Editorial board member Jacob Austad warns against the risk of standardising for the sake of using standards.

In the last issue of LMJ, Robin Howlett wrote an interesting article on how leader standard work can support the implementation of a continuous improvement programme. This had me reflect on the reasons why people – particularly in service and administrative environments – resist standards and I wondered whether in reality it is the standards they resist or things like assessments and audits, which often blame or praise people for (non-) compliance with the standards.

There is hardly any company or organisation that works with lean without talking about the aim of implementing a culture of continuous improvement, and a lot of good advice and research papers tend to show how to do it. But what about understanding the purpose first?

In order to build a lean culture – and continuous improvement is most likely a part of a lean culture – there is a need to consider several areas. First of all there is a need to understand the system end to end, and it is the people working on the system and the leaders who need to understand.

In the early days of lean, back when (some) organisations believed they could just copy the use of lean tools and get the same brilliant results as Toyota, only few did succeed because they lacked the understanding of the big picture and why Toyota developed the tools and techniques. Unfortunately only few studied the causes before abandoning “the programme” and they did not see that continuous improvement cannot be a goal in itself because it will result in a non-wishful and nonsustainable culture. In fact CI will only ensure short-term activities, which will not focus on improving the system and will therefore drive costs up.


Currently, some organisations talk about standard work – not only at operator level, but increasingly also in leadership and this is often labelled leader standard work (LSW). From an organisational point of view, predictability is often good as this will help to avoid fire fighting that in turn “helps” a short-term view instead of letting companies out of the vicious cycle and take the systems and long-term view.

One of the problems with any kind of standard is that they are often designed and implemented for the wrong reasons. Technocrats and tool-heads (thanks to John Seddon for that word) believe that if we just put a standard in place and make sure people (operators and managers) follow them, then we can ensure that assessment and audits will be passed and we can all collect our bonus.

Compliance to standards should be avoided and the thinking should be reversed starting with understanding what problem we are trying to solve. Then we should measure the improvement in systems performance and every little adjustment should follow the PDSA cycle (Shewhart’s and Deming’s scientific method).

As a result we would see a series of improvements (as well as many idea/ theories that had to be abandoned because they did not improve the system). In a simplistic way, this could easily be labelled “continuous improvements”, but the real aim is to improve systems performance, not to put standards in place.


Talking about LSW could potentially lead to the wrong or undesired behaviour. A tool-head manager will see standard work as a checklist of what to do and measure if it is done on-time-to-standard. The success (= compliance) would be measured as “yes/no” or “done/not done” with only little focus on actual customer and real benefit for the business.

A daily, weekly or monthly briefing focusing on operations and overall systems performance could be called a routine and the aim is not to have the briefing/meeting but to look 360 degrees into the system’s performance in the past period and – based on learning’s – to take concrete action going forward. This includes prediction of what will happen when the actions are undertaken.

The routine could be labelled LSW, but in reality it is an organisational standard routine aimed at delivering according to customer needs. The difference is that now there is a common purpose linked to the systems performance and not some arbitrary internally-focused targets related to “what” and “how”. There is also a framework for improving, which brings the focus back to our overall purpose involving everybody and not only managers.

The difference of focusing on the systems performance instead of the standards is clearly seen in the measures and the questions asked. Here is an example:

Of course we want people to be autonomous with regards to identifying opportunities for improving, but that will only happen if people know why. Give people a target of x-number of improvements per year and they will fulfil it…. the question is: by doing what? The same is true for standards and LSW and the constant fight between quantity and quality.

Continuous improvements need to be for the right reasons and therefore I truly believe we have to be extremely careful in implementing standards and measure compliance to them.

Continuous improvements are also (from time to time) labelled kaizens and no one can say that Ohno didn’t know what he was talking about. It might be worth remembering one of his statements:

“If you’re going to do kaizen continuously, you’ve got to assume that things are a mess.”

Let’s clean up the mess and focus on systems performance!


I predict that starting with understanding purpose before implementing standards will decrease the need for standards and eliminate the endless discussions on which standard or template to use. Also, the focus will shift on constantly measuring if the system delivers according to customers’ needs and not if the people in the organisation comply with the standards.

The result is that we have continuous improvements.