Tue, 05/17/2011 - 07:57
Knowledge workers are the fastest growing segment of the work force. Some tell me that their work is an art, and that it resists standardizing.
“If you standardize, you’ll take away our ability to be creative and responsive to customer needs,” they say. They also observe that every project is different, and argue that “standardizing customized” is oxymoronic.
I disagree. Most great art follows years of learning the “basics” created many years ago. Then, they apply them with ever-increasing genius. There’s a reason many artists study “Gray’s Anatomy” (the text, not the show) with the intensity of medical students. And few brilliant photographers ignore the “rule of threes” when framing a Pulitzer-winning shot.
Organizations with a high knowledge worker population can achieve great gains in operational excellence. There’s enormous value in standardizing the right work, and there are right ways of going about it.
No one argues against the need for standard steps in medical procedures, financial transactions and air travel. Would you really want a member of a medical team for your operation choosing his/her own approach?
In fact, standardizing makes sense anywhere you want predictable quality, safety and outcomes. We know that “lean organizations” benefit from enormous productivity and quality gains. They engage everyone in institutionalizing “best practices” and stay in never-ending improvement cycles.
Here are some of the benefits:
- When teams and networks agree on a “best sequence” of steps and have a common understanding of what to expect, they can work more harmoniously and efficiently.
- Standardizing steps that don’t require customization allows teams to implement best-known practices, and then continuously improve on them.
- New team members can “get up to speed” quickly.
Knowledge workers experiencing the benefits of the right kind of standardizing approach find that they’re freed up to focus their innovative energies and talent on the highest “value add” work. They can also continually upgrade standard business processes, the basis for never-ending improvement.
Doing it wrong
Standardizing can be done well. Consider, however, when it’s done badly: A “smart” person or team writes instructions instead of collaborating with affected teams. The completed instructions are “thrown over the wall,” without asking for comment, clarification or improvement. Supervisors push hard to make sure workers follow the new instructions.
The result? Employee effectiveness is often limited, not enhanced. Have you ever had the frustrating experience of talking to someone in a service organization following a rigid script even though he knows a quicker way to get to your solution?
Doing it right
In an agile organization today, workers play an ongoing role in continuously improving processes. As much as possible, teams are encouraged to develop and continually improve repeatable work… agreeing on the “best practices” and making them a standard.
Good leaders make standard work part of an “employee enabling system,” not a “command-and-control system.” They encourage teams to strike the right balance between standard requirements / general guidelines and best practices to appropriately adapt.
Some other guidelines:
- Be clear at connection points between organizations and people. Identify which information predictably gets passed on, and what others can rely on as being complete up to that point.
- Standardize and stabilize. As you learn and think of ideas for improving, empower the people in the system to improve on the standard work.
- Be practical and creative as you document standard work. Large volumes of text quickly fall out of use and relevance. Use diagrams, simple procedures, checklists and templates. Make them easily accessible and easy to update.
One of my coworkers described standard processes as “liberating structure.” That’s a good way to think of it. If it liberates your valuable human resources to focus on the highest value work, then you’re doing it right.
Time you spoke up
OK, that’s enough from me. What do you think? We’d love to hear your horror stories and “way to go’s.”
Where is standardizing working well for you? Where is it failing? What behaviors do you see that make it successful? When does it fail?
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Jerry Runser is a senior consultant at McArdle Ramerman. He has more than 30 years of experience in improving performance in a variety of operations, from large global organizations to small enterprises. He partners with leaders to develop and execute winning strategies, achieve operational excellence and harness innovation strengths for competitive advantage. Click here for more about him.