How often do we think about the way we usually operate at work? Whether we’re performing an informal five-step process for evaluating a new proposal, or setting priorities for managing our time, how often do we think about consistency and efficiency? Our ability to improve the ways we do things depends on defining and shaping our daily habits of mind and practice — our “standard work.”
Consider the experience of my friend Lynn Kelley, who joined Union Pacific Railroad, the largest railroad network in the United States with 46,000 employees, as vice president of continuous improvement about two years ago. When she arrived, she learned that a large proportion of the workforce would retire over the next decade. So the organization started documenting standard operating procedures to capture employee know-how and wisdom. She told me, “I initially thought standard work would make people into robots. Instead we learned to use standard work to involve workers in documenting and improving their work. Managers think that they should find out what the best practice is and then roll it out. But we decided if we did that, we’d pay for it in worker engagement. Instead, we look for work groups that are willing to be involved in developing their own standard work, and implement there first.”
In the discussion that followed my post on balancing compliance and autonomy, I learned that there is great richness and breadth in the reasoning behind how organizations have defined standard ways of doing things. But it struck me that the reasons broke down into three broad categories: (1) to ensure people comply with “must do” procedures (e.g., safety checklists), to achieve consistency, avoid safety or regulatory problems, or handle emergencies; (2) to make people aware of “should do” practices (a routine that has been determined to be the best way to do things), to achieve adaptability, flexibility, and even innovation; and (3) to let people know where they have discretion in what they “may do” (e.g., give up to $50 to customers who have been treated badly), to foster creativity, innovation, flexibility to meet customer needs in real-time, and worker job satisfaction.
“Must Do” Procedures. Avoidable failures continue to plague us in almost every realm of organizational activity. In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, makes the case for the simple checklist as a way to avoid failures and manage complexity, especially when human lives are at stake. Airplane pilots developed the checklists they use for takeoffs and landings to make sure that planes don’t fall out of the sky due to avoidable mistakes. Gawande tells of dramatic reductions in infections when putting a “central line” in patients by checking off the steps, such as washing hands and cleaning the patient’s skin with antiseptic. Checklists help with memory recall and clearly set out the minimum necessary steps in a process. As Gawande says, “Under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided — and even enhanced — by procedure.” “Must do” procedures also require permission for deviation.
“Should Do” Practices. How can we do the work of the organization, execute its strategy and fulfill its mission, better. The disciplines for how workers should do their work best are well defined by certain process improvement methods I’ve discussed previously, some well-known and others less so. To distill: when something has been standardized, that standard becomes the foundation for experiments to improve the work. Workers identify problems in delivering what customers want, develop a hypothesis about how work can be improved to deliver the required quality level, change one variable at a time, and observe whether it makes the work better. Adhering to the standard ensures that improvements will be sustained; it also facilitates training. “Should do” practices provide help for workers on what to do in the zone between “must do” procedures and “may do” discretion. And a final key point: to make many small and rapid improvements to the work on a continuous basis, people need to be strongly engaged in generating new ideas and conducting experiments.
“May Do” Discretion. To build an organization’s capabilities, and to increase people’s overall engagement and motivation, leaders should give team members every opportunity to take initiative and be creative. Your people want autonomy to master their work and fulfill the organization’s purpose. Therefore, an organization should be explicit about where it encourages initiative. One obvious area, as described above, is to ask people to look for ways to improve their work. Another example is in handling customer dissatisfaction incidents. For example at Ritz Carlton employees can spend up to a certain dollar limit to solve a guest’s issue. Or at Starbucks, employees follow an approach that encourages them to be flexible in their customer interactions. As Kelley told me, “When customers need service in real time, workers who are empowered to be flexible within standards can better meet those needs…because you can’t anticipate each one — or write a script in advance! Putting decision-making closest to the people who touch the customer is key.” “May do” discretion helps workers do what they probably should do, not what they must do.
We need to do away with the notion that standards necessarily mean rigidity. Rather, standard work can help people do their jobs consistently and reliably, and improve how they do it. Instead of considering your people as mindless, uniform “workers” (as Frederick Winslow Taylor did in a bygone era) who must be constantly supervised and arm-twisted into doing the correct thing, companies like Union Pacific are helping them do their jobs better using a flexible view of standard operating procedures. The traditional view that efficiency requires bureaucracy and that bureaucracy impedes flexibility should be replaced with a new model: clever application of standard work allows you to have efficiency and flexibility.
This article first appeared on the Harvard Business Review and has been lightly edited.