Recently I ran into the same type of discussion with two completely different clients: what is standardization in fact? During the discussions that followed I noticed that there can be many different views on what standardization is. Furthermore, I noticed that standardization can be sometimes misplaced, harmonization inappropriate and actual improvement completely lacking. As a consequence of the often poor comprehension of these concepts, a clear strategy and roadmap for improving business results and processes is frequently missing. Perhaps a good moment to share my views on themes like standardization, harmonization and improvement.
As possibly known, in Lean the standard is often defined as “the, at this moment, best known possible way to perform the work to deliver the targeted end result”. Concretely this may for instance imply that, for a given product, you observe the possibly various ways in which work is being performed currently, and take the best one (i.e., the most effective and efficient one while respecting relevant values and principles) as the initial standard. Sometimes this may involve taking the best elements per step in the operation from the different ways that were observed for the whole operation (more on this later).
The foregoing can be seen as the first step towards standardization: together determining the initial standard. But this is not where standardization ends; it’s the beginning. In certain cases, the process that is observed will still deviate from the standard. This can be the case when materials are late or of poor quality, a lack of required information, absenteeism, machine that’s down or another demonstrable cause due to which the operation did not follow the known standard. And it could even be that the cases are even more numerous than the standard case. In these situations, the deviating cases are considered to be ‘normal’, which clearly indicates that we should never confuse ‘normal’ with ‘standard’!
I consider the elimination of all deviations — no matter how many — with apparent and demonstrable causes as the true essence of standardization. In this sense, standardizing is very much like what in quality management is known as stabilizing the process and putting it under control. Interestingly enough, this is not the same as actually improving the process (more on this later as well). If, however, the number of deviations largely outnumbers the number of cases that follow the standard, standardization will definitely positively impact the overall results coming from the process. This is due to the fact that in such a situation the standard is barely visible in the results. The standard is in fact then often wrongly seen as “the exception to the rule”.
One of the pitfalls of standardizing processes is that many also direct their efforts on accurately documenting the way in which to deal with the deviations in a detailed fashion. To be clear, I consider this a misplaced use of the word standardization, despite possibly being necessary from an operational and quality handbook point of view. I hope it is clear that from a standardization point of view, these deviations need not to be documented, but eradicated. A good example is often provided in the area of complaint handling: sometimes it seems there is more attention for the correct and swift resolution of the complaint, than there is for actually eliminating the cause of the complaint itself. Misplaced standardization is something Peter F. Drucker would probably refer to as being efficiently, ineffective: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
In some cases, however, you will find that the process differs from the standard as a result of differing external requirements. Customer A might require different things compared to customer B. As an example, Toyota has different requirements and expectations compared to Renault when it comes to packaging, labeling and loading their parts. These differing customer requirements in fact lead to differing variants of the standard. I call them variants as the name with which the process is referred to is often the same (e.g., loading), but to be clear, a variant actually is a different standard in its own right. And for each standard, you need to standardize as described before.
Often, however, variants exist as a consequence of all kinds of internal differences like personal preferences, unclear or ambiguous internal rules, differences between teams, sites or countries, or due to historical origins (e.g., after mergers or acquisitions). I refer to the merger of variants — that exist only for internal reasons — into one preferential variant as “harmonizing”. Often, the harmonization of variants is referred to and confused with standardization as it was defined above.
Harmonizing varying processes originating from external and/or customer requirements can be very inappropriate. This form of harmonization requires careful consultation between customer and supplier and should harbor a clear win-win between both partners. Imposed, top down harmonization (sometimes even under the heading of standardization) without any awareness of potential required differences due to external requirements often leads to massive frustration in the organization.
Harmonizing variants emerging only from internal differences, however, is an appropriate form of harmonization and often is part of setting the initial standard as described earlier. In that sense, setting an initial standard comes down to harmonizing the internal variants that may exist for a certain process, plus clearly identifying the potential deviations of this standard as a result of demonstrable causes.
As already referred to earlier, within the quality management theory, standardization isn’t even seen as improvement, but ‘only’ as stabilization (i.e., reducing variation through the elimination of assignable causes). Standardization should lead to a consistent and predictable process with repeatable and reliable result.
But the market may force us to bring this — in itself stable — process to another level. Only reducing the number of deviations from the standard (that are less and less frequent with a well standardized process) will not help us in the market place. It’s then time to actually change the standard itself in order to return to competitiveness. Changing the standard itself (the until that moment best known way to perform the work) is in fact defined as improving in quality management theory.
To be able to actually improve you first need to have a standard and a standardized (and therefore stabilized) process. Only then you have a basis to improve upon. And only after the new standard has been standardized again you can evaluate whether the new standard is delivering the results you aimed for. As a non standardized process doesn’t produce any reliable and repeatable result, and can therefore also not serve as a basis for comparison.
Often organizations do not have a clear view of what their initiatives actually signify. Every initiative is seen as an improvement initiative. But a closer look reveals that in reality it’s often a hodgepodge of possibly correct but also misplaced standardization, appropriate and inappropriate harmonization and/or baseless improvement.
In addition, I notice that due to a lack of fundamental understanding in the above themes, there often is no clear-cut strategy and roadmap for continual improvement. (By the way, I hope that from the above it again is clear why continual improvement is a better term than continuous improvement). As a consequence, most Lean or continual improvement initiatives therefore exhibit the characteristics of a scattershot approach, with many seemingly incoherent and unproductive activities going on.
Without theory no effective practice; without thinking no effective doing. There are seemingly more reasons why the Toyota Production System is sometimes referred to as the Thinking Production System…