One of the key elements in Lean is standardization. And despite the fact that standardization in Lean thinking is not the same as harmonization or making everything identical, the public opinion is that standardization will reduce flexibility and kill creativity. So why then does Lean focus on standardization? Could it be that the public opinion is wrong? Could standardization lead to more flexibility instead of less? And could standardization possibly require more creativity rather than eliminating it?
With most people, standardization is almost like a dirty word. As creative spirits, it revolts us. It limits the human capital. It takes the soul out of our jobs. Furthermore, standardization takes away the organization’s flexibility in case something unexpectedly happens. Not to mention the fact that our customers are not at all standard of course!
This often is the first reaction people have when confronted with the standardization of their work. It thereby strikes me that standardization is frequently interpreted as harmonization (making everything identical). I have written about this theme before, see: Disentangling Standardization, Harmonization and Improvement). Conclusion at that time was that standardization is not necessarily the same as harmonization and that external considerations may very well justify the existence of variants of a certain way-of-working that in itself can still be standardized.
Besides, I also find it interesting that the flexibility that typically is so widely heralded, often plainly comes down to putting out fires in case of problems. We are proud of the way in which our teams deal with these situations and the creativity that our people display at those times, without, however, being aware that these circumstances could very well be avoided by proper standardization.
Standardization: a Gift!
Standardization is not a dirty word. A standard is nothing more or less than ”the, at this moment, best known possible way to perform the work to deliver the targeted end result”. A standard enables an organization to avoid problematic situations. Because, when done properly, a good standard is the reflection of all organizational knowledge and experience accumulated over many years through continual improvement. Executing according to a standard therefore avoids situations that the organization has come across before and that were eliminated by proper standardization. It prevents our people to even get into situations that require inappropriate “flexibility” and “creativity”. And that is respectful to both our customers and our people!
A standard also enables us to properly train our associates and to prepare them for all typical situations that they will come across during the execution of their job. In that way, they will not be handicapped when they are actually confronted with such a situation. After all, a good standard also encompasses standard reactions to all typical deviations from the standard. A standard increases the autonomy of the team. Because let’s not forget that most of the earlier-mentioned ad hoc flexibility and creativity is not necessarily truly effective and definitely not the most efficient.
Instead of looking for creativity in the phase of execution, Lean organizations look for the creativity of their associates before execution: in defining the standard, the accompanying standard reactions and in continually improving these when problems arise. They are invited to think about how problems can be eliminated and to jointly come to the best possible and smartest ways of dealing with certain circumstances until they can be prevented. And that is something completely different than to build upon your teams’ creativity when they are confronted with preventable issues. That is not about the team’s creativity, that is disrespectful of its management!
Be Flexible and Use Creativity: Standardize!
I hope the above helps understanding that standardization in fact leads to effective flexibility towards the customers, and that it avoids unnecessary flexibility that could even compromise quality, reduce productivity and negatively impact job satisfaction.
Furthermore, standardization doesn’t kill creativity. In fact, it requires the creative contribution of everyone in the organization. And at the same time, standardization avoids the creativity that associates apparently need to have and upon which many managers build in executing the organization’s processes. Often, the creativity and flexibility heralded by managers is seen by the associates as the incompetence of these same managers in organizing the work…
In short: help your teams and associates to be flexible when it counts and use your associates’ creativity in standardizing work. That will help you and your teams go forward!