Sarah Lethbridge, senior research associate at Cardiff University’s Lean Enterprise Research Centre, shares her idea of how important a role standards play in delivering a successful continuous improvement programme in services.

As a lean thinker the world can seem pretty confusing at times. It is our job to both study and learn from the past but also to challenge the now, so that we can improve the future. The two quotes above highlight the predicament that many of us face.

I highly respect the work of Steven Spear, H. Kent Bowen and John Seddon, who have all greatly contributed to my understanding of what it means for an organisation to pursue perfection, but who is right? And why must there be a fight?

When I work with organisations, I try to help them to make sense of what it means to embrace a continuous improvement approach. Together, through teaching, we discuss what we consider to be the key elements of a lean enterprise and then we try to understand how the different elements interact with each other and mesh together to form a completely new, impressive and dynamic ‘organisational compound’.

What inevitably happens as part of these discussions is the development of a spiderweb diagram. This map illustrates how all of the different elements feed each other, evolve from each other and coexist together. I consider the development of standards to be a critical ingredient within this web.

The diagram below is an attempt to ‘tidy up’ my thoughts in this area. It isn’t perfect, it doesn’t comprise all of the necessary elements needed within a lean enterprise, but it does help teams to see how many of the key concepts knit together. Arrows indicate some kind of relationship between the different elements. The relationship indicated could suggest that one activity needs to happen before its related entity can exist, or that that element will contribute to the success of its related element. So let’s start to unravel the web, and to extract the role that standards play in the success of a continuous improvement approach.

Obviously, one of the most important focus points for lean is to understand customer value (1) and then to chase after this customer value. I have linked the customer value box directly to the development of standards (2). A standard to me is a kind of agreement between staff, the organisation and their customers about the quality of work that can be expected. Therefore, it makes sense that the standard should encapsulate what customers need, want and expect from the product or service.

But what should the standard look like? Well, that’s why I’ve linked the standard box to the important principle of making work visual (3). The best standards are simple, clear and easy to understand (4). They shouldn’t be overly complicated or prevent workers from being able to think. Especially in service.

John Seddon is right to criticise the development of overly specified standards which attempt to turn workers into robots. We have all experienced the pain of being on the receiving end of a call centre script or the inflexibility of a customer service interaction where your reasonable request is quashed by the ‘it’s company policy’ line. What I think is key is to understand the granularity of the standard that is required and that different situations will require a different degree of detail.

I see the granularity of standards as a kind of spectrum. Where one end of the spectrum is the rigid, detailed specification of miniscule tasks and the other end of the spectrum is just a kind of checklist, to ensure that some of the critical parts of a process have been achieved.

So what lies between the two ends of the spectrum? Well, learning about four fields mapping from Dimancescu has helped my understanding about how to flex standards to suit different situations. This project management technique involves agreeing ‘entry and exit criteria’ at each phase of the work activity in question. Work must not move from phase 1 to phase 2 unless all of the exit criteria have been achieved. Phase 2 must not allow the work to ‘enter’ if it has not satisfied all of the essential requirements. These quality gates help to marshal the work safely through the process, in the shortest possible lead time (5).

I believe that using the idea of ‘entry and exit criteria’ as a type of standard can be hugely beneficial when helping to improve processes, particularly in services. Spear and Bowen taught us about how important clear and concise, unambiguous communication is between different sections of an organisation within their 4 Rules of the Toyota Production System and by collectively agreeing what work needs to look like as it moves from different departments, many errors and rework can be averted (6). I think that by developing a collective understanding of what is required by different teams, when it is wanted, helps to define clear roles and responsibilities (7) and can help to better align resource to meet changing demand profiles (8).

Of course, the development of standards goes wrong, regardless of the degree of granularity of standard that is pursued, when they are not truly developed by the people for the people. Standards must be developed where the work happens, at the gemba (9), in order to be relevant and useful. Therefore, it is also these people who will be able to decide the level of detail that is required within the standard (for instance, where the standard needs to fall on the standardisation spectrum). If the standards are developed for the people, by the people, they will also be much more likely to use the standard as a basis for improvement, searching for new ways of working, thanks to the visibility and clarity that a well developed standard can provide.

The fact that standards provide the basis for problem solving (10) and provide organisations with the opportunity to apply a scientific approach to the world of work (11) is very well documented and discussed. When coupled with the guaranteed reflective time and space that standard management practices (12) provide, standards give leaders a fantastic opportunity to coach and mentor (13) their staff to reflect on their working practices with a view to improve them.

So if the standards that are developed are simple, active and helpful, they should be able to give employees the clarity and confidence to be able to do as Seddon discusses, to absorb variation (14). The best way to do it, I think, is to be sympathetic to the plight of the customer who has requested a service from you, or as Seddon advocates, to understand the purpose of why you are there. It is therefore critical for the organisation to be aligned to this understanding (15) and for the standards that are developed to be aligned to this mission.

A standard also provides a great opportunity for an organisation to be able to collect data about how the process is performing as it provides a kind of yardstick to measure against (16). For example, if we aim to deliver a response to a customer request within 24 hours, we can design key quality entry and exit criteria as a type of standard for the process, and then monitor our effectiveness at being able to deliver to this standard. Note, this is not to advocate the use of targets, which we know can cause all sorts of perverse organisational behaviour, but to merely encourage the pursuit of perfection through an increased awareness of how the work is done.

All of these things can be achieved, as long as you don’t take the concept of developing standards to the nth degree if it’s not necessary, and that’s why understanding where the approach needs to sit on the standardisation spectrum is so important. I believe that both Seddon and Spear and Bowen are correct to some extent, but that what is required, as ever, is a very sensitive approach to the application of continuous improvement concepts in different environments, particularly within the world of service.

I believe that by better understanding how the different constituent elements of a lean enterprise knit together, change agents can better work with teams to flex the improvement approach needed in order to make a difference. Standards in service must be respected as one of the lean enterprise’s critical keystones however. It’s just essential to be able to adapt the granularity of that standard and to appreciate that a five-point checklist, if that’s all that’s required in order to increase quality, increase process visibility and therefore customer confidence, is an excellent contribution in terms of helping to achieve improvement.