Lean and Continuous Improvement

Who the heck needs standards?

Standards are all around us in everyday life and in several different forms.  Standards can be manufacturing specifications, visual controls, policy and procedures, standard operating procedures (SOP), legislation, work practices, and the list goes on and on.

So why do we so often let our guard down in the workplace when it comes to standards?

Why are standards important?  What purpose do standards serve?

Purpose of Standards:

  • Necessary condition before kaizen
  • Make the process predictable
  • Make it easier to teach new employees
  • Assure safe, quality controlled, and productive operations
  • Make problems and abnormalities visible

In the absence of, or when operating out of standard the process will have a lot of variation and will be out of control.  This is when defects are introduced impacting safety, quality, productivity and cost.  Results are unpredictable.


With the implementation of standards or when operating within a standard, the process will be stable and predictable.  Even if the standards are not the best they could be or the result not what you desire, the process will be relatively consistent and predictable.  Even if predictably bad!  Establishment of, or return to standards, are necessary before any kaizen can be made.  Why?  In the absence of the standards, you really won’t know where to begin improving the process.  How can you improve a process if there are no standards?  To make the point, if 4 operators do the same process 4 different ways, how would you know which is to standard?  Which method produces the best result?  If you made a kaizen, would it improve the process or make it worse?  You’re spinning your wheels without standards in place before you kaizen.

Once the standards are in place and the process is stable, problems or abnormalities also become very observable and noticeable as the result will suddenly be significantly off the standard result or proven capability.  The problem should be easy to find as it is typically a result of a standard violation or variation, whether it be by any of the 4Ms – Man, Method, Machine, Material.  Putting things back to standard then will permit the stability and predictability to return to the process.

The result of conducting a kaizen is to revise the standard in some manner that improves the performance from the process.  Whether that performance be measured in safety, quality, productivity or cost.  The improvement can be one, several or all four of these performance indicators.  From here the cycle of PDCA or Plan, Do, Check, Act can be repeated over and over again to drive performance improvement.

So, who the heck needs standards?

I’d argue that we all do.  I’m not sure how someone can manage and lead without standards.  As leaders, we MUST have a very high bar to insist on the highest of standards all the time!  We NEED to check, confirm and audit to standards; then repeat.  We CONTINUOUSLY IMPROVE standards as technology, expectations, customer demands, product requirements and other influences change and evolve.  Why?  To stay in control and relevant.

If you’re not convinced on standards take a look at this example:

Beer standard

Two bottles of the same kind of beer each filled to the red arrow in the picture.  Which one is filled correctly?  Anytime I’ve asked this question, the common answer is the one on the right.  Why?  Because everyone wants more beer!  Now, what if the standard is actually the beer on the left?  “Great, the one on the right has an extra mouthful!”  And my response is, “who said it was beer?”