The Lego Principle: Why Standardized Work Matters
Did you ever watch a child opening a Lego box? Did you notice the first thing that the child did? It took the instruction booklet and started from page one. It knew it needed guidance to turn that jumble of colored bricks into the complex plane or boat displayed on the box cover. If only every adult had such wisdom.
Unfortunately, most of us want to be original even when it is inappropriate. We do not feel like reading some stupid set of standard instructions provided to each and every employee. Blinded by the cult of originality, we think we are smarter than that. And we cheerfully head for disaster.
There are deep cultural reasons for the employees' desire to improvise. Ever since the French Revolution (and arguably as far back as the Renaissance), Western societies have gradually nurtured the feeling that obedience is degrading, because it stifles independence. While this feeling has produced admirable freedom of political, artistic and scientific thought, it has also led to an unwillingness to follow standard instructions and a misplaced desire to be imaginative.
In the Middle Ages, “standard” was the flag that rallied the troops on the battlefield. The word meant literally “stand hard”, stand your ground, be stable. And such stability is sorely lacking in today's companies.
Not all of them, mind you. When a corporation cherishes its standard work instructions, it is invariably successful in delivering high-quality work on schedule, with a serious attitude and in a safe environment for all employees. On the other hand, companies that tend to improvise will keep running into obstacles like inconsistent results and unexpected delays. Even when they provide good service, they usually waste an inordinate quantity of resources.
As a rule, when standardized work is neglected by upper management, new initiatives will fail. This usually happens because of their focus on short-term gains. Without standards, there can be no excellence.
The pitfalls of improvisation
If work is not standardized, opinions run rampant. Without an authoritative and well-founded set of guidelines, each employee will invent their own best practices. Since such practices are often based on years of personal experience, they are extremely hard to eradicate. From such a personal standpoint, the introduction of a standard is not only unnecessary but downright harmful. Each employee sees only the damage to their little system, unable to consider the benefits for the whole company.
And, in fact, such personal systems can contain clever processes to get the job done. But when there is a lack of communication between different departments, an apparent improvement to a work process can lead to results that will be misunderstood or, worse yet, misapplied at some other level of the organization. It becomes a great danger to the overall efficiency of the system.
Basically, when there are no standards, improvisation simply cannot be avoided. In the short run, it may seem that everything is fine. Everybody is very creative and independent. But where does it eventually lead?
Sorcerers and clans
When corporations do not have clear work standards, they always harbor people that could be called sorcerers. They have fashioned their procedures or spreadsheets into such intricate personal tools, with hundreds of non-intuitive rules and gotchas, that the part of company workflow related to their office seems like black magic. They might have an apprentice, who is slowly learning the secrets of their craft. But more often than not, they guard their knowledge for themselves, knowing it is the best way to make them indispensable. To have an important part of the workflow hinge on a specific person, no matter how reliable, is recipe for disaster.
Another common feature of an organization lacking in standards is the appearance of clans. Without a set of rules forcing them to closely cooperate, departments tend to drift apart, slowly and imperceptibly at first, until there is a complete lack of communication. This naturally leads to the development of parallel systems. If the clans need to be reconciled at some point, it results in the creation of a completely superfluous third body, which maps their different procedures to the same process. There is a huge cost in terms of inefficiency and possible errors.
Looking for standards
In a way, the standards are already there. They just need to be dug out.
The search for standards starts with establishing the facts. Observation and discussions with employees must result in a description of the current processes in the company. The crucial thing at this point is not to take anything for granted. You are hunting for real causes and consequences, not some ideal company structure that never existed except on paper. In order to do that, you should make the employees understand that they should describe what they really do, not what they are supposed to do.
Once the genuine standards are established, it is time to start applying them. The employees' old practices will have deviated from them in at least some respects, so it will be hard to introduce standard work instructions even in the best of cases. It means the instructions should be crystal clear. Moreover, training practices should be defined to make the transition easier for the employees.
Invariably, benefits from standardized work become clear as soon as new employees are hired. Formerly, the new people had to be introduced to all the intricacies of an organization where everyone has a personal quirk about how things should be done. It was an arduous task that required wasting dozens of hours of everyone involved. With standard work instructions, the new employees have a reference point to consult whenever they are in doubt.
The much-vaunted goal of “continuous improvement” is the bane of many corporations where improvisation reigns supreme, since their employees panic at even the smallest change that throws their private systems into confusion. Once the standards are firmly in place, however, it is easy to improve things on a large scale. One should bear in mind, however, that the introduction of standards usually takes several years.
We can cherish originality and still work in a standardized way. Just like the child will play with its Lego airplane without worrying about whether it will shatter. As long as the instructions are close at hand, it can always be rebuilt.