For years we've been taught that learning takes place in a classroom where experts convey knowledge to students.  When looking at the value of classroom learning in terms of improving performance and competitiveness, though, it becomes evident that the connection is weak, at best.  And although there are some benefits to conferences, seminars, and in-house training classes, they are not the type of activities that drive team learning. 

Establishing PDSA-thinking throughout the organization is a significant change for most companies, but the results in terms of advancing team learning and improving performance make it well worth the effort.