The logistics of standardizing a specific process
Any improvement effort ultimately faces the issue of standardizing processes, in many cases under the intense pressure of an impending certification audit. Ask yourself: Is your rationale for standardization merely to pass the audit, or is it a serious effort to improve quality? If it’s the former, I’m positive most of you are clever enough to put up a good front in that tiring cat-and-mouse game, and you probably thought part one of this article was too much work. If it’s the latter, then I’d like to suggest a few additional nuggets of wisdom as you work through the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle as it applies to standardizing processes.
As I’ve emphasized and re-emphasized: Do not underestimate the human factors involved in changing an established culture. In assessing the actual current state of the process (a key element of lean), using, of course, PDCA, you must involve the people actually doing the work.
You will frame this process by facilitating a plan for how the work will be done, and know how to measure whether it is effective. Make sure the people doing the work understand the internal or external customer needs. Involve, as partners, specialists or other knowledgeable people who understand how the process does or should work. You want people who can teach employees about the underlying theory or principles that guide the work. Be aware of major blocks that, due to current culture, may be virtually immovable, and treat them as givens.
• Change only those that promise major benefits
• Preserve the components of the existing process
• Localize or focus the change
• Minimize the disruption employees incur in their daily work
• Do the work according to the plan
• Check how well the work is going, using indicators employees helped to create
• Act to put in place immediate remedies
Participate in developing ways to prevent problems from recurring. Start by formally designating a process owner, someone responsible for keeping the documentation visible, updating the standard and its documentation as improvements are identified, and ensuring that newcomers and others are trained. If a process isn’t updated with an improved version at least every three months, that’s sometimes a signal that no one is using the standard.
Answer these questions at the beginning:
• Are the current documented standards best?
• How do they compare with the methods the people are actually using?
• What about new ideas being recommended?
• Can we eliminate certain steps, inventory, or inspection, or are they there for a reason?
Check: Understand the state of the current process.
• Understand why the work is being done. See if this purpose is clearly documented and is compatible with the project’s purpose
• Locate any existing documentation of methods, and compare actual practice with the documented methods
• If there are no documented standards, compare different practices among the people doing the work
• Compare how the effectiveness of the work is supposed to be checked with how it is actually checked.
Act: Establish a consistent framework on which improvements can be built.
• Reconcile the actual practices and the documentation, changing whichever of the two that needs to change (i.e., change the actual practices to match the documentation, or change the documentation to match the actual practice).
• Do this for both how the work is supposed to be done and how it is supposed to be checked.
• If no standard methods are in place and no one can show with data which methods are really “best-known,” a practical alternative at this stage is simply to agree on one method they all will use.
Plan: Make the documentation more useful.
• Develop a plan for upgrading the documentation
• Develop a plan for encouraging the use of the documented standard
• Determine how to detect flaws and potential improvements in the standard
Do: Train to the new documented standard, then use the new standard.
Check: Once again, compare actual practice with documented standards. Determine inconsistencies and investigate them. If the standards are not being followed, is it because:
• The documentation is too difficult to use?
• People don’t appreciate the need for using the standard?
• The standard doesn’t allow people to keep up, or prevents them from doing quality work?
• People have found a better way?
Act: Again, reconcile the actual practice with the documentation, changing whichever the data shows you should change.
Unfortunately, past experiences with standardization have created many cultural beliefs that will need to be overcome. In addition, don’t underestimate those related to status and autonomy, which are guaranteed to generate a lot of “stated” reasons in resistance (see part one for more on this). Added to that, your current culture has been perfectly designed to allow increased variation—such as confusion, conflict, complexity, and chaos—to creep into routine daily processes. All this has resulted in an environment where:
• Management has probably never effectively emphasized the use of documented standards
• Few employees have experienced the benefits of effective standardization, and many have been subject to rigid implementation of arbitrary rules
• Virtually no one sees the need for standards
• Most employees receive little training on how to do their jobs; instead, most are left to learn by watching a more experienced employee.
• Most employees have developed their own unique versions of any general procedures they witnessed or were taught. There is a tendency to think, “My way is the best way.”
• Changes to procedures happen haphazardly; individuals constantly change details to counteract problems that arise (common cause variation) or in hopes of discovering a better method.
Ultimately, an effective standardization process must be tied to an organization’s mission, vision, and values. Most organizational cultures are not designed to have open attitudes toward standardization and will require formal processes to address actual sources of variation, as well as the unintentional human psychology of fear, which reacts and adds to variation.
“Too much work,” some of you are saying? Then, by all means, continue to funnel all of your and your work culture’s creativity into the cat-and-mouse game of auditing. I never cease to be amazed at how clever frightened humans are. Wouldn’t it be better to harness all that energy to a cleverly designed standardization process, one that might even teach an auditor something? In my experience, that would be a first.
Note: this article was adapted from Chapter 10 of Davis Balestracci’s book, Data Sanity: A Quantum Leap to Unprecedented Results (Medical Group Management Association, 2009), from ideas originally suggested by Brian Joiner’s Fourth Generation Management (McGraw-Hill, 1994).