Standard Work

I’ve been meaning to explain the concept of Standard Work -also known as Best Practices– for a long time because there are tremendous advantages to adopting them. Briefly, standard work is a defined established procedure for doing something in a certain way -say, sewing in a zipper. Now, when I’ve written about best practices in the past, I’ve gotten a lot of arguments from people who claim “it’s a matter of opinion” or “whatever works best for you” and really, I don’t even want to deal with that today because I’m talking about work examples that are grounded in science, not opinion (no offense). Standard work means the process is efficiently reproducible by anyone anywhere. Here are some of the greatest benefits of standard work -the cornerstone of lean manufacturing principles:

Simplicity in ensuring a uniform quality outcome
Standard work is the best way to ensure quality and uniformity. Everyone will get the same results if they’re using the same methods. If there’s room for interpretation, there’s room for error because people never interpret things in precisely the same way.

Simplicity in troubleshooting
If everyone is doing things the same way and a quality problem pops up with one individual’s output, you know the problem is limited to either that person or the equipment they’re using. You can correct this easily and quickly. If a quality problem pops up with many people’s work at the same time, this means the problem preceded these workers. This can mean there’s a problem with the materials (using a new supplier or products?) a problem with the pattern (is this a new pattern?) or with cutting (was the correct pattern used or do you have a new cutter?).

Simplicity in work improvement
Best practices evolve, just like people do. Materials change, equipment changes and to make the most of technological advances, so must our methods. Now, as the inputs and conditions change, our methods will often need modifications. It’s much easier to improve a process if we’re all using the same standard to begin with. It is most likely our new method will be a slight modification of our existing method which makes retraining for the new process easier and faster. This is also known as Kaizen. Also important is that if the job is wasteful of people’s time or it is inefficient, most of them will know it. Therefore, they’re more likely to come to you with the solution. Similarly, it will be less difficult to get people to change because they’ll already know the new way is better -and probably sooner than you ever will. This is very empowering to people. I know that it seems counter-intuitive that the adoption of standard work doesn’t lead to making people do things in only one way forever like robots. Rather, it leads to the power of improving it.

Simplicity in job improvement
If everyone is doing something the same exact way and the work process involves a step that is counter-productive and wasteful, you’re more likely to notice it and can figure out a way to eliminate the problem. For example, if everyone has to bend or reach over to perform an activity, it could be you need to figure out how to get rid of wasted motion by reorganizing their work areas. That will also reduce repetitive stress injuries which contributes to a safer work environment. Or, if everybody has to leave their work station to go get something before they start the work activity, you definitely need to look at streamlining the material acquisition procedure. The point is, if everyone is using standard work, you’re more likely to notice wasteful activities because anomalies pop up and are more noticeable.

Simplicity in determining fair pay
If everyone is doing the same work the same way, it’s pretty simple to judge who is performing within range and who’s not. While there is always a range of time needed to complete the work among different workers, you can get a good idea of the performance to expect. For example, if everyone is completing a given operation within 30 seconds to 1 minute, that will give you a good idea of how much that operation should pay (if you’re using piece rate). If you have a worker who complains they need 5 minutes to do the same work and consequently are being underpaid, it is most likely that this operator is ill-suited for the task or needs more training.

Simplicity in job training
If everyone is doing the same work in the same way, this means that anyone can train anyone else. You don’t need to rely on a supervisor -who may be needed elsewhere- to do it. Training is expensive. Of all manufacturing industries, the needle trades are the tightest with a buck; they spend less on employee training than does any other manufacturing segment. Needle trades people are also least likely to invest in their own education. If you’re a cheap-skate (not always a bad thing), you more than any other manufacturer would benefit the most from adopting standard work because this allows any worker to train any other.

Simplicity in hiring and transmission of best practices
In this business, established successful companies use standard work/best practices whether you do or not. Ideally, you’d hire someone who already knew these things. If people are using the same standards from one company to another, their specific job skills transfer faster, making them less costly to hire and train. For example, if everyone is color coding their patterns correctly and using the best practices of production pattern making standards (as illustrated in my book), you will have fewer problems. If you have standard practices, it is much easier to evaluate the skills of applicants and to know whether they’re likely to be successful in your company. If you don’t know standard work, you’d do well to hire people who do and let them teach you.

Simplicity in communication
If everyone is doing things the same way, it takes less time to explain any kind of operational difficulty because everyone has meta-cognition and shares the institutional knowledge base. If there is a problem, you don’t have to rely on the specialized knowledge or experience of one individual if everyone knows the process. Likewise, in industrial sewing, there is no such thing as sewing instructions as is known in home sewing -other than special or minor details- so you could never expect a pattern maker you’ve hired to provide you with instructions unless you specifically pay them to put instructions together for you. With standard work, we don’t need sewing instructions because we sew everything (according to product etc) the same way. Among professionals, it’s assumed you know how to put things together. By way of comparison, see this entry on industrial sewing instructions.

Now that I’ve made the case for the necessity of standard work, here are some standards of best practices used by most successful companies using interfacing as the specific example:

  • All collars are interfaced.
  • All facings are interfaced.
  • All closure areas that support zippers, buttons and snaps are interfaced.
  • All cuffs are interfaced.
  • In coats and suits, all hems are interfaced.
  • Regarding specific areas that are interfaced; if there is a fold line (like a button down center front), the fusing extends 1/2″ beyond the fold line. Ditto for zippers and hems. You should never end the fusing right at the fold line like most pattern making books say. Folds weaken fabric, folds fray. Folds are reinforced with fusible to prolong the life of the garment.
  • Fusible pieces are cut slightly smaller than the area into which they are placed.

Next week I’ll be starting a series that specifically details the standard work (or best practices) regarding the construction of men’s shirt sleeve cuffs and plackets. You can find these archived on the tutorials page; standard work appears in each title.

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