Editorial board member Keivan Zokaei comments on two articles that appeared in the last issue of LMJ, one by Sarah Lethbridge and one by Bill Bellows.

I agree with the author that standards must be developed where the work happens, for the people and by the people who do the work. This is a key principle in Toyota where in fact line leaders are in charge of setting and updating the standard operating procedures (SOP). It is notable that the ratio of line leaders to line operators is often around one to four or five in Toyota, meaning that the line leader is truly aware of the needs of the workplace and the voice of the employees, while also being experts in developing SOPs. Nonetheless, I disagree with the author that applying a simple diagram will sort out the command-and-control afflictions plaguing the service sector in the UK.

I personally think Seddon and Spear are not talking about the same thing when discussing ‘standardisation’. Standard in Toyota, which was the subject of Spear and Bowen’s study, are set by people using the principle of jidoka or ‘autonomation’ which is one of the two pillars of Toyota Production System. Simply put jidoka means that automation (or in a wider context any sort of systemisation) is subordinated to the human intelligence. This applies to any situation that involves replacing human activities and decisions with a process. Far from turning the worker into the adjunct of the machine, TPS insists on frontline employees’ ability to make decisions, to absorb variety and to react to quality issues as much as possible, e.g. stopping the line to fix the problem which on the surface appears to be even disruptive to continuous flow – the other pillar of TPS! That’s why in TPS standardisation is a way of workers helping themselves to improve the process, rather than a method of control. Compare this to any average manufacturing process or even a call centre where frontline staff have very little authority to address variations in work outside the imposed controls, let alone to stop the line and ask for (pull) help. ‘Dumb down’ systemisation is ubiquitous in the service sector (especially in the UK) which has been the subject of Seddon’s studies.

In many service organisations, customers and employees are victims of ‘dumb down’ standardisation alike. That is because reductionist managers and consultants who design these services use it as a means of executing their command-and-control paradigm, where the managers do the thinking and the operators do the doing. I therefore think the real predicament is not in standardisation per se, but in the thinking of the managers who run systems – service or manufacturing.

Bill’s article re-opens a very important topic and gives a useful framework for understanding it better. Bill provides the Micro vs. Macro system perspective which is, least to say, a “neat” way to conceptualise the issue. Drawing on my personal experiences I’d like to urge readers to think about possibilities that lie in understanding and tackling the issue.

What is the full opportunity for working interdependently to deliver value while scientifically ‘understanding’ deviation from nominal value at both Macro and Micro levels? My own observations tell me that, for example in food manufacturing, several percentage points of precious raw materials are ‘given away’ by the manufacturers in every pack of food item purchased from supermarkets which not only means extra cost but also over-feeding the – already obese – modern society. Furthermore, I still urge readers to think beyond manufacturing, food and retail. What about using Bill’s idea in service or knowledge creation environments? Do service providers, such as consultancies or mobile phone operators, really know how to meet customers’ ‘nominal value’ going beyond their own personal or organisational targets by working interdependently with other service providers involved?

There seem to be billions of dollars of potential saving in tackling any one of these opportunities. But we need to adhere to our own theory of management – which Dr. Deming said is now available to us.