Impulse Control

Are You Sending the Wrong Message with 'Leadership Standard Work'?

No need to invoke lean language. Just say you want to have great leadership inside your transformation and find a path that makes sense.

When was the last time you were confused about the language used in a business situation? Or, what was your most recent challenge to someone’s language (maybe your own) in order to clarify what is being discussed in a conversation? I’ve been worried about the use of language in my work and with my clients for a while now, and I recently had the opportunity to not only put my concerns on the table regarding the term “leadership standard work” but receive a strong, positive reaction from a group of executives.

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a great keynote at the Shingo Institute’s Annual Conference by Mark Russell from Worthington Industries. Mark reflected on his first time touring a Toyota plant. He was observing work he described as “repetitive and monotonous,” when sirens sounded and lights flashed: the andon had been pulled. All of a sudden, people came out of nowhere and started running around. It seemed like chaos for a while, until everyone returned to what they had been doing.

Then the same thing occurred again and again, and he came to realize he was watching a group he referred to as “mad scientists”: associates who were alerted through the andon to perform a deliberate process of understanding the problem that created the andon pull, fixing it and re-writing standard work. All part of a tightly designed Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) loop: a cycle of learning, a bit of scientific thinking.

A few hours later, I was leading an executive discussion and I asked who in the crowd had ever seen a group of mad scientists running around their leadership ranks when an andon was pulled, signifying a break in leadership standard work. There were over 200 people in attendance, and nobody raised their hand.

So let’s be clear: we are duping ourselves, and everyone around us, when we refer to our leadership standard work as standard work. It’s not and never has been. And using this language is confusing and possibly disrespectful to the people who create and live with true standard work. The front line may be the only mad scientists in your organization.

A Solution in Search of a Problem

I remember the beginning of lean manufacturing when we were focused on building lots of good, standard work on the shop floor. We helped companies define true customer requirements and then challenged the front line to assess their own work in terms of the work that helped meet the customer requirements and the work that didn’t: It was non-value-added. We helped them remove a great deal of non-value-added work and standardized the rest.

What may not be obvious to the casual observer is that standard work was and is a solution to an operational problem (generically defined as wasting the capacity of good workers by not doing things the customer sees as valuable). And, that gap in performance could stand up to a formal hypothesis to test improvements and measure the success against the baseline gap. Sounds like an experiment!

The standard work thinking seemed to work well until the late 90’s, when the community decided it was time to improve the interactions and engagement of management in lean transformations and something called “leadership standard work” emerged.

Except the premise seemed different: instead of giving them the same opportunity to challenge their own work, the basic message seemed to be: “everything you are doing is wrong, just do it this new way.” However, no andons, no mad scientists, no dates on the work, no real standard work. Most importantly, this was a solution to a problem that was not defined, void of hypothesis and a way to measure success. How good did we need to be? How big a gap was there in how we led our companies vs. how the companies should be led?

Back to my irk: we are using language in a way to confuse people (and maybe even make us feel good). Time to fess up and confront this issue.

Don’t get me wrong: what people are now practicing has been an improvement: aligned goals, standard schedules, visual management, maybe even standard approaches while observing and coaching huddles. It has opened conversations and created transparencies when and where they were sorely needed. But no one I’ve talked to is seeing this as any type of PDCA effort. Rather, their iterations are trying to get the initial design working well as opposed to learning from it.

Better, Not Best

Instead of “leadership standard work” I believe what we are creating is simply “better leader work” than we once had, with some embedded standardized elements. This can’t be considered the “best leader work,” as there is not a measurable goal, and no true reflections and adjustments to continue to improve it. If there’s no PDCA, there is no learning and there is no continuous improvement toward the goal of great leadership.

If you’re interested in pursuing great leadership work, and agree with the fundamentals of this argument, it’s time to rethink what problem you see in your work, what you are attempting to attain, and a plausible path to get there. It’s time to take this seriously instead of slapping inconsistent language on good standards of leadership.

No need to invoke “lean language”: Just say you want to have great leadership inside your transformation and find a path that makes sense. This is a business issue, not a lean issue. The folks in my Shingo breakout were able to define a starting point—you can, too! Step one: fess up and admit that the construct and application of “better leader” work has nothing to do with standard work or continuous improvement. Then become a thoughtful scientist to construct something better. It’s within your grasp. You’ll know when you get there: there will be some semblance of mad scientists worrying about how to remain on the path and attain the goal.

In closing, I’d like to thank the folks in my breakout to test my new thoughts and approach, which was created in collaboration with my colleague Brent Wahba. I look forward to their feedback and also from you on how you are reacting to this argument and creating a clearer path on the way to great leadership.

Beau Keyte has three decades of continuous improvement experience, which have enabled him be a good listener, teacher, coach and leader as he helps organizations succeed and grow. In addition to his consulting practice, he is on the adjunct faculty at the Lean Enterprise Institute, the Shingo Institute and Ohio State University's Fisher School of Business.

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