Lessons Learned to Achieve Standardized Work Success

Chapter as published in “Practicing Lean” by Mark Graban

I heard a quote early on in my career with Toyota that goes something like this:

o                     “Within 3 days, people think they can talk about Standardized Work,

o                     Within 3 months, people think they can teach Standardized Work,

o                     Within 3 years, people realize they know nothing about Standardized Work”

This has certainly been my personal experience.

Just like any journey to acquire a skill, there are the high highs and the low lows. Graduating from high school, I thought I had conquered the world and the path ahead in college would be more of the same. Until I realized that I was a lowly freshman. Stunned at how quickly I realized how little I actually knew, it was hard to keep the shock factor in check. But I did. It became a lot easier with the recognition that everyone around me was having a similar experience. This pattern has continued throughout my career.

In the interest of sharing lessons learned, here is a bit about my journey and the major stages of discovery, along with some painful, but formative, learning experiences.

1. Beware the documents – see the work

All I could see in my early days of my experience with Standardized Work was a bunch of documents. Capacity sheet, Combination Table, Chart, Time observation sheet, blah, blah, blah. For me, they were merely something you had to get through to work with the more glamorous tools of the Toyota Production System (TPS) i.e. jidoka, continuous flow, and kanban. Of course, I wasn’t able to see how one concept fit to another and why Standardized Work always came first.

While I was with the Toyota Supplier Support Center (TSSC), I was part of a small team assigned to improve the productivity of a work cell. It took about 10 minutes of observation to feel a high level of frustration from operators, and yet we proceeded to document the current condition standardized work. I felt I was wasting time working on paper and couldn’t see how standardized work analysis could possibly help the operators have a less frustrating day.

My mentor, who was leading the improvement strategy at this plant, saw that I, along with the rest of the team, had become too caught up in details of how to do time studies and fill in the documents. He called a halt. He explained, “You are not seeing the true condition. You are lost in the documents.”

He redirected us to the line. We gathered around him while he intently looked each of us in the eyes and instructed, “Watch the movement of each team member’s eyes as closely as I am watching yours. Then, you will see the truth of the process trouble.” My eyes apparently were saying to him, “What the heck are you talking about?” which was exactly what I was thinking. I was not alone. He patiently explained, “The eyes are mirrors of our thoughts and concerns. When people are intently doing their work, they are not hiding anything. Please discover this on your own." Off we went.

With this newly focused lens, the team could see the furrowed brows, and the squinting and darting of the operators' eyes. Our connection with the operators evolved quickly as we tried to pinpoint the reasons behind a variety of facial expressions.

In my case, I was observing an operator who appeared to be struggling with a bright light shining in her eyes while attempting to assemble a part. When I went to confirm this with her, she said, “Oh no, come here and try this.” I went to her spot on the line, stepped into her position, and was able to really see what she was seeing. Or in this case, what she wasn’t seeing. The light was not shining in her eyes, but in fact, she was working with an obstructed view of the area where she needed to attach two components to the main unit. She was attaching parts by feel, which explained the continuous darting and squinting of her eyes.

The other members of the team were having similar experiences. In taking this “eyes of the operator” approach, we were able to find and fix the specific struggles in each person's work. As we knocked these issues off, productivity improved.

This experience revealed an astonishing approach to Standardized Work. Without the barrier of a stopwatch, documents and clipboards, it is much easier to deeply observe the work the team member is doing.

Ultimately though, without transferring our experiments and learning into SW documents, there is nothing for worksite leaders to ensure those improvements will continue.

2.Standardized Work documents are THE WAY to lead to improvement – but only if they change

Rather than getting in the way of how we observe conditions, SW documents are intended to show us the way to:

·  Hone in on the most important problems to attack

·  Provide a gauge to measure the impact of improvement

·  Pinpoint specific elements of a process that are causing trouble

I’ve had many opportunities over the years to use SW documents as a guide for successful improvement. Many times, it has gone well and then there are the other times that were off the mark, creating terrific but painful learning conditions. One of my worst improvement attempts turned into a lifelong learning experience for me and two fellow coaches.

The assignment was to develop the skill of five new leaders of Standardized Work for Toyota plants in North America. In this case, we needed to transfer the key technical factors of SW including takt time, work sequence, and standard in-process stock. A Toyota supplier was interested to be our training ground as they were struggling to achieve consistent output in an area of their plant.

My fellow coaches and I needed to vet??? the worksite to see if Standardized Work was truly what they needed to improve operations. As we went about our pre-training investigation, we gathered the following:

·  Customer demand was amazingly consistent so we could easily establish Takt time (pace of customer demand). This would give us the target line we needed to judge whether process cycle times (time for each person to start and finish their work on one component) were a problem or not.

·  Each of the team members in the area had the skill to keep a repeating sequence of assembly operation.

·  Once established, the concept of standard-in-process stock would be helpful for the team members to stay in their work rhythm/sequence.

·  There were many chances for our trainees to try out improvements aimed at creating smooth, repeatable work.

From the view of our coaching team, this area fit the bill despite some concerns we had with equipment complexity, isolation of the worksite (the only clean room in the entire plant), and having no designated person in the area to lead the quick troubleshooting needed.

Using the SW capacity analysis sheet, SW work combination table, SW chart, and a line balance graph, we could see improvements that would allow the team members to achieve the customer demand. We thought we were good to go.

Three weeks later, as we gathered the team members with our group for the actual kickoff, things had changed:

·  Customer demand had spiked due to an annual event of building products ahead of the holidays to cover customers’ sales during a week-long factory shutdown. This meant a new, temporary takt time was needed.

·  The equipment complexity had become an obvious problem with the additional volume. The capacity analysis we had completed now showed a bottleneck on one of the most complex machines.

·  Quality problems had increased due to people focusing on making the higher demand levels while dealing with frustrations of frequent equipment disruptions.

For me and my fellow coaches, this appeared to be a nightmare. We quickly confirmed our suspicions by calculating the gap between the number of products needed and their actual output of good parts. Only 60% of the time available in each shift was actually spent making products the customer had already purchased. Yikes! This was no longer a great time to develop SW coaches. What was needed was deep, technical problem solving.

Abandoning ship was not an option. We regrouped to focus on ensuring the stability of each process so that we could at least make a smooth work sequence. You can probably imagine how hard this was to achieve. We soon had frustrated trainees in addition to frustrated team members.

The good news is that some improvement was made. The bad news was that many quality problems and machine malfunctions continued.

As we reported out to the factory’s upper management as well as our TSSC bosses, the questions were tough but the learning was deep. Looking back, this experience was quite formative for me. My key takeaways:

·       The shop floor is alive! Things change all the time. Given that, SW documents will only show the correct path to improvement if they represent the current situation. We, as coaches, should have re-confirmed the real situation of the worksite immediately before our work was to start.

·       Learn to imagine the conditions you will face at the time you are planning to act. This leads to better discovery in the planning stage and allows you to prepare for any obstacles you find.

·       When you have a concern about barriers that could get in the way, investigate. In this case, we could have gathered facts on machine specific downtime, response time to calls for help with machine disruptions and facts to show us the most important quality issues. Armed with this real-world intelligence, it would not have been a problem to have a maintenance person assigned to our team and a quality person available as a go-to resource.

3. Even the best SW Documents aren’t enough

On the heels of experiences like those shared so far, I concluded the only way to understand the “behind the scenes” factors making highly effective, sustainable improvement hard to achieve was to gain real-world operations experience. I broached the topic of a rotation into a production role with my boss/mentor at Toyota. He agreed, but teasingly pointed out that we first needed a brave plant president willing to take on an “operations rookie.”

Nine months later, I held the position of Production Manager in one of Toyota’s Powertrain plants. The assignment for me was clear from Day One:

First Year: Learn the current condition of operations, including the interdependencies of all functions under one roof, lead cross-functional problem solving to raise current performance in Safety/Ergonomics, Quality, Productivity, On Time Delivery, and Cost.

Second Year: Lead the area to launch a major product change, designing out the problems found in the original “current condition.” This involved significant change to the way components were machined, assembled, and conveyed.

Third Year: In the aftermath of model change, stabilize the new work methods and kaizen to raise Safety, Quality, Productivity, On Time Delivery and Cost – yet again.

My original intention was more than met – to understand the real-world issues that make sustainable improvement hard. I still feel that experience was worth five times more than my college degrees. Going in, I had a strong theoretical understanding of the Toyota Production System. What I came away with was an understanding of the connections between the theory and practical application.  

These years were tough, yet exhilarating. Many times, I laughed when I thought of my theoretical understanding of TPS with its aim of balancing Quality, Productivity, Lead Time, and Cost. In my daily life, it felt like those aims were in a blender that had somehow gotten stuck on the “Liquefy” setting — with me right in the mix.   

Summarizing the SW lessons learned from this period is hard, but here is my Top 5 list:

1.    The amount of energy required just to make quality products, safely, day after day, is incalculable. Time to work on deep problem solving and intensive improvement activities is hard to find. It took every ounce of my creative, strategic strengths to continuously carve this time out for the organization.

2.    If there isn’t any human motion involved, there is no meaning to creating SW. Rather than Standardized Work, there are Operations Standards that clarify expectations of the equipment. These are invaluable decision making aids for the people running, fixing and maintaining the machines.

3.    SW is the bridge to practically connect the team member making the product to the customer using the product. There are many ways this happens, including:

·       Takt: Takt time is truly a great balancer of work. When people have a disagreement about how work is distributed across processes, it is often a losing battle. One supervisor says it is fair, another disagrees. This can go on endlessly.

Because takt time is based on actual customer sales, it removes the element of “supervisors’ whim” and focuses the discussion. Actually, it changes the communication from a debate to a problem-solving activity.

·       Work Sequence: While there are many factors to consider in developing the best work sequence for each process, the guiding light comes from the people who designed the product for the customer. Any important design factors that a team member can influence are captured in the SW. A familiar example of this is a specified sequence of assembly to avoid interference between components.

·       Job Breakdown Sheets: These are critical to help each team member understand the importance of each individual work element they perform. When team members know the critical quality aspects in their job and the specifics of why they are important, the nature of training changes. We begin to shift from telling people what to do, to answering their curious questions about how things work and why.

Job Instruction Training, Standard in Process Stock, and the list goes on. Really.

4.    SW is not just for assembly. Although it definitely looks different in machining, casting, painting, etc., the guiding principles of SW can be applied in processes that people typically think of as “craftsman” jobs. Many of the well-known tools of SW are not the same, but the concepts of takt time, work sequence, standard-in-process stock, and others apply, bringing the same benefits that SW does to assembly work.

5.    SW is an emotional thing. People feel strongly about the way they want to do their work. They have intense opinions about their own techniques. Some people want to have the loosest of structure identified, while others believe the movement of each finger should be clarified. To get on the same page from one team member to the next, one shift to another can be a messy process.

As difficult as this sounds, TPS is a brilliant system. People may disagree with this and that, but we are always pulling back to the same things: takt time is given by the customer (no debate), what is the best practice sequence of the process given the competing factors of quality, safety, ergonomics and productivity, what is going on to cause the cycle time change from one hour to the next… I would much rather spend time managing these issues than the general world of human drama.

At the end of my job rotation in Powertrain, I developed a summary of my experience as a production manager and how I would use this to shape my future direction. In preparing the summary, I got input from several of my peers, shop floor leaders and mentors. The big discovery was how much I had learned about SW as an operations management system, not only for improvement projects.

This recognition was illuminated one night about a week before I left Powertrain to rotate back to Toyota’s North American Toyota Production System group. Mr. Ano, one of the most valued mentors of my life, pulled a chair up to my desk and sat looking at me intently, with a slight smile, but serious eyes. This was a man that intimidated many without meaning to. As a veteran Powertrain leader in Japan, and now the US, he carried vast knowledge.

To me, he was a tough, but fair, leader and a mentor I respected beyond business. He was my coach of human nature and the one who gave me confidence to bring my real, unvarnished self into the work place.

I was all ears as he said, “You are such a lucky person. So many mistakes and challenges you have had. No one can pay for this experience.” A bit disappointed with the perceived dig, I asked, “What are you worried about? That I won’t carry my learning into my next job(s)?”

His eyes lit up and he replied, “This is why you are a strong manager. You read behind the words and want to hear the real truth. My request to you is to take every painful experience from here and apply it in your new life. Please give all your effort to the real world struggles of man (human) management.

Do not be surprised when you leave. Everyone will ask you to focus on productivity again. You have learned through these tough days, that when you fix the safety and quality struggles of the team member, productivity comes.”

As he walked away, it hit me that Standardized Work would be the main mechanism to guide me from my Production Manager life to my TPS Manager one.

And it did.

One Small Voice

I have been struggling lately with the value of blogging–not everyone, just me.  There is so much out there already that I have justified my reluctance with many good reasons (or excuses maybe). See what you think of these:

1) How can people wade through the thousands of blogs on topics related to the Toyota Production System (TPS) to find my one small voice?

2) What do I have to say that is unique in the world of continuous improvement?

3) I am not a promoter of me, so I don’t know how people would even know that what I share comes from any unique experience?

4) As the professional me developed, my mentors encouraged humility, self-reflection, responsibility to play a position for the organization vs. a personal role for career development

…and the list goes on.  These concepts connected with me and now I see blogging as an activity that goes against my grain.  Right?

As I consider my so-called reasons they do look more like excuses–if I consider the intent of blogging.  There are probably as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers. But, I think I have finally found the reason that might get me to post to my blog on a more regular basis (as my boss has so kindly requested).

First, I have been lucky to learn the Toyota Production System from mentors who worked with Mr. Ohno, the official developer of TPS.  As I have learned-by-doing from them I see that TPS is unique.  These mentors took their time, energy and a bit of their own sanity to pass some level of competency to me.  It is my responsibility to do the same.  Often when I feel that my sanity is a bit touch-and-go on a project, I am reminded of my duty and passion to pay-it-forward.

Second, I learned an important lesson from one of my early mentors while I was working at the Toyota Supplier Support System (TSSC) that sticks with me today.  After leading a workshop with top executives, I was visibly disappointed.  I didn’t like my boss to see me like that because I felt he deserved managers who could stand up to the challenges of helping others see the light (not much humility there).  Nonetheless there I was with my private pain when he appeared.  He often stopped by for casual conversation at the end of the day, but I think this time was telepathic.

We reflected about the workshop.  It took approximately 95 seconds for him to ask if I felt that we had been successful.  I looked at him as if he had 3 heads and told him NO.  His next question was why.  Well, I thought, he is a smart person so what is he trying to get me to discover.

I searched my mind-vault and came up with the first thing I saw; a group of leaders who weren’t convinced that TPS would work for them.   After sharing this with my boss, he shook his head politely and asked the next question; “How many people out of 25 did you expect to be convinced through this experience?”  His question stumped me but I finally came out with a rough guess of 10.  He looked surprised so I asked him the same question and his answer was 1.  I couldn’t believe it. Why would we put so much time and energy into a workshop if we only expected 1 conversion?  He explained that people who are “convinced” in a workshop are either miraculously in the right place at the right time or their epiphany won’t stand up beyond the enthusiasm of the training experience.

I still didn’t get it. Why all the effort? He patiently explained that if we really do convince 1 top leader, that means that all the people in the company will benefit.  He asked if that was enough benefit for me and I responded, “of course”. He looked at me with yet another challenge in his eyes and shared that the 1 audience member was not even the whole, real reason we invested our energy.  What in the world could it be? “You” he said, “the development of you and our team”.

Okay, humility aside, I have had unique mentors and experiences.  I continue to have them now.  So, I have decided to blog on, with my one, small voice.  I will hope each time to reach at least one person who is hungry to learn what I have to share.

Lesa Nichols


Check out this blog from Rob Olny on our recent LSP facilitation



Next Level Advanced Problem Solving

by Robert Olney in Blog



Sometimes it seems like we are continually fighting the same issue ever year or worse yet, the business environment has changed and the old way no longer works. Today’s leaders are seeing $1 billion dollar valuations from small companies and they’re thinking “Why can’t we do that?”.  If Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Uber, etc. can do that, why can’t our company?  The sad fact is that, overall productivity in American manufacturing is declining.  Our traditional approaches to problem solving are not working.  There has to be a better way.

This week I had a chance to meet with Lesa Nichols and her partner, Tommy Thornton, and I believe they have uncovered a better way.   Both Lesa and Tommy have 50+ combined years of expert problem solving skills.  If they are called in, it’s because the go-to lean guys have failed.  They continue to hear senior operations executives complaining that traditional lean consultants aren’t enough.

Out of frustration, Lesa was able to uncover a revolutionary new problem solving approach that helps break down communication barriers quickly and establish lasting change. Lesa combines her new training with Tommy’s masterful facilitation skills and the two are able to deliver amazing results in less than a day.  My own shop supervisor was begging to practice this new method with our most stubborn machine operator!

How do they work? When Lesa and Tommy first joined us, we didn’t know either.  We launched into the traditional shop tour, even taking time to show details of processes that are broken.  Traditional lean consultants would process map the situation and run a series of kaizens to improve the process, only to return a year later to find the new processes undone.  Lesa and Tommy did not take the bait.  They sat back and concluded that the root cause in our situation was communication.  Not bad communication, but ineffective communication.


In the afternoon, they introduced us to a new way of thinking using their deep problem solving process. Their process and tools were a blast to work with but the methodology is backed by research in neuroscience as well as behavioral science.  They used a structured set of questions and models to have us learn more about ourselves and how we were dealing with our current situation.  The next step is designing or improving our processes to take this into account.  Everyone in the training, including the doubters, were 100% bought in.  Their problem solving approach doesn’t ask anyone to change, it is designed to work with the people the way they really are.

We can’t wait for Lesa and Tommy to return. Already we are talking about new models for new problems.  I have never seen my team so energized to solve the hard problems!


Note: If you want to learn more, talk with Lesa directly at lnichols86 [at] yahoo (dot) com.

To Make The Biscuits Rise

To Make the Biscuits Rise

Finally, a mystery solved, secret shared.

The biscuit-making people have added a seemingly obscure piece of information to their packaging about why you should place biscuits next to each other:  “To make the biscuits rise”, it now reads.  Eureka!

For years I have rebelled against the instructions of “place the biscuits next to each other on the cookie sheet”.  Why, when cooking only 4 biscuits on a cookie sheet?  So, I placed them 2 inches apart, thinking somehow I was more knowledgeable in the properties of heat expansion than the biscuit pros.  Especially in my own oven.

That is…until Sunday morning.  After the discovery of WHY I should place the biscuits next to each other, I did just that.  Miraculously, they did rise, way beyond what I thought possible of a packaged biscuit.  The heat expansion worked, of course.  Vertically instead of horizontally.

Really, they were beautiful and good but who cares outside of my home?  I think other customers do care--regular people preparing a convenient breakfast in their own homes on any given morning.  If we are taking valuable time to prepare any thing for the most important meal of the day, why not be as successful, as the biscuit makers intended? 

Much of my passion about this has more to do with my work than simply baking delicious biscuits.  As I work with people who manufacture a product of some kind, I have learned they are hungry for this type of “Why” information.  They are pushing through the day, combining materials, widgets, coatings and more to make a good product.  But, they aren’t fully equipped with the understanding of why things should be put together a certain way.  When something strange, difficult or mysterious happens, they work through it in their own way. Invariably, the results are mixed based on how well good information is transferred from one person to another. 

This practice fosters an environment where people can be only semi-successful.  Total success is possible when we develop customer-focused training for the job, clearly connecting each piece of the work to why it is important for the end user.  Total success is likely realized when the people doing the work are able to make a product with this WHY understanding completely internalized.

Think about what would need to happen for those dots to connect.  It may not be as easy as adding the phrase, “to make the biscuits rise” to the job instructions but that is exactly where it starts.  And, it leads to total success.


Visualize the Invisible: Connect Improvement Work to Real Business Needs

“I can’t see it,” my boss and mentor announced to my team and me.

10 of us had gathered around from all areas of a heavy industry and technology intensive operation, having just shared the results of a 3 month intensive quality improvement project we’d been working on. Anything, I mean anything, but that comment, I thought. To me, this was the equivalent of cleaning your room to a spotless condition and having your mom declare it “a good starting point.” Only this was worse, much worse. A lot of people had invested many hours of human power (hand and brain) to make an impressive reduction in the act of passing a defect from one process to the next. Call it quality improvement, a morale builder, cost avoidance, scrap reduction—just not “invisible.”

In my world at Toyota, this didn’t make my boss a jerk; it meant that my team and I had some serious reflection ahead. After picking my team up off the floor, I had a “lunch and learn” with my boss/mentor to discuss. Let’s call him Mike. 

“So, what’s the deal? Was it really that bad?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said, “but you know the Improvement Story is critical for people to be able to see the importance of what they have done and for others to want to be involved in the future. The others on the team need to hear that critique and know that it isn’t enough to make real improvement. Without connecting the hands-on work to a clear business need people feel, this work won’t have meaning to anyone beyond this team.”

“Okay, I know the Improvement Story is critical,” I heard myself appealing, “but it’s like we have to do two almost impossible things. 1) we have to make a good match of improvement strategy to the skill of the team. And 2) we have to develop their capability to tell a visual story of what we did, of things that are virtually invisible.” 

He smiled at me and said, “Yes, it is exactly like that.”

As we worked through the details of what was missing, it struck me that I hadn’t coached my team explicitly on how to visualize our work. Why was that, anyway? I realized that making a good visual story of improvement work is not something most people want to do or know how to do.

“And why is that?” Mike asked.

“Fear, I think. Different things for different people. But we don’t have a lot of experience with visualizing work, so there is just a fear of looking stupid in front of others. We may be kaizen literate, but not visually literate.”

He agreed, and so we spent the rest of our time discussing how to clarify what visual literacy means in the continuous improvement world, and how to develop those skills.

Years later, I'm still on a quest of how to develop these skills—in myself and others. The definition of visual literacy still isn’t clear in the lean community. There are many ideas and opinions. Most people think of this as some combination of visualizing Big Data, graphic design techniques, and visually-facilitated strategy sessions. I think of visual literacy more as “Cognitive Visualization,” as referenced by David Sibbet in his book, Visual Leaders. This concept includes things that help us visually make sense of our world such as mental models, frameworks, and personal visions that guide and shape our behavior. This is something I’m passionate about because having skills to visually show the way things work and the impact that has at many levels of an organization in terms of how things can be improved – this is one of the best tools you can have as a leader. It’s like having a personal magnetic force field pulling others to:

  • See what others see, connecting with what others are thinking, doing, planning
  • Align their projects around what the organization clarifies as its most important priorities
  • Discover things they don’t know, for example, about the way the different functions of the organization work together as a whole
  • Adjust the systems of how things are done (the very things that were invisible, intangible and frustrating)

It may seem hard to visualize work, but the biggest hurdle may just be believing you can share things visually. So many of us decide, “We can’t draw.” (Believe me, if making work visual actually required drawing talent, I’d be sitting on the sidelines).

Next time you find yourself wrestling with a problem, perhaps with an A3 or just a piece of paper in front of you, step over the barrier you’ve imposed for yourself, pick up any kind of writing tool, and just draw something, anything. An amazing thing will happen – your brain and your hand will start working together, ideas will flow, and all you’ll have to do is draw, scribble, organize, erase, and draw some more… and occasionally, laugh. Once we put our fear of looking stupid aside, new ways of looking at old things become not only possible, but probable.

In your day to day work, carry a notepad with you. When you hear people say things in a meeting, try to draw it. When you see things you want to think about more, capture it in a way that will remind you of what you saw. When you see connections between different pieces of work, draw a chain connecting those things together. Drop the fear factor by sharing your drawings with a team member you trust. You’ll probably hear a lot of, “Ah, I get it now” and “Can I see your pen for a second?”

I got this reaction myself when I went back to the quality improvement team after my coaching session with Mike. As I led the team back through the improvement story – imagining my audience to be completely unaware of our improvement efforts – I heard a few groans and some nervous laughter. We didn’t need Mike anymore; we could “see it” ourselves now. This making work visual thing was no piece of cake, but once my team and I realized the difference between doing the work and explaining the work – in other words, as Mike said,connecting the hands-on work to a clear business need people feel – the learning door was open again.

Mike had promised to come back when we were ready to share our story. A week later, after we had made a storyboard to explain the flow of what we had done and why, we invited him back. And sure enough, Mike said the words we had been waiting to hear. “I see what you did. And now let’s look at this together...”

Here’s a rough sketch of the storyboard we prepared for Mike.


As you can imagine, it was a pivotal learning experience for the group. More importantly, the Improvement Story answered questions for very important people. We got input and support from people all over the plant during the major activities. They had already helped without really being able to see what we were doing either. After reviewing the Improvement Story with them, now they were able to see how this improved the company’s ability to create real value for our customer.