Standard Work for Personal Improvement

checklistStandard work is a notion from the lean manufacturing world that refers to having some sort of pre-defined standard way of doing things for a given activity or process. Actually, in the lean lexicon there is an awful lot related to standard work. Perhaps the most concise definition I’ve seen is this:

“Standardized Work is an agreed upon set of work procedures that establish the best method and sequences for each process. It defines the interaction of people using processes to produce a product. It is centered around human movements, it outlines efficient, safe work methods and helps eliminatemuda/waste.”

– cited from The no-nonsense guide to Standard Work

It can be as simple as simply documenting the work that is already done. It can also be used as part of a continuous improvement effort (you have to have a standard process so that you can measure the impact of changes). In much of the literature that I have read, the typical examples of standard work are taken from processes from the floor of a manufacturing plant. It seems pretty easy to define all the steps in a process when all you are doing is processing widgets. Compare that sort of work to the kind of work that is typically done by your average knowledge worker. Naively, they seem as though the two contexts are worlds apart.

For example a worker in a factory may do the same thing over and over again all day long. On the other hand, a knowledge worker never does the same thing twice – and certainly never the same way. Consider also that a typical factory worker works on a fairly rigid schedule that does not admit to many interruptions. The knowledge worker by comparison is sometimes referred to as “interrupt driven”, often suffering a non-stop stream of interruptions and changes in focus (depending on your situation of course). So how is it that we can apply the same sort of techniques for standard work to the knowledge worker that we would apply to the factory worker?

There was an interesting article over on InfoQ, Lean ‘Standard Work’ Applied to Software Development, that outlined some of the issues in trying to understand what it really means to apply the concept of standard work to knowledge work (or more specifically to software development). A few things become clear from this discussion:

  1. There are different ways or levels of understanding how standard work can be applied to knowledge work. For example: scheduling, task completion, process performance, coding standards, etc.
  2. Some would even assert (I believe incorrectly) that standard work does not exist in Agile software development.

I might even argue that in order to really understand how standard work can be applied to software development we have to take it down to the individual level. The question becomes: Where can each of us find standard work in our everyday lives? Here are some ideas:

  1. The daily schedule – imagine standardizing your daily calendar in outlook. I saw an amazing version of this in a presentation done at the LEI lean conference by the folks at Group Health.
  2. Meeting management – a well run meeting can be run according to a standardized structure. In fact that’s what a lot of management books are all about.
  3. Quality checklists/templates – what are the criteria that we use to assess the quality of the work we have done?
  4. To do lists/chores – what are the things I need to accomplish each day?

As you can see there are an awful lot of opportunities for standardization in a person’s day. Right now I’m playing with these ideas. This standard work stuff seems to border on time management (Stephen Covey, David Allen) as well as with Lean, and other process management methodologies. Exploring this sort of thing, especially at the individual level is a form of self-experimentation that can be very valuable. It can help reveal the principles behind these concepts in ways that our deeply meaningful to us in personal ways. It is through discovering that deeper meaning behind many of these principles that makes each of us better at bringing these concepts to bear in a work context. So I’m going to continue to play with this stuff, and if it interests you I would encourage you to do the same thing. You might find a lot of standard work lurking in your life.

2 Responses to Standard Work for Personal Improvement

  1. Good day Tom,

    Do you think that a team’s working agreement and Definition of Done could be considered standard work items?

    Thanks for the information.

    • Tom Perry says:

      Chris,

      I think so – I see possibilities on a couple of different levels:

      1) It could be a standard practice to review/update these items. All too often the working agreement and def of done are static.
      2) My experience of a working agreement is that it outlines what the standards are at a rather high level. It outlines the standards we want to apply, not the details of the standard work itself. I guess it depends on the detail you use in the working agreement. Mine usually don’t have too many bullet points.
      3) When I think of a standard, I often think of a checklist. A definition of done seems to fit that model well.

      Best regards,
      Tom

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