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Standard Procedures: A Tool for Improvement

In lean organizations, standard work is used to support the objective — continual improvement. If you’re ever going to get any better, you must start with a standard way. It’s the baseline for improving your results

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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.

Recently, many organizations have been touting the value of standard procedures. Some, however, still argue that with the infinitely variable work that needs to be performed in a collision repair shop, it’s impossible to create any standards that will consistently be followed. While this is somewhat true when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of repairing vehicles, it’s not when you look at it on a broader scale.

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So is there value in pursuing development of standard procedures?

Absolutely.

Achieve a Desired Outcome
What’s the obvious purpose of a standard way to perform work? What problems does it solve? Well, think for a moment about asking someone to perform some specific tasks. For example, imagine leaving your teenager at home alone for the weekend. He’ll need to prepare some meals, feed the dog and lock the house before bed. These are tasks that you’d normally perform without thinking because you just know what needs to happen in order to achieve the desired outcome. Although your home structure may be somewhat of a democracy, at the end of the day, it’s ultimately a dictatorship. The responsibility falls in your lap. (The same is true in your business).

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In this scenario of leaving your teen home alone for the weekend, the first thing you might do is think through what steps you’d perform to accomplish these tasks, and then you’d probably grab a pen and paper to write down what needs to happen. As you begin writing down the major items to complete, you’d realize that some level of detail is required to make these tasks go off without a hitch.

Ultimately you’d end up creating a detailed “to do” list for your child, including what to do if things go wrong (phone numbers of friends, neighbors, police, etc.). In doing this, you’ve essentially created standard procedures for performing simple tasks so they’re performed the way you desire and so you’re confident that, even if things go wrong, they’ll still get completed properly — all without your intervention.

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So one purpose of standard work is to clearly communicate how things should happen in order to achieve your desired outcome.

Reduce the Need to Intervene
What other benefits are achieved through standard work? As in the above scenario, if you’ve included in the standard “what to do when things go wrong,” you reduce your need to intervene in solving simple problems.

How often throughout the day are you or other management resources pulled away from your focus to make decisions or to put out fires created by others’ bad decisions? Many organizations have created entire positions for people to do nothing but solve problems and extinguish fires all day long.

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Imagine your savings if problems were solved on their own?

Yet many organizations today don’t take the time to do something like this. They’ll hire employees based on their perceived ability to perform the work required, give them some basic training and turn them loose. Often, these employers are disappointed when the desired outcome isn’t achieved. The fact is that the employees experience this same disappointment. Let’s face it, no one comes to work looking to fail.

Looking for a Better Way
You can see that defining standard work has value in organizations. It helps keep things moving along and without a lot of management intervention so that work is performed according to your plan each day.

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So why does no one ever follow it?

You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all sat down and worked on plans and procedures to determine how things should be done. We do this work in earnest, hoping it’ll be the fix to some issue we’re having — and it works for a little while. But six weeks later, it’s back to the same old ways.

The problem with standard work is that our people aren’t machines. They don’t feel personal value and reward from following instructions blindly, all day long. Some would say this is a problem with Western culture and perhaps even suggest that Japanese companies have achieved success because, culturally, they’re more prone to follow instructions.

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But this isn’t the problem.

What, then, is the secret to executing standard work? Part of it is simply understanding what the real purpose of standard work is.

The real value of it in a lean organization goes much deeper than what I described above. It acts as the foundation of a lean organization. It’s the basic building blocks that allow improvement to begin.

The following are the elements of standard work:

  1. Standard work in a lean organization is owned by the people who perform the work, not by the manager. By owned, I mean it’s created by, performed by, maintained by and improved by the workforce. While a newcomer to a lean organization may not create the standard procedure for the work he does, going forward, he’ll decide how to improve it based on the experiences gained while actually performing it.
  2. Standard work is a hypothesis. In a lean business, the written standard procedures aren’t the final product of how best to do the work; they’re an educated guess at how the work should be performed in order to meet a specific outcome. That means, “If we do these things, in this way, we should be able to produce the work with no defects, in the correct amount of time.”

The reason these elements are important to a lean organization is that these organizations exist to improve. Many businesses believe they have a great way of doing things and a great business model, so improvement for them isn’t very important. They’re more focused on doing it the way they know works. Most companies operate this way, but the problem is that your competition can be as good as you just by doing what you do. Or worse than that, things change in the market and the old way no longer works. (Something I think we’re all experiencing.) 

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Lean organizations understand that they must always be looking for a better way to do it — always. They also understand that the “way” must be conscious of the needs of the market. This is continual improvement.

Standard Work in a Lean Organization
What does the process around standard work look like in a lean organization? Let’s say the objective for a shop is to shave one day off cycle time for the customer. The shop knows by doing this, it’ll not only improve customer satisfaction, but reduce the shop’s repair time, allowing it to produce more revenue in the same amount of time. (More profit as long you add little or no resources.)

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So step one would be understanding that in order to reduce cycle time, you must know where your greatest opportunity is to reduce time. This is usually discovered in a kaizen event (covered in an earlier article).

I’ll save you the time of trying to figure out the greatest opportunity to reduce time and just tell you that, in collision repair, it’s waiting (one of the seven types of waste). We spend more time waiting for open bays, parts, supplements, approval, etc.
Step two would now be to determine how you can reduce this waiting time. For example, “We could reduce waiting by eliminating the time spent waiting on supplemental parts. We could do this by creating a way to dismantle cars properly so that we don’t have any supplemental parts.”

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Step three would be figuring out how specifically you’d go about doing this. This is the standard work, creating and documenting the step-by-step process of how the work should be done.

Now here’s where a lean organization’s thinking is different. They aren’t going to go nuts trying to design the perfect way to do this step because that isn’t the goal. They’re just going to use the knowledge of the group to think through and come up with version one for the process.

Next, they’re going to understand the desired outcome. We said we could shave one day off cycle time by eliminating supplements. So the hypothesis is that, “If we perform the work in this new way, then we should have no supplemental parts orders.”

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In step four, they’ll start performing the work in the new way and record if it worked or not. This is important. You must record the outcome! It’s an experiment. You’re testing the standard work (the hypothesis) to see if it delivers the desired outcome.

Producers Own the Procedures
The mission for the people who work on this is now different. It becomes: Perform the standard that we all developed, record if it worked and, at certain intervals (let’s say every 30 cars or so), we’ll review the results together so we can identify what part of the standard work needs to be changed. We’ll then change the standard work based on the problems we recorded and go again. This process repeats until the desired outcome is achieved.

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The difference here is that the producers of the work actually own the standard procedure. As opposed to many organizations where the standard procedure created will disappear over time or dwindle to a fraction of what it once was, in this environment, the standard actually gets stronger.

It’s the ownership by the people that makes it work. The mindset shifts from “come to work each day to fix cars” to “come to work each day to fix the process of fixing cars.” Whereas following standards in a typical organization feels like the soul-numbing work of robots, in a lean organization, it unlocks the creativity of every person there.
It’s not a cultural difference of discipline that makes it work at all; it’s the additional creative value of the people recognized by the company.

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This still requires a lot of discipline on everyone’s part to stay the course and it’s critical that the discipline to follow the standard is in place, but it’s more easily accepted.

A big win for the worker is that when things go wrong, it’s not because the worker screwed up but because the standard is wrong. No more finger pointing. And people are more prone to follow the standard knowing that it’ll reveal the true problems and help to resolve them.

Developing Standard Procedures
How do you develop good stan- dard procedures that work? Good standard work should tell you:

  • When it’s time to perform the work — a simple signal tells the area to “do this now.”
  • How to perform the work — these should be specific, step-by-step instructions. Realize that you can’t document exactly how to remove a door handle, but you can document what grade sandpaper to finish plastic work. 
  • How to know if it’s done properly — an expectation of quality or how to verify it. 
  • When it should be complete — an expectation of time so the work step fits in with the rest of the process; it keeps the entire process flowing. 
  • Where the work goes next — physically, so that the next step knows. 
  • What to do if things go wrong — how to solve problems or signal for help.
  • How to record performance against the standard.

Standard work is simply a tool used by lean organizations to support the objective — improvement! On its own, it has no more value that any other tool you might use. It’s how it fits together with all the pieces that’s important. 

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Standard work must exist before you can ever start getting better. The standard work, when followed, is the thing that delivers every result in the organization. If you’re ever going to get any better, you must start with a standard way. This is the baseline for improving your results.

Just look at a pit crew for a race team. They’re always trying to shave a couple tenths of a second off their time. It’s clearly a critical factor to their success. Do you think these guys just jump the wall and do their best? You can bet that they’ve developed and documented a standard way, right down to hand motions, in how they work. You can also bet they review their work after every single race and compare it to the standard to identify the problems and modify the process.

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Think Lean
Lean tools and the lean process
are becoming a more popular solution to many repairers’ problems. Just remember, there’s a difference between the two. Lean tools, like standard work, are just clever ways to do the same old things. But the lean process is a completely different way of thinking.
Without the desire to improve the organization, you can utilize the tools and ideas of lean but you’ll probably see no more improvement than you would by purchasing a new welder.

As I’ve said, it’s the thinking that’s different. You need to see it through. You’ll question its value continually, and sometimes it just won’t make sense. The good news is that more of us are gaining this knowledge, and it’s becoming easier to access. I suggest you learn more about Toyota’s success. There are plenty of great books available.

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Spend some time learning the secrets of these new ways before you take the leap. It has been said that “a half-hearted attempt at kaizen brings a thousand harms and not a single gain.” It’s true.

It remains to be a difficult and exciting time for our industry. We’ll see a massive change over the next few years, and I’m confident that lean thinking will be a great part of it.

As always, feel free to e-mail me with any questions. Good luck!

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. You can e-mail Sweigart at [email protected].

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