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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  1. Joe says:

    Awesome summary of standard work, Kathleen. Better said than most anything I’ve seen in the Lean community!!

    I’ll use this, as we struggle with this very perspective.

    Thank you!

  2. This is a terrific intro to the concept of “best practices.” In theory, I agree with everything you say. In practice, however, I think there are some practical realities that have to be considered when introducing the concept of “best practices” into an organization. This is true whether you are introducing “best practices” as a change to your core competencies or as changes to peripheral operations that are of secondary importance in defining competitiveness.

    My experience is from the world of IT departments and computer systems development and management, not from manufacturing. The reason I read this blog, though, is that the insights here I find to be universally relevant and not limited to any one industry.

    Back to best practices. Frequently (but not always) best practices involve both equipment (technology) as well as (human) processes. Technology and process have to be managed together.

    Here’s what I’ve found to be a problem with how best practices are implemented: A best practice, whether it’s for sewing on a zipper or for responding to a customer billing inquiry, is not a standalone operation. It has to interact with other operations. Some of these operations, whether they are homegrown or “best practices” imported from elsewhere, interact differently in different companies. It’s the management of these unique interactions via changes to technology or process that can lead to major cost increases and overruns when “best practices” are introduced to a company.

    Again, I’m drawing on my own experience with computer systems as a basis for these observations. Two specific examples are the following.

    The first is that many years ago companies began to adopt monolithic “ERP” systems to help manage basic inventory, financial, HR, and other operations. The systems had been developed around the concept of “best practices.” What many companies found themselves doing was spending huge numbers of $$$ to adapt and implement these systems to their own unique circumstances. A major aspect of this complexity was not the best practices as embedded within the ERP system, but the facts that (a) the systems had to be adapted to local conditions to make them work and (b) local business processes had to be adapted to accommodate the “best practice” defined by the new system.

    OK, maybe this is just a fancy way of saying “change can be expensive” but I assure you that many consultants made a very good living for many years helping companies implement these best practices based systems and there continue to be arguments to this day about the cost-benefits of such systems.

    The second point is about the increasing number of Internet based systems that are becoming available that may negate the need for companies to purchase and install software on their own machines. These days, for example, a large company can avoid buying its own sales management system or customer support system and get everything it needs as a “web service.” Here all data and functions are accessed through a web browser and stored remotely by the service. In other words, why buy when you can rent — especially if what you rent is based on a “best practice” and all you need is an Internet connection and a web browser to get at it.

    The same issue applies with web based services that are “rented.” Best practices don’t exist in a vacuum, they have to interact with other best practices and other operations, and that interaction needs to be managed, whether the best practice is home grown or not. In my experience, it’s a failure to anticipate the “ripple effects” caused by implementing a best practices based system that cause cost overruns, staff turmoil, and management headaches.

    So fundamentally I agree with the concept of best practices but I have concerns about real-world implementation and how you manage it.

  3. Alison Cummins says:

    I work for a telecom. We use an ERP and it is wonderful. But yes, we are encountering the scene Dennis has outlined because we have been acquired by another telecom that uses the same ERP – just differently configured. We have been trying to move to a single platform for the past two years; we might finally do it this year, but it will be expensive and cause much more disruption than anyone would have predicted.

    I don’t think that’s what Kathleen is talking about, though. I work for the network engineering department, and we have been spending the last six years or so developing and refining our use of databases and our system for issuing designs to the people who will implement them. Nobody really thinks that each engineer entering data into a database using their own idisyncratic interpretation of requirements is a good thing, and all engineers cooperate enthusiastically on each new standardisation project, just like Kathleen says.

    An excerpt from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, discussing doctors’ resistance to substituting a standard algorithm for diagnosing heart attacks for doctors’ own experience and judgement:

    “‘Doctors think it’s mundane to follow guidelines,’ [Arthur Evans] says. ‘It’s much more gratifying to come up with a decision on your own. Anyone can follow an algorithm. There is a tendency to say, ‘Well, certainly I can do better. It can’t be this simple and efficient; otherwise, why are they paying me so much money?””

    “The algorithm frees doctors to attend to all the other decisions that need to be made in the heat of the moment: if the patient isn’t having a heart attack, what is wrong with him? Do I need to spend more time with this patient or turn my attention to a more serious problem? How should I talk to and relate to him? What does this person need from me to get better?”

    This is absolutely the spirit in which standard practices are implemented within the company I work for.

    Note that both Kathleen and I talk about situations in which the implementers have a feeling of ownership toward the standard practices: in the case of the company I work for, this is because the people who implement the practices are the people who created them. And everyone is welcome to propose and develop an improvement at any time, at which point it must be shared with all engineers across the country.

  4. Agreed – the “not invented here” (NIH) syndrome can cause all sorts of problems, including resistance to doing something a better way and — most serious in my view — having to spend time and money on re-inventing the wheel.

    It may be significant that the examples provided by Alison contrast the behavior of engineers with the behavior of doctors. Engineers, in my experience, are notoriously famous for “doing what it takes to get the job done!”

    Returning to best practices: I think there are often problems associated with integrating systems and processes from organizations that have developed the systems and processes in response to unique or local requirements. Alison’s ERP comments may bear this out. The existence of problem situations may be independent of whether or not the conflicting processes started out as “best practices.”

    Perhaps also it is a good idea to clarify in this discussion when we are talking about “industry wide” versus “company wide” standard practices. Also, some people (such as myself) may not automatically equate “standard practices” with “best practices” since “standards” are sometimes equated with “lowest common denominator.”

  5. Alison says:

    The trouble we’re having unifying our ERPs is that the two companies have standardised their work practices in different ways because they have different requirements. Asking one company to adopt the other’s ERP is asking a great deal, because the other’s ERP does not meet its needs. Adopting it will require workarounds and waste… but still, less of a waste than trying to run and coordinate two different ERPs. So we’re going ahead anyway. With much pain.

    I suppose it would be a little like a swimwear company acquiring a mountaineering gear company and then standardising their best-practice swimwear seam construction and finish for all products produced by the combined entity. Or eliminating the mountaineering gear testing department and assigning the task of product testing and development for the combined entity to the swimwear company.

    So we really need to decide on best practices *for a given use.* Kathleen may have the nec plus ultra of faced lapped zipper applications, but maybe we don’t want a faced lapped zipper. Maybe it’s a single-use industrial item and we genuinely want the cheapest, fastest zipper application possible, and we really don’t care at all whether the seam allowances are correctly aligned and we have a tolerance of 3/4″ for the dimensions of the finished item. Maybe we’re going to be using the cheapest zippers available on any given day, which might all be slightly different sizes. Maybe we want a drawstring.

  6. Nick S. says:

    My experience is that Best Practices or Standards for that mater are oposed to Creativity and Inovation. The mistake is when we try to implement either one or the other. The whole art of managment is to combine them in a harmonious way. What some people forget sometimes is that regardless of the Best Practices or Standards people in any positions want to use their heads, and sometimes come up with BETTER best practices. This is why we should encourage creativity without chaos and at the same time embrace best practices without handcuffing everything with them.
    Nick S.

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  8. M says:

    I have been working as an assistant to a pattern cutter who has always said I need to deduct 2-3mm from a fusing pattern before it meets a fold line rather than extending past it (sorry metric – from UK).

    Have you ever encountered this method and is it inferior to extending past a fold line?

    His reason for doing this was a) fusing should never end on a fold line and b) it should not extend past a fold line because it is adding bulk to the fold line, leading to…a bulky fold line (?)

    Your method seems to make more sense to me, but I’d be interested to know if stopping short of a fuse line is bad practice.

  9. Kathleen says:

    If it matters to you since he is not likely to change, I think it’s better to cross the fold line. The fold line gets a lot of wear and the backing will increase its life.

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