/A guide to applying standard work in a lean transformation
standard work lean tools

A guide to applying standard work in a lean transformation

standard work lean tools

ARTICLE – René Aernoudts discusses how to use standardized work in an organization, providing a lowdown of the techniques available to the lean practitioner.

Words: René Aernoudts, President, Lean Management Instituut

In a recent article on Planet Lean, Dan Jones discussed how people often seem to believe that standards stifle creativity, rather than enable it by limiting the time spent on non-value added activities. This is just one of many misconceptions we often develop on the subject.

People – I see this a lot with my work – are scared. “We are not robots,” they often say. “We want to retain our creativity.” And with that, they tell us that their “work is different,” and that “it cannot be standardized.”

As lean leaders, it is our duty to help people understand that we don’t implement standards to control them or make their work boring, but to ensure that quality issues and risks are averted.

The confusion is semantic as well, because the word standard lends itself to a few interpretations: it could be seen as referring to a “work standard” (we start at 9am, we all wear the same boots, a break lasts for 10 minutes, and so on), to a SOP (a standard operating procedure, which is the depiction of how a process flows) or to standardized work.

While the first two are process centered and tell us nothing of how people can do the work or how they perform, standardized work is people centered and represents the best way in which a team can agree on how a task should be carried out.

The most immediate advantage of the adoption of standardized work is that the work becomes predictable: agreeing on the best way to perform an action makes its outcome possible to foresee. In turn, predictability makes a business easier to manage and takes the pressure off people. Conversely, if each person does a thing differently it is difficult to get rid of mura (variation), which generates muri, which then results in muda (waste in the form of stress, rework, quality errors, etc).


According to John Shook and Toshiko Narusawa in their book Kaizen Express, standardized work is the basis of operations to make correct products in the safest, easiest, and most effective way based on the current technologies and formulas.

Standardized work gives us a better understanding of what we do and how we are doing it.

A standard is a current best practice that should be challenged on a daily basis using kaizen (an activity that lies at the heart of continuous improvement). People will find the new best way to complete the work, together.

So here’s a summary of what standardized work can do for you:

  • Provide a predictable outcome (improved safety, quality, delivery, cost);
  • Create insight and a rhythm for the work to prevent overburdening;
  • Act as an enabler of other forms of improvements, such as kaizen;
  • Create time for the real creative work;
  • Help people to structure the work;
  • Make it possible to train and develop people.

A lot of the work we do is actually extremely repetitive, way more than people think. “Exotic” things represent a small percentage of our activities, which means that standardizing everything else can have a massive impact on our performance.

Believe it or not, we all like standards. It is a characteristic of us human beings. We like to know where our shirts are, or where we keep plates and mugs. Think of the importance of standards in air traffic control or, more simply, in regular traffic. Red light, stop. Yellow light, prepare to stop. Green light, go. No room for interpretation (at least in most countries).

Standards make our every-day lives easier, and they can make our working lives easier too, so long as we don’t think they limit us.

I was working with an energy company once, which was facing problems in how long it took to prepare a quote. When a client called requesting an upgrade to their charger box, the employee had to go through 2,600 fields on an Excel sheet just to access the relevant information (even though the price was already set). This cumbersome, over-complicated process meant that it took 45 minutes for a quote to be issued, time that could have been spent adding value instead. The cost of this is not calculated and recorded by the organization, of course, but has a very negative impact nonetheless.

By introducing standardized work we managed to take the amount of time down to two minutes.

As part of a very common reaction that people have when new standards are deployed, the man then thought he wouldn’t have enough work to do. It is the manager’s role in these cases to prove that there is a lot more value added work that can be done.

They must show up front what there will be time for, what their people can do instead of the non value-added, time consuming work. Instead of wasting time on a quote that could be prepared in a couple of minutes, you could call a client and build a relationship with them, for example. Suddenly you would be creating value. 


Here are a few recommendations you should follow before you start working with standardized work:

  • Upon starting, make sure you are picking something that you do often, something highly repetitive and that lasts no longer than 10 minutes. Ask your employees what the problems are, which will help you to identify the best thing to focus on. At a logistics provider LMI worked with, for example, we focused on the simple action of packing a box;
  • Get people to work together. Who knows the best tricks to complete a job? What is not safe about the way you are doing the work now? How could you harm yourself? What could go wrong? How does everybody do it?
  • Show them the benefits, like throughput time or ergonomics, explaining what you are trying to achieve. Tell them they don’t need to be afraid, that it is just an experiment. Ask them if you can build, with them, a best practice on a small scale. It is just like for the application of lean in a company… you have to start small (in doing that, you create pull and a request for more lean in other parts of the organization and things improve in the face of very little effort). 


1. Understand The Gap

This is the initial step, which is critical for managers and front line staff alike. 

There are several ways to understand what the gap in performance is, but a Process Capacity Sheet is always a good start because it tells you where the bottlenecks are.

There are a number of things that can indicate the presence of a problem: for instance, a case when three workers do the same job but the outcomes vary greatly, or one when there is too much work in a very short period of time.

2. Understand The Work Elements

By filling in a Process Study Chart and a Spaghetti Diagram we can identify the elements of the work and the variability in the time required to complete each of those steps. You look at all the elements, like the blocks of a process, and you identify what is value added and what isn’t. 

In order to gain a proper understanding, you need to look at the time required to deliver each action ten times, and measure it ten times. You can then isolate the lowest and highest measurements, and identify the lowest repeatable times using the rest.

When you are applying this to an entire team, you can use an operator balance chart (OBC), which distributes the elements of the work in relation to takt time. This will help you answer questions such as “Why is operator 2 taking longer than takt time?” or “What can be done to kaizen his steps?”

Too often we make the mistake of giving answer ourselves. Instead, we should let people come up with the possible solutions. Let’s ask them, “What do you think is necessary to make your job quicker or better?”

3. Determine the focus

Imagine you are always late for work, by two minutes. Unless you decide to wake up earlier, you will need to get ready more quickly, bringing the time down from your current 18 minutes to 16. What can you influence in order to achieve that? Reducing the time by two minutes is your focus, the gap you need to fill.

Toyota often takes a person out of the equation in a team, in order to force people to do kaizen and find improvements.

4. Find improvements

This is the phase in which you question every element of the part of the work you want to improve.

These are the questions you need ask for each step: what is its purpose? Why is it necessary? Where should it be done? When should it be done? Who should do it? How should it be done?

This is also the time to decide whether you can eliminate, combine, rearrange or simplify the elements of the work. What are the ideas people might have to make the process easier, quicker, and more streamlined?

In the getting ready example I shared above, this would mean a lot of different improvements and changes to your morning routine. If finding keys normally takes you 10 seconds, you can put them next to the coat hanger, for example. If it takes six minutes to dress up because you need to pick what you are going to wear, how about laying out your clothes on a chair the night before? You could also plug in appliances together, so that you can brew coffee and toast bread at the same time. Before you know it, you’ll have saved a whole bunch of minutes!

Going through the list of questions above, for each of the elements, will give you the best sequence to follow.

5. Design the new operation

It is time to test the new sequence. One of the pitfalls is that people tend to discuss, rather than testing – it’s therefore important to keep them focused.

Get to it! It’s a bit like A/B testing. Run little experiments and, if the system works, move to the sixth and final step (but not before having re-tested and visualized the new system and having received approval from everybody involved).

You can do a new spaghetti chart. Measure results and you will see you have improved a lot.

6. Standardize the method

Turn the new method into a standard, by teaching people how to apply it. Re-training is delivered using TWI/Job Instructions (with visuals supporting the learning process).


A very common mistake is to think that after establishing a new standard you are done. Instead, you constantly need to strive to further improve the standard – isn’t that what continuous improvement means?

In our office at Lean Management Instituut, for example, our office and events assistant Evelien ring-fences one hour each week to rethink a part of a standard that she thinks can be improved. It could be the way people are registered for a workshop or the process of sending books.

The development of a standard must begin from the problem we are trying to solve, however – for example, an instance in which books have not been delivered. Based on the target condition (people get books on time), what steps can I take to implement a standard that will ensure the target condition is reached?

Once you know all the steps involved, as well as the root cause of your gap, you can create a better standard. Evelien used to print address labels for the parcel in which we put the books to deliver in batches, instead of one at a time as orders came in. She thought it was wasteful to keep leaving her desk and walk to the printer. As we prepare to move to our new office, we are going to ensure she has a printer in our bookstore, which she can easily control using an iPad. This way, each order will be processed immediately.


  • Pick a small process;
  • Understand the issue by observing the process up to 10 times;
  • Don’t standardize for the sake of standardizing;
  • Things can look small and unimportant sometimes, but can create big bottlenecks somewhere else in the process;
  • Use standard work when you have new hires or many temporary workers, to ensure training requires a day instead of a week (SW can help determine the cadence of training in general; many companies test whether people remember the standard when they come back from holiday and, if they don’t, they have them re-trained);
  • Ensure there is no finger pointing – if people show you what they do and how they do it, they want to be sure they are not going to be criticized for it.

Especially at the beginning, people will see the development of a standard as a lot of work for something that, in the “grand scheme of things,” has a rather small impact.

When you learn to work with people on standards, however, is when things start to get better in your organization. We often hear that there is no kaizen without standardized work: and indeed, what would kaizen be without standards, if not a bunch of different improvements for a bunch of different people? In such a scenario, one person’s improvement could be another person’s loss, and vice versa.


René Aernoudts photograph

 René Aernoudts is President of the Lean Management Instituut in Zeist, The Netherlands, which he founded in February 2004. The institute has been spreading lean thinking in Holland and beyond for the past decade. Before founding the LMI, René was a managing director at a consulting firm for nearly eight years, specializing in lean. After graduating at Erasmus University in Rotterdam he became a lecturer at two Business Schools. He then worked in Logistics at the Flower Auction before starting his consulting career. René has assisted dozens of companies in their lean journeys.