February 6

Standard Work – Why It’s More Than Just An SOP


There’s a lot more to standard work than just creating some work instructions and filing them away in some dusty quality manual. In this article, we’ll discuss what standard work really is and how you can use it to improve training, quality, consistency and efficiency.

If you want the quick answer, here it is!

What is standard work? Standard work is an agreed way of working, which everyone follows to complete a process. It’s often accompanied by a standard work document or SOP (standard operating procedure) to show the exact steps to take, including the resource needed and sometimes the time it takes to do each task in the process. In a lean business, standard work forms the foundation, as it builds high repeatability and quality across the entire business. Both aid in optimising efficiency and effectiveness.

There’s a considerable amount more to standard work, which we’ll uncover in the rest of this article. But first…

What’s a Standard?

A standard is a rule or an example that provides a clear expected result. That’s why standardisation is so critical in lean.

Lean is largely about:

  1. Identifying the standard
  2. Setting the Standard
  3. Improving the standard

That’s pretty much what lean tries to do across a multitude of business processes and disciplines.

Without a standard, you can’t measure how effective your improvement was.

How can you then improve the standard at all?

And there’s no chance of setting goals. You’ll never know if you’ve achieved them or not.

Standards allow us to see what the expectation is and then how we can improve.

There are a number of standards:

  • Product specifications and quality – to eliminate errors and defects
  • Production Process – to ensure products or services are made using the optimum resource, material, and time
  • Legal and regulatory standards – to ensure items products and services are delivered to the right requirements

The Benefits of Standard Work

Most people understand the benefits of standard work. Here are the most widely accepted:

  1. Standard work provides consistency in quality and output. If everyone conducts the process in the same way, you’ll get a predictable outcome.
  2. Standard work provides the current best way of conducting a process. The best way entails the most productive and efficient way of working.
  3. It’s a foundation to improvement. Contrary to what some people think, standard work is used to make improvements. It’s not a do-it-once-and-forget-it approach. In fact standard work allows people to see where further improvements should be made.
    Taiichi Ohno was famous for saying, “without standards, there can be no Kaizen.”
  4. Simplifies and increases the speed of training. What would you rather have? Someone teaching you something on a whim, or clear instructions that you need to follow…
  5. Allows teams and businesses to scale rapidly. McDonalds used this exact approach to scale their franchise empire to over 119 countries, grossing over 21 Billion Dollars.
  6. Encourages employee engagement and ownership. Standards should be defined with the employees running the processes. They’re the ones, too, that continue to improve the standard as they go.
  7. Reduces fire-fighting. Standard work frees up the need to firefight many problems each day. Managers can then run the strategic side to grow the business.
  8. It provides an easier way to accept lean methods. Most people know that standard work, well….works. Most people won’t contest it once the logic of it is discussed. This allows the teams to start to embrace lean thinking.
  9. Standard work allows the blame to be transferred from the person to the system. This in hand allows for easier problem solving – I.E. Where did the process fail….?

Standard work provides an essential platform to creating stability in your processes.

Whether it’s implementing flow, or quick changeover, or even leading by example, it plays a very important part to every business.

Characteristics of Standard Work

So, we know what standard work is and why to use it.

But what does standard work entail?

Standard Work Characteristics

The simple thing is that standard work only has 3 characteristics to follow:

Point 1: Standards must be specific, clear and fact-based. This means that they’re not about guessing or relying on memory or habit. They’re the best way from A to B, if you like.

Point 2: Standards must be followed. What’s the point in having processes that no-one uses? You won’t get repeatability and consistency. For this to happen, the standard must be consistently followed and respected.

An Example of a standard is the traffic light system. Everyone knows that red means stop and green means go. If they didn’t, then there would be confusion or worse, an accident as drivers from both sides pass through their lights, no matter the colour.

Another Example of a standard is the size limit of liquid you can take on a flight. If you have too much, there’s no getting on the flight unless you give up your excessive items.

We live around standards, ways to comply and follow the rules, to maintain the integrity of the system. In business it’s about the best way to do things.

Point 3: Standards must be documented and communicated to those in the process, so they know what to do and how to follow them.

Standard Work

Standard work is an agreed upon set of work procedures. It also allows you to maximise performance while minimising wastes in each person’s operation.

It should be clear by now that standard work is not a rigid thing that never changes (and gets locked away in a file and forgotten about…)

Instead, it’s a dynamic tool that changes with the fluctuation in levels of work, and in the optimum work done by people and machines.

In other words, with true standard work in a manufacturing environment, think of this scenario:

Imagine that your employees come in at the start of their shift and…

  1. They know what job to work on next without asking any questions
  2. They know today’s production pace (commonly referred to as Takt)
  3. Based on this demand, they know without any question, how many people will be working on each process
  4. They also know who’s doing what without discussing and agreeing anything
  5. And when each job should be completed during the day

All this is achieved without asking any supervisor or manager, or indeed each other.

Reckon this is achievable?

Well, it is in a lean environment. And it’s achieved through standard work.

And by people following these standards every single day.

Prerequisites to Standard Work

For the above scenario to work, standard work needs a combination of lean tools. These tools combined create a heavily systematised business that is a well-oiled, efficient and profitable machine.

They are:

  • 5S and Visual Management – making the workplace visual, so you can follow the standards easily
  • Mistake-proofingMaking product or passing on information right first time and every time
  • Quick Changeover or SMED(See the video of an F1 Pit-stop on our previous article on SMED. Notice how everyone knows what to do, when and how, to a fraction of a second, all using standard work.)
  • Total Preventative MaintenanceEnsuring machines are maintained to the required standard, to ensure they’re consistent and reliable
  • Flow and cellular manufacturingMaking to on-piece-flow methods, using the right number of people, equipment, time, and work in progress
  • Pull production and KanbanEnsuring you never get any stock-outs as well as too much work produced, and everything is being produced to consumption triggers
  • Level loadBalancing workload to optimise production and output
  • Line balancing – Ensuring operators work together towards flow and reduces waste through sharing tasks, and working in parallel to each other
  • Multi-skilled teams – Using standard work to ensure that teams are constantly being trained in the best way, which in turn creates a more diversified workforce.

All of the above tools are systems in their own right and hence need standards.

Standards in turn, means that there should be standard work to decipher the rules and process steps within each system.

The Role of 5S and Visual Management

Arguably the most impactful tool to help with implementing standards and standard work is 5S and visual management.

One of the golden rules of lean is to make what’s important visual. And in standard work, it’s no different.

For it to work correctly, standard work should be clear to see and easy to follow.

If we have all the information around us, made it so visual that anyone could see and know what to do and exactly how……All within 30 seconds (using clear visual management), then the entire production facility can indeed run using standard work, without anyone having to ask questions.

It would be like clockwork… a web of systems that employees follow; all in unison and efficiently.

Examples of Standard Work and Visual Management

Here are a few examples of what i mean by making standards clear and obvious, so they pass the 30-seconds test.

Know Exactly When to Order a Common Item, Using Kanban


Here’s a scenario: A Kanban card is displayed by the material (in this case, reams of paper). This Kanban card has the order quantity, material type, and supplier name on. In fact, there’s enough information for the purchaser to receive the Kanban card and know exactly what to order, how many and when.


When the trigger shows (in this case, a red line on the wall), the person who takes the last ream and exposes the trigger line, then takes the Kanban card to the Kanban purchasing board.


At certain intervals during the week (depicted by standard work), the purchaser takes the kanban cards from the board, and places orders to replenish what’s been used.

This whole system is managed by standards, and visual management.

In this case, Standard work is a simple one-page work instruction, showing what to do. It’s by each area (the kanban card next to the ream of paper, and the Kanban purchasing board), to show the steps that need to be taken.

Assign Operators and Resource Using Standard Work

Imagine the daily Takt rate (customer demand) has shifted. There are now 8 units to make today, rather than 15 yesterday.

If you have standard work for each Takt rate, then switching to the most appropriate one should be as simple as turning a pointer on a wheel.

Takt Capability linking to different standard work

Linked behind this is a set of standard work documents to show what to do for each “Takt Capability.” This would include number of operators needed and for each operator, what work content they do in tandem with each other.

The operators simply see the demand for the day and the Takt Capability… and then pick the right standard work for it.

In this instance, it could be something like the following:

  • Takt Capability 1, up to 8 units per day = 1 operator working for 8 hours at a build rate of 1 per hour
  • Takt Capability 2, up to 15 units per day = 2 operators working for 8 hours at a build rate of of 1 every 32 minutes
  • Takt Capability 3, up to 24 units per day = 3 operators working 5 hours at a build rate of 13 minutes
  • Takt Capability 4, up to 48 units per day = 4 operators working 5 hours per day at a build rate of 6 minutes

Notice that no-one should have to ask what they should be doing and how. It’s all prescribed and planned. This means no wasted time asking questions that could and should be defined using standard work.

Know When to Process More Work

In another example of standard work linking to visual management, is the trigger to know when to process the next lot of work.

Let’s pretend that invoices are processed on average every 2 days.

Standard work stipulates that when the work (typically representing an average of two days’ worth) gets to the red line, then it’s time to process all the invoices in queue.

Imagine this simple sign is on the wall, in the work area – clear for all to see.

When a job is ready and the invoice must be processed, the employee places a blue magnet in the next segment.

This continues until there are enough magnets (work waiting) to then process the batch of work (the red trigger).

Again, linked to this and by this display on the wall, is a simple one-page work instruction, to show what to do when a job is ready for invoicing, including:

  • Place the job in the In-Tray, marked waiting for Invoicing
  • Add a Magnet to the Queuing board
  • When the magnets fill the red zone, process the invoices at the agreed time

Again, simple and powerful – no questions asked, and easier to train.

The above examples are just a few of what standards and standard work can give you. In each one, the team members should be able to operate the process without having to ask any questions. And it should be so consistent and predictable.

They should know exactly what to do, how to do it and when.

A Culture of Continuous Improvement

Standard work is also like a diagnostic tool. It’s there to help expose problems and assist in identifying what needs to be fixed.

Not processing work to the required target time?

Demand has increased beyond original expectations?

There’s still too much work in progress between processes?

There’s still a quality issue within the process?

There’re still wasteful activities to reduce?

No problem.

That’s what standard work is for.

  1. Create the standard
  2. Get people to follow this way of working
  3. Observe the results
  4. Look for areas to improve in the process

All the above can be seen clearly using standard work and visual management. They can then be improved by looking at where the current standard isn’t working, and then bettered. It follows the PDCA of continuous improvement.

With standard work in place, everyone can review how they work (the current standard) and then create ideas to improve and remove more waste from the workplace.

This activity is an ongoing thing and should be a daily habit.

That’s why Toyota’s mantra is to make daily improvements across the business by all employees. Oh, they also make cars too… 🙂

Standard Work Defines Lean Flow

Standard work is also the primary tool to create work cells, designed for flow.

There’s a specific process of observation, analysis and creation to implement work cells that run to flow principles.

We’ll tackle this in another article, but essentially, when it comes to flow, standard work specifically provides:

  1. Clarity in terms of how many operators are needed to suit current demand
  2. Know exactly how much work in progress there is when the cell is running
  3. Balancing work to suit customer demand, to optimise the work and number of people assigned to the cell
  4. Create the optimum layout to ensure flow

The above are all created using standard work and specific steps. Check out my recommended book on this very subject to help get you started.

I hope you can see that standard work provides a lot more than just a lame word document that never gets read…!


standard work

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