I recently got into a discussion around avoiding waste in processes related to project management and somebody remarked that for a lean consultant I have a very un-disciplined approach. All the more so, as Lean considers the introduction of standard work an unavoidable basis for any improvement. There is even a saying “no standards, no improvement” that I use very often : how can it be that I make the impression of someone who does not embrace standards?

If I think about it, there is some truth in the observation – I do not embrace standards uncritically, and neither does Lean in my opinion. The Lean way of defining standards has two key elements:

One is that it is based on team consensus, a common view of what are the wastes and a common agreement to not tolerate them. This means that no lean initiative will knowingly introduce a wasteful process as a standard or even introduce a standard without discussing it in detail with the team and getting a common agreement.

The second point is that the lean standards are absolutely open and freely changeable – in fact they are meant to be changed the moment someone identifies a better way of doing things. Not changing them would be absolutely wasteful, and completely against the way we think in Lean.

The biggest obstacle in introducing standards in a Lean transformation is that people see standards in a very different way. Standards are NOT defined by teams – they are defined by specialists, who know better. Team members are supposed to accept them, work by them and are NOT supposed to think about them. Also, any proposal to change a standard, especially one coming from a lowly team member is seen as an insult. How could an unqualified person have a better idea then a specialist? Why waste time discussing our standard that has been defined by our specialists?The result of this traditional attitude is that team members hate standards and any mentioning of them immediately ends in a call for the union representative.

I personally prefer the Lean approach, where the standards are defined by the team and can be changed by the team at any time (with a due process of course). I can see though, how advocating lean standards can come across as lack of discipline. In the traditional world, the intent to regularly re-discuss and re-define standards is seen as a contradiction in terms. In the Lean view NOT re-discussing and re-defining standards will generate a lot of waste, inefficient work and ultimately a quiet sabotage of the standards. But as Ohno said – “no standards, no improvement”, so standards that people do not live by are an obstacle to improvement. They are also a symptom of a general mindset in the company, that is not helping in a Lean transformation.: a lack of flexibility , unwillingness to learn from or even to discuss mistakes, a lack of employee involvement, lack of trust between different functions and the like.

So, as so many ideas in Lean, this is virtuous or a vicious cycle and we can take our pick. Getting Lean standards to work will weaken all the negative aspects mentioned above – using the work discipline argument to kill off lean standards will strengthen all of them.