Five Ways to Improve Your Standard Work

Recently my husband and I attempted to assemble a basketball hoop for our son. I would venture a guess that many of you have had similar experiences, whether putting together a toy for your children, or maybe building a piece of furniture.

There are multiple types of standard work: instructional, process, and leader standard work. All of these serve a valuable purpose. While looking through the 40-some-odd pages of assembly instruction I started reflecting on the value of standard work.

What characteristics define effective standard work?

Standard Work Should be Visual

Making standard work visual makes it easier to follow and understand. It can help to error-proof the message when visuals support words. We often see screen shots, or pictures with standard work to help clarify the point. When using visuals, it is important to make sure they don’t complicate the message.

The basketball hoop assembly manual had a lot of visuals; some were very helpful and others not so much. One of the helpful aspects were pages that showed outlines in actual size for the bolts, nuts, washers, etc. that were needed for each section. This confirmed that we were using the correct part without having to go through any trail and error, which certainly saved time. However, some of the diagrams that showed where each part would go were very complex and hard to read.

Standard Work Should Answer the “Why”

If standard work answers the question of ‘why’ for the steps people are more likely to remember the step and much less likely to skip it or take a short cut to save time.

This would have come in handy when we were constructing the basketball hoop. There was a particular step that was unclear and the parts didn’t fit together the way we thought the diagram showed. Wanting to get the project done before nightfall we ended up putting the part on the way it fit. As it turned out, that meant that when we attached the backboard it was on the wrong side of the pole in comparison to the base. This error caused a lot of rework and wasted time as we had to find a way to turn the poll the correct way. Had the instructions indicated why it was important for the pole to be set up in a particular way we would likely have paid attention and taken the time to verify we were doing this step correctly.

Standard Work Should be Specific

Specifics are essential in standard work. For one thing, they make it much easier to follow. Also, being specific can reduce variation in the process, which is the main point of having standard work to begin with. If a process is always done in a specific way, then it is easier to see what part of the process is causing a defect and how to avoid that in the future.

The extensive instruction manual that came with our basketball hoop included many diagrams, but not many words. Often we could not determine what order we should be assembling a section in. For example, for one of the steps we saw a diagram of the rim on the backboard and the backboard going onto the lift portion of the pole. We interpreted that to mean we should attach the rim and then connect it to the lift. As we tried this, we quickly realized that the weight distribution when the rim was attached made it difficult to keep the backboard steady as we fastened it to the lift.  The lack of specifics again led to more lost time and more rework. Just imagine if we were caring for a patient through this whole ordeal; the patient and their family would not be very happy.

Standard Work Should be Simple

When creating standard work people might be inclined to over-complicate the process because they want to add as many specifics as possible. This can make it difficult for people to follow. For me, if standard work is too complicated, I may get lost in trying to understand the details and instead choose to do the process a different way. A good rule of thumb is to simplify whenever possible.

As we opened the gigantic box to begin our afternoon assembly project and pulled out the instructions, I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed at the sight of the extensive manual. I wondered if the company that manufactured this product took the time to consider how effective this would be to the consumers. Was all this information presented in the most concise way?

Standard Work Should be Dynamic

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember about standard work is that it should be dynamic. Standard work should be written based on the current, best-known way of doing something. Overtime it should be adjusted to reflect new learning or to prevent defects and waste. Standard work is not something you create once and never revisit; it is a continuous PDSA cycle.

In an ideal continuous improvement world (and if the instruction manual was approached as a piece of process standard work) I would be able to give feedback to the manufacturer of this basketball hoop about the issues that we experienced during the assembly. Then the manufacturer would look at the instruction manual and see if there was a way to improve it so future customers would have a better experience and the final product, the basketball hoop, would be defect free.

My colleague, Rachel Regan, said in a previous blog post that standard work can help provide predictable outcomes and efficiency in the way you get things done. This leads to providing higher quality care, a better patient experience, and an environment in which staff are enabled to do their best work.


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4 Responses to Five Ways to Improve Your Standard Work

Kevin Hartz says: 05/20/2021 at 8:55 am

Hi Sara, you may have a sixth way (and another topic for a blog!), that standard work must be trained to in order to achieve the expected results. Your example is the classic way we expect people to perform, we hand them, or better yet, email them them the standard work, then check the box that we’ve done our job of training to the standard. When you opened the box for the basketball hoop, how confident were you that you could safely assemble the hoop to standard after pulling out the 40+ page instruction manual? Yet we make the same assumptions when a new process is created, or improved, expecting it will deliver the intended results without proper training. Great reminders of the elements that make up standard work. Enjoy the basketball hoop!

Ted Mayeshiba says: 05/22/2021 at 6:36 pm

Kevin is absolutely correct in touching on orientation or training as an assumption many mistakenly make when dealing with standard work. Having written job instructions for GM assembly line workers, I am all too familiar with “unintended consequences “. I’d love to use your blog post in my class as a cautionary tale. Is it possible to to get the instructions? Actually if I can get make and model of the hoop, I’ll likely find the instructions on line.

Sara Thompson says: 05/24/2021 at 1:25 pm

Thank you for your comment, Ted. Please feel free to use this blog in your class. I will look up the model information for the basketball hoop and send it to you via email.


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