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Davis Balestracci


Don’t Create Standards Just to Create Standards, Part 1

The logistics of making standardization a process

Published: Monday, August 22, 2011 - 13:15

Because many organizations are trying for formal certification, the pressure is on to standardize and document processes. This is also true for any robust improvement effort. Organizations are currently drowning in processes that have evolved over time and consequently become rife with confusion, conflict, complexity, and chaos. There are wide gaps between how these processes should work and how they actually do work.


If any of you have tried to standardize a process, you have no doubt run into two inescapable realities of improvement:
• Things are the way they are because they got that way.
• Unless you understand how they got that way, they are going to stay that way.


Joseph Juran said, “There is no such thing as improvement in general,” and the same holds true for “standardization in general.” If you want to see full-fledged cultural resistance and stonewalling in all its glory, make a general announcement that, “Because of our commitment to—fill in blank (e.g., CQI, Six Sigma, lean, ISO 9001)—we need to develop standard work processes.” This will conjure up front-line visions of yet another organizational three-ring binder that, as one Dilbert cartoon character commented, everyone will treat like a dead raccoon and route to the first passerby.


Remember: The purpose of standards is to create exceptional service with maximum efficiency. Standardization focuses on the methods of getting work done in order to answer two questions:
• What will we do differently to achieve new, consistently higher levels of performance, prevent occurrences of common problems, and maintain the gains discovered and made?
• Should we improve what we have or start over from scratch?

Regardless, here are three givens for any standardization process:
• Redesigning a process on paper is easy, but implementation, as many of us know, is a whole other matter.
• Hassle and chaos may be greater than additional benefit.
All change is social change; minor matters to one party are radical changes to someone else.

For unprecedented levels of quality, of course, you must develop standard work process, but realistically, this will occur only after process language is ingrained in your organizational culture, an awkward three- to five-year transition. Remember, if you currently don’t have standard processes, it is because you are not “perfectly designed” to have them—and this includes administrative as well as product, manufacturing, or in the case of health care, clinical issues.

So, some questions organizations must initially ponder:
• Because of a lack of standard processes, what kinds of problems are observed in the work culture?
• Which of these are the most serious barriers to desired strategy and values?
• Which 20 percent of the processes are causing 80 percent of customer issues?
• Which 20 percent of the product issues are causing 80 percent of our costs?
• Are there hidden opportunities for simultaneous cost reduction and better product quality through standardization?

And then there are the logistics:
• What level should be worked on first: Start small or big?
• Whom should we involve?
• Exactly what needs to be standardized?
• How do we make sure people use standards once they are in place?
• Where in the process are the high-leverage points that must be standardized because variable methods (or poor hand offs) are seriously hindering consistently high-value service?

Employees need to know why they are developing standards. This understanding must reach beyond merely documenting what they are currently doing. When this is done on a vital organizational process, it will yield the highest reduction in confusion, conflict, complexity, and chaos. Only then will employees begin to understand how different facets of their work affect the products and services delivered to customers. They will also know which elements are most critical to producing high-quality output with minimal waste and truly see the importance of performing those tasks consistently.

Given most employees’ previous experiences, standards must not:
• Stifle creativity and lead to stagnation
• Interfere with a customer focus
• Add bureaucracy and red tape
• Make work inflexible or boring, especially at low-leverage process points
• Describe only the minimal acceptable output
• Be developed and not used
• Be etched in granite forever
• Be imposed from the outside
• Waste time

Given a healthy improvement framework, standards should:
• Make progress more visible, and make it easier to track that progress over time
• Capture and share lessons
• Evaluate points of consistent weakness in the process
• Evaluate how and by how much new initiatives helped to improve quality
• Help workers communicate more effectively with other functional areas
• Help workers communicate more effectively amongst themselves
• Be treated as living, breathing processes than can and must be constantly improved
• Focus on the few things in a process that truly make a difference
• Provide a foundation for improvement

Regardless of any grand pronouncement (and recognition) of the need to standardize, I still can’t emphasize this enough: You will still have to audit your culture’s current performance vs. its gap with your new desired performance. You need to understand how things got that way, and most important, identify the vested interests in keeping it that way.

Standardization must be considered a process

Here’s an interesting paradox: Despite the howling protests you will predictably get, standardization does not stifle creativity.
• Standardization frees the mind to concentrate on improving the process—as opposed to constantly reacting to variation, which results in mental exhaustion and only working around the process.
• Any standardized process can be improved—and has a higher probability of being improved.

A documentation process must become part of the overall standardization process.
• If processes are not being updated constantly, it’s likely that they are not being used.
• Updating does not need to be cumbersome. Invest in an easy-to-use flowchart software package.

Training issues: train and retrain

Once an organization has developed and documented best-known methods, the issue becomes knowing how to make sure they are used. Education and training play a key role, but who should be trained? New employees and managers are obvious candidates, but what about experienced employees, the ones who seem to have a tendency to naturally, and many times “conveniently,” forget the process? These experienced employees are usually the first to tell new employees, “I know you’re taught that, but don’t worry; no one will notice if you don’t do it.” (Wink, wink.) This is probably a cultural initiation and, as Juran liked to say, the “stated reason.”

Stated reason? To deal with natural resistance, Juran introduced his brilliant concept of “stated reason vs. real reason” in his landmark book (revised edition), Managerial Breakthrough (McGraw-Hill, 1995). He was adamant about looking beyond these stated reasons to get to the real reason. In the example above, the real reason could be summarized as, “If you do it, then my life is going to be uncomfortable because I’m going to get hassled about not doing it…. And I guarantee that I will make your life miserable as a result.”

When identifying tolerated cultural elements that allow barriers to standardized processes to proliferate, ask:
• Has work ever been checked to monitor performance? If so, was the purpose “policing” or to deliver the consistently best process to the customer?
• What are the plans for a feedback system?

Think about it: A high degree of standardization is needed to make effective training possible.
• Without standardization, training is cumbersome, inefficient, ad hoc, and generally ineffective.
• Without effective training, any standard is soon lost.

Employees will resist

In line with Juran’s wisdom, be prepared for these “stated” reasons:
• “Management doesn’t know how to do my job!”
• “Sharing my knowledge will make me vulnerable.”
• “Rules are going to be enforced for the rules’ sake, not considering the customer.”
• “I’m experienced. I don’t need documentation.”

So, given the many dysfunctional beliefs people have accumulated from past experiences with standardization efforts, how do you let people experience the benefits—e.g., less waste, less rework, higher customer satisfaction, and saner lives—for themselves?

… Do-check-act

Part one of this article has focused on creating a culture where standardization is considered a process, which involves a lot of nontrivial planning. In part two, we’ll look at the subsequent “do” in the plan-do-check-act cycle, in effect a mini PDCA cycle addressing a specific process chosen as a result of your planning. When that’s completed, you will be able to “check” how to improve (i.e., act on) both the overall process of standardization as well as its crucial subprocess: improving specifically chosen individual processes.

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).


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.