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Is Standard Work killing my creativity?

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Companies are implementing continuous improvement in their organization. Yet when it comes to maintaining standards, it’s a challenge. I lost count how many times I’ve gone into an organization and found that their standards, whether they were procedures or work instructions, were not being followed. When I asked “why?” the number one complaint was that standards kill the creativity of a person and turn them into a robot. In this blog, I will rebut this perception and show how creativity flourishes with standards.

Let’s start by defining standard work. In the Lean philosophy, standard work consists of establishing a consistent way of working so that the tasks are executed consistently with little or no waste. Think of a meeting you’ve gone to where there was no agenda, people walked in late (or logged in late), and the organizer could not keep everyone engaged. Chances are you walked out of the meeting thinking it was a waste of your time because you felt it was not organized.

Similarly, have you ever started the morning with a to-do list and by the end of the day you still had things on the list? It can be you also added more items to the list. You blamed it on all the interruptions from your manager, customers, suppliers, or colleagues. No standard can ever fix this! This is where you are wrong.

When standard work is set up for all employees in an organization, it eliminates waste. It’s all about working on things that matter, finding the best way of executing a task, and repeating it. Waste in Lean terms means employees are not doing things correctly, forgetting to do something so redoing the same work again until it’s right, and spending too much time figuring out “how-to”. What you are removing is not creativity but chaos from your day-to-day work. You are spending less time on useless things. The company does not only save time and improve the morale of their employees, but it also saves money. Standard work is also a cost-effective way of doing business. Note: standard work templates do exist online or can be created by the Quality department at your workplace.

Regardless, if you have a customer facing job or you are working in the backroom of your company, you can create your standard work to keep to task on your daily activities. For example, a salesperson's main job is to bring in orders, so they must spend most of their time in front of customers. Therefore, their standard work should have customer meetings as the first activity. In the morning, if they have no customer visits or virtual meetings, then the next activity would be to check their social media and emails. See if any customers contacted them. After which they will spend time internally answering any questions from their colleagues on existing orders. Then they go through their contacts and start scheduling customer meetings. The list of things to do for a salesperson is based on priority and tied to their goals and objectives. They aren’t going to be answering someone in the company if they are out visiting a customer unless they can while traveling to the meeting. In this example, their standard work needs to start with customer interface because that is their livelihood. So now answer me this, in all these activities I listed, did I take away the salesperson’s creativity? No! I just organized their time prioritizing the customer.

Similarly, if there is a drafter in the office who draws airplane engines. Their first task of the day may be to go through any unread emails regarding their work while having a cup of coffee. They then pick up where they left off on their drawing. They may have to participate in meetings reviewing their drawings. Based on the meeting’s outcome, they may spend time modifying the drawings. These activities did not take away the drafter's brain power or creativity. Again, it just organized them to be effective in their daily routine.

When the drafter is in the zone of designing, they won’t just stop drawing every time an email comes in. All that does is make them recalibrate their brain from the focus of the drawing to the email. And then they need to recalibrate their brain again back to the drawing. All this recalibrating the focus was a waste of time and a distraction which will extend the time for the drawing to be completed. Instead, if the drafter dedicates the morning and early afternoon to any unread emails and they are part of a company that has standard work for every employee, then their colleagues know when to contact them. If some emergency comes in from the customer, they will stop and take care of the emergency. Standard work can have built-in flexibility.

But honestly, how many things today are really emergencies? or is it us creating the emergency for no reason? I always say, unless you are saving a life, everything else can be prioritized. So, if the drafter had a standard work to follow, the incoming information would be processed at a given time and then prioritized within their workload. You don’t just stop everything every five minutes for every little thing that happens. Yet many do exactly that which is why their to-do list never ends.

Lean Six Sigma companies will always have consistent work within normal working hours for each of their employees. If you are working more than eight hours a day and cannot keep up, the first step you should take is to establish standard work. The next step is to observe how much time you are spending at work using standard work. If you are still spending a lot of time working, then you are doing more than you should handle. I suggest you conduct a time study to then show your manager your workload. Because at the end of the day, if you continue in this path, you will end up dropping the ball at work or burning out.

So, do you lose creativity when using standard work? No! Standard work will never stop you from thinking but will help you focus on what’s important and keep you on track with your workload. If your company does not practice standard work and would like to implement it or you would like to learn how you could better organize yourself, send me a note through and we can get you organized.

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