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Don’t Get Lured into the Hype About SOPs

You might think creating standard operating
procedures (SOPs) to standardize work is a good thing until you realize that no improvement is going on. Only once the need exists to find a better way to work will a work standard actually be used as an effective tool by employees.

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Contributing editor John Sweigart is a principal partner in The Body Shop @ (www.thebodyshop-at.com). Along with his business partner, Brad Sullivan, they own and operate collision repair shops inside new car dealerships, as well as consult to the industry. Sweigart has spent 21 years in the collision repair industry and has done everything from being an independent shop owner to a dealership shop manager to a store, regional and, ultimately, national director of operations for Sterling Collision Centers. Both Sweigart and Sullivan have worked closely with former manufacturing executives from Federal-Mogul, Morton Thiokol and Pratt & Whitney in understanding and implementing the principles of the Toyota Production System.

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I Need SOPs!

Let’s start by examining the SOP and its need. How have so many of us become convinced that an SOP is the key to success? Like in nearly every case of discovery, the things that we can see and touch are typically the things we focus on first. For example, a trip through a successful organization might include the observation of an incredibly clean and organized production floor. But did cleaning the floor create the success, or did cleaning the floor happen later to sustain the success? In most cases, it’s the decoding of a system that drives one to mimic the actions of another, but rarely does that mimicry equal the observed performance. So does mimicking the practice of an SOP make your business better? I don’t know, you tell me.

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If you look at an SOP and all the associated standard tools of an operation, you realize that they actually support the sustaining of performance of an area rather than the creating of performance of an area. Look at it from the perspective of a kaizen business: What’s the value of standard work? The first thing you need to understand is that in the SOP situation, there are main two elements: a work standard and standardized work, neither of which look anything like an SOP. But remember, a kaizen business’s objective is to create continuous improvement, so by definition, standardizing much of anything wouldn’t make a lot of sense – at least not in the terms of standardization that most of us think of, such as that set of assembly instructions in your new parts cart. So if your goal is to have your people follow those instructions exactly as you say, then write those SOPs and post them on the wall. But if your goal is to get better, then let’s talk about achieving standardized work.

     

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The Process

The Need – In our industry, we face low margins and high expectations in an environment of highly complex and variable work. We know that many of the old ways of working no longer generate sustainable levels of performance. Therefore, the solution to the problem is currently not known. After all, if the solution existed, we would already be doing it. So by default, the activity of improvement can only be a discovery process. What good, then, is an SOP when the solution isn’t understood…unless your goal is to standardize a way that doesn’t work? What’s required is a goal, a high level of expectation to produce a much better ________  (fill in the blank with whatever you’re selling).

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A need must first exist that drives the discovery. Don’t miss this critical point! You cannot standardize your way into change. The goal is not to turn your organization into a rule-following machine.

The Thinking – Once a high level of expectation is set, the next move is to organize your best resources behind the cause and map out a plan. Take what you know about better, less-waste ways to achieve the new goal (value stream mapping is a good start). What you need to create is a “work standard.”

Think of the work standard in this way: When your work is discovery, the best you can do is develop an educated guess about how this new kind of work might best be done (since it has never been done before). It’s really like an engineering spec of the new way of working. It wouldn’t be appropriate to assume that actually doing exactly “this” would achieve exactly the desired outcome. The new way work standard is really a hypothesis and needs to be treated as such.

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The Execution – Now that a high expectation has been set and an educated guess on how you might successfully accomplish it created, what’s next? Would you take that estimate (work standard) and tell your people, “This is how we now do the work”? Remember, your goal is to achieve this new higher level, not just work like robots. The focus must remain on achieving the goal. (Warning: Many organizations new to the practice miss this point entirely and wind up putting their systems into a downward spiral of performance. They insist that the hard work done in creating the standards are exactly what must be done from here on out. While this is basically true, without a system in place to measure outcomes, identify causes and change the work quickly, following standards becomes “the goal” and the entire organization not only loses sight of the real objective but actually believes that things are going as planned as the ship sinks lower and lower. The point again is that the focus must be strictly on making the target. For most organizations, that target includes requirements for both quantity of and quality of work.)

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So now, with your people armed with a clear and difficult (new level of performance required) objective, their goal mustn’t be, “Can I get this work done or not?” but rather, “How can I make this work easier to achieve?” In reality, you don’t care if the work is done in the way as prescribed on the work standard. It’s not an exercise in proving how right or smart you are. What you care about is that it consistently gets done in the right quantity with the right attributes in the right amount of time and cost. The person doing the work cares about being able to survive working to this level. The work standard is really just some “engineering help.” After all, improvement isn’t created on paper but is created by people who are given the right objectives and the right tools and then set loose to discover the answer.

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The Discovery – Now that the mandate of what must happen (not if) exists, the work standard can be used as support to achieve the outcome. In other words, improvement tools (like a work standard) cannot be successfully “pushed” into an organization, they can only be successful when they’re “pulled” in. Only once the need exists to find a better way to work will a work standard actually be used as an effective tool by the people. Realize that any other direction of implementation will result in either rebellion or soul-numbing processing by the people, neither of which sounds like a successful business model. Your people’s goal (and yours, too) will become not just making the number but making it easier to make the number. They’ll understand:

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• The need to make this work sustainable.

• Working at 120 percent all day every day can only take you so far and has a time limit before failure sets in.

• Others will need to work this hard, too, for anyone in the organization to succeed.

• Being relied on as “the only one who knows how to do this right” is only exciting for about a month.

• Others need to understand the right way to do this work if they ever want a break.

• If we’re ever going to have real success, this work needs to become standardized – creating standardized work must be accomplished as a critical part of their personal success.

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Building Parts Carts

So we’ve all heard and said that “working smarter not harder” is an important objective. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do here? Isn’t this what everything above really describes? So let me jump back to that comment about building those parts carts.

When you first sit down to assemble the carts, maybe you read the instructions listed, maybe you just look at the pictures or maybe you just wing it. But as a starting point, armed with some basic information, and through some initial process of trial and error, you actually develop your own way to put each one of them together. You become consistent in how you do each one and establish a routine that achieves the desired outcome. You achieve standardized work.

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I know you can see what I’m saying here. You know that while instructions may be helpful (even good), they don’t take everything into consideration. They don’t know how much space you have to work in, or how much time you have to do it, or what tools are available, or how often you have to move your workspace or trash. Even if they did, what happens when any one of these elements changes? These instructions are really just a work standard; you won’t achieve standardized work until people come together with the environment, tools and other conditions. You won’t have that “smarter not harder” way consistently in place until a human interacts and you experience trial and error. And discover the best way to achieve the goal.

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So the process of achieving standardized work starts with a common goal based on specific business and customer requirements of quantity, quality and delivery. This objective creates an engineering spec or work standard of how we (process people) think this goal might best be achieved by the workforce. The people who do the work are then tasked with making the new goal happen, quickly discover a need for help then begin to consult the engineering spec for support. Through trial and error, in conjunction with the work standard, they begin to standardize work until the goal outcomes are consistently and easily achieved. The words on the wall begin to change (the work standard), the way the people actually do the work begins to change (reality of work), and over time, the work becomes standardized. The constant here that most people forget is that the focus of getting the job done – not how it gets done – comes first. The work gets done, the standard gets revised to make easier, the work becomes standardized for sustainability, a new goal is set and the thing starts all over again.

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Like any other scenario where change is needed, it’s only successful when everyone shares in the need. You can’t just tell someone change is needed and expect them to go along. They have to feel it, want it and need it, too. This applies to all aspects of life.

So which came first, the SOP or the improvement? You tell me.

Warning Signs

A couple things to consider in closing: A good warning sign in a business is when the SOPs on the wall are consistently equal to the way work is being done. This indicates that the work has been standardized, which might be a good thing until you realize that no improvement is going on because your people have already reached the goal. This may sound nice, but there’s no such thing as maintaining a “level.” While you may think you’re holding your performance, the truth is you’re sitting still and being either caught or passed by one of your competitors.

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In a kaizen business, the majority of work is not standardized at any given moment. Rarely do you see the work equal the words. The truth is they’re improving. They may have achieved standardized work in that area 10 times already this year. The point is that feeling good about having an SOP in place and consistently executed is nothing to celebrate for more than a day or so.

Don’t get lured into all the hype you hear about having SOPs. Realize that, like most tools of a kaizen business, the decoding and subsequent sales pitch comes from those who don’t live it, just those who try to profit from it.

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John Sweigart has developed the knowledge of the Toyota Production System and its execution over the past 11 years. As director of lean operations and ultimately national director of operations for Sterling Collision Centers, Sweigart helped lead its operations and production model growth up to and through its acquisition by the Allstate Corporation. Sweigart also acts as senior lean coach for Murli & Associates, a Connecticut-based lean consulting firm with clients in industries such as transportation, construction and insurance. Today, Sweigart’s primary function as direction leader of The Body Shop @, a Pennsylvania-based collision repair organization, allows him to further develop the discovery and value creation of kaizen in the collision repair industry. Its “Star-Link Certified” collision repair system knowledge is now exclusively offered to the industry through a strategic alliance with DuPont Performance Coatings.

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