Standard work is anything but standard

Posted on 19 May 2010 by The Manufacturer

Anand Sharma: The solution to business improvement issues is good old fashioned discipline

A 45-year old manufacturing company in the Midlands employs some 450 people. It makes a variety of components and systems for military aircraft and medium range missiles. Several years ago the factory couldn’t meet production targets despite huge amounts of overtime and was missing its delivery date promises. With several Ministry of Defence contracts coming up for renewal, and a large new contract on the horizon, the owner hired a new operations manager with lean manufacturing experience and a Six Sigma black belt in the hope that he could turn things around.

The new director of operations – we’ll call him John – found a factory that many of you would recognise. Protected by long term, cost-plus contracts, little effort had been made to eliminate unnecessary activity or streamline workflow. Batch production methods generated stacks of work-inprocess inventory all over the factory floor, which was also littered by unused equipment and fixtures. Ultimately, overruns and excess materials simply disappeared into a vast spares warehouse.

To move forward quickly and speed-up learning, John brought in outside consulting assistance, devised an implementation plan and launched a crash course in lean for senior leaders and managers. To better understand the potential and methods, they toured several companies that had varying degrees of success with their process improvement efforts.

Fast forward three years. Although John is the first person to admit that plenty of opportunities remain, the factory has made a tremendous amount of progress. Applying lean and variation reduction tools through project work and week-long kaizen events, employees at all levels have transformed the look, feel and culture of the factory. The owner proudly “walks the gemba,” as he is fond of saying, where visual status cues abound. The factory’s delivery rates are better than average for the aerospace sector, and customer quality is vastly improved, though not quite at world class levels.
The work is simpler and less strenuous, the workers have become evangelists for lean methods, and now lead factory tours for customers and others interested in what they’ve accomplished.

Losing momentum
But now that most of the “low-hanging fruit” has gone, the company is losing momentum. The key metrics that managers track and that supervisors review with their teams before every shift — safety, quality, delivery and productivity — are no longer trending so sharply upward or downward, and occasionally fall back to unacceptable levels. To renew everyone’s focus, John has launched a back-to-basics training programme.

Oddly enough, John’s team drew much of their early inspiration from a nearby confectionary operation. In addition to their total productive maintenance (TPM) and 5S practices, John’s people adopted the candy company’s standard work programme. Or at least they thought they had.

When his team took another look at the candy factory, they realised that they weren’t nearly as disciplined at following standard work as they could be. During improvement projects, the teams regularly used capacity sheets, work charts, job instruction sheets and related tools to identify the precise sequence in which tasks should be performed. But once the tasks were standardised, printed out and put in binders, they were rarely reviewed, and most had not been updated for 18 months or more. This time, when they watched the work on the candy production lines they noticed how team leaders continually observed and verified that standard work was being followed, and corrected any deviations. Through these daily corrections they began to understand that the gains from process changes were being sustained, providing a steady foundation for subsequent process improvements. Far from being static documents, the work standards were constantly stabilizing and evolving as changes were tested.

John accompanied the candy company’s leadership team on their daily rounds, starting at 8:45 a.m. every day. They visited each work cell, reviewed the previous day’s performance, discussed any issues and checked progress on individual projects. They also visited support departments and administrative areas. The CEO told John how they too had struggled with sustainability until they began to apply the discipline they learned through standard work to the daily activities of supervisors. The daily status checks now catch any issues before they explode into major headaches.

Standard work isn’t just for the factory floor. Managers and executives who have the discipline to adopt it find that it stops a lot of firefighting and frees up their time for longer term initiatives. Standard work for leaders can separate those businesses that continue to move forward from those that are just spinning their wheels.

Anand Sharma is founder of lean consultancy TBM and author of international best seller The Perfect Engine: Driving Manufacturing Breakthroughs with the Global Production System