Jun 04 2013

If you’re in any way involved in any form of lean initiative, transformation, programme or whatever your organisations calls it, you should be familiar with the need for standards, and yet the need to remain flexible. There are plenty of articles that mention the face value conflict between the two and getting the balance right is often difficult.

I’ve written a few times about flexibility and repeating the PDCA cycle and about getting something in place rather than trying to design the perfect  process/system, and implementing nothing in the mean time. One of the things that I have seen over & over are corporate wide edicts or mandates as to how something will be done, the standard, directed from |”on high”.

At my last engagement, they were creating one of these universal, global standards, I can’t remember what it was for but when I challenged them & asked how it would be updated and/or improved, they began explaining this hierarchical bureaucracy where the associate would give their idea to a local rep who would take the idea and present it to a local steering group, which would then meet with the headquarters steering committee on a monthly basis, or something to that effect.

In theory this would be repeated in each business unit across the globe so this monthly global steering committee may possibly face a dozen improvement ideas each month, have to decide which ones to implement, create the new standard & roll it back down to the front line. How likely is that?

Imagine how keen people will be to suggest improvements to that system? To that process? How likely do we really think it is that people will put forward suggestions to make small improvements to a process that requires more steps & sign offs to improve, than it does to complete the process?

Dynamic Organisations are those that learn & change quickly, this means standards for processes at the local level, nationally/regionally in some cases & globally in a few exceptions, and yet in many organisations, people have taken the idea of standards to that extreme as a rule, rather than an exception, removing the ability to maintain that flexibility that is essential.

Toyota doesn’t mandate how everything will be done down to the nth degree for every process from Toyoda City, they have the principles of TPS, each factory takes those principles and applies them to their operation. They maintain the flexibility to react to local circumstances, local cultural, physical, psychological differences, to adjust processes to fit the local language where necessary.

I’ve often cited PepsiCo as a Dynamic Organisation, they don’t mandate from headquarters how each line will run, what processes must be followed & how. They leave that to the local teams to develop, following their 6 guiding principles. They may mandate certain criteria that must be met, similar to the principles of TPS, but they leave it for the teams at each site to develop the best process for the local people.

By staying local with the standards, the flexibility required to adjust to ever changing circumstances & environmental conditions exists at a level appropriate for people to feel engaged, to have an input & to see the fruits of their ideas in practice within as little as a few hours.

The opposite adds waste, removes the ability to easily make improvements & removes incentive for people to engage. Which would you prefer?
photo credit: caswell_tom via photopin cc

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(2) Readers Comments


  1. Cameron Stark
    June 20, 2013 at 9:38 PM

    This issue often arises in health care. Standards are often set nationally, or even internationally. The means to deliver these standards can vary markedly in different settings. Delivering in rural areas may be quite different from urban service delivery, for example. When organisations become too set on the how - as opposed to the standard to be met or outcome to be delivered - it can be very easy to stifle innovation.

    • ch53ecc
      June 20, 2013 at 10:14 PM

      Very true, and we see it all the time here in the UK with the NHS. The term used in the press is the "post code lottery" about getting different service depending on where you live. In reality though, different areas have different needs and thus, the local health care providers should focus on what is relevant in their area, not some global universal standard delivery set from headquarters hundreds of miles away. Objectives & expected outcomes are reasonably suited to global edict, but the how to get there will almost always depend on local influence. Thanks for the feedback!

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