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The Baseline for Improvement

A Look at Standard Work

Defining Standard Work

The idea of standard work originated in the manufacturing sector with the observations of early industrial engineers like Frederick W. Taylor, and is the practice of setting, communicating, following, and improving standards.

Establishing standard work begins with creating, clarifying, and sharing information about the most efficient method to perform a task that is currently known with everyone performing that process. Once this information has been shared, everyone practices this standard consistently so that the work is done the best way every time. This is where continuous improvement comes into play; standard work isn't a "set it and forget it" process, announced once and then permanently unchanging. Instead, everyone should work to improve the standard and share new best practices as they're discovered.

Standard work creates stability and consistency within a continuous improvement system by providing the baseline upon which a process sits. This way, your team isn't constantly reinventing the wheel.

Of course, not all work lends itself to standardization. So how do you know what should be standardized?

When deciding if standard work is needed for a job, staff should ask themselves why the steps in the process would benefit from consistency and/or documentation. If the answer is that they wouldn’t, standard work isn’t going to be helpful in that situation.

Learn more about standard work basics here.

Documentation of Standard Work

The success of standard work lies in the documentation of the process. If the point of standard work is to get everyone performing a task to complete it in the most efficient, safe, and effective manner, getting the documentation correct is critical to their success.

Elements to cover in your standard work documentation may include:

  • A clear, detailed outline of each process and task
  • The current best practice
  • The exact sequence employees follow to complete a specific task
  • Key points related to safety, quality, and performance
  • Explanations for WHY things are done a certain way
  • Takt time: The rate at which products must be produced to meet customer demand.
  • The standard amount of “work in process” (WIP) inventory

Requirements of Successful Standard Work

  1. Standard Reflects Reality

    It's not enough to come up with the best way to do something and write it down; you also have to make sure that the new standard you've come up with actually occurs in real life. If the standard work on the books doesn’t reflect the work as it is being done on the front lines today, it isn't actually standard work.

  2. Process and Documentation are Up-to-Date

    Processes tend to change over time, so it is important to revisit, re-document, and recommit to standard work frequently. It's possible that people are forgetting the improvement...but it's also possible that they've improved it since you last looked.

  3. Documentation is Complete &  Accurate

    Every material and critical part of the work must be considered and documented. Incomplete standard work is often the result of process changes over time, so it's important to establish a process of checking in to ensure that the documentation reflects reality.

  4. Process is Easy to Understand

    If the standard work cannot be understood by those doing the work (and by those managing the work), it can’t be executed correctly. It should be in an easy to understand format with visuals, where applicable. Sometimes a diagram tells a thousand words.

  5. Documentation is Concise

    While your standard work documentation must be complete, it should stick to the relevant information and be free from long-form commentary, industry jargon, or instructions that have no real impact on the results of the work.

For more information about the essential elements of standard work, read this.

Benefits of Standard Work

There are so many reasons that standard work is important, the question should really be "why am I not implementing standard work?" rather than "why should I?" From increased employee engagement and happiness to the production of higher-quality goods and services, standard work makes your business more successful in every measure.

Here are some of the many benefits of standard work:

  1. When Standard Work is in place, each person who performs a task does it in the manner that is the best way to do it
  2. Simplifies and speeds training and onboarding
  3. Improves quality and increases customer satisfaction
  4. Makes results predictable and measurable
  5. Helps finance teams cost and price accurately
  6. Allows organizations to scale rapidly
  7. Streamlines problem-solving
  8. Encourages employee engagement and ownership
  9. Frees managers and leaders to focus on strategic objectives
  10. Encourages flexibility and creativity

For more information on the benefits of standard work, read this and this.

Common Pitfalls of Standard Work

Standard work is straightforward, but there are a surprising number of ways to mess it up. I blame some of that on the name.

Standard work is an accurate description of what it is, but I think the name gives some people the sense that the Standard never changes and that employees should blindly follow it without comment or complaint.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Standard work is the baseline or “floor” for improvement, not the ceiling. Ignoring this notion leads to a bunch of big mistakes. Here are some of the worst ones.

  1. Failing to engage the people who do the work in the development of the Standard

    The process of documenting the current best practice for each task and process should involve the people who actually do the work on a daily basis. Other stakeholders can be involved, but the front-line employees are essential.

    Free eBook: Leader's Guide to Employee Engagement
  2. Missing critical details

    The Standard work is not a process overview.  In order to be effective, it needs to break each step down into its smallest task. Only this level of granularity will eliminate variation. That said, the document should be kept simple and easy to understand. Include pictures, diagrams, and other artifacts when needed.

  3. Hiding it

    Standard work documentation should be readily available to the people who do the work in the place that they do it. It always makes sense to store a digital version of the standard work in your improvement management system. Depending on the type of work and the workspace, paper copies may also be necessary.

  4. Thinking about Standard work as a one-time event

    We’ve seen people finish documenting standard work, then sigh and say they are glad to be done with that. But the truth is, Standard work is never “done.” It is a living process that needs to be frequently refined over time.

  5. Inadequate measurement

    Because the goal of Standard work is continuous improvement, it is important to know exactly what improvement looks like. That requires measuring the results of Standard work in quantifiable metrics. They may be financial, safety, customer satisfaction, quality, or speed KPIs that you want to track over time. Each time a change is made to the standard work, comparative analysis will confirm that improvement has been achieved.

For more common mistakes with standard work, read this post on the KaiNexus blog.

Standard Work Do's and Don’ts

engage the employees who actually do the work in the standardized work development process. Engineers and other outsiders may certainly be involved in the process, but the most important input comes from the frontline employees. 

DO  document the existing process, but keep an open mind and look for opportunities for improvement.

DO  keep standardized work as simple as possible, breaking each task into its smallest steps.  Paying attention to the smallest steps can help prevent variation.

DO  document the process to an appropriate degree of detail. 

DO  make sure that documentation is easy to understand. The inclusion of diagrams, examples, or other visual materials will help with this.

DO  be sure that your standard work documentation is clearly displayed in the workplace, rather than being hidden in a binder or a computer.

DO  provide a structured methodology for improving the process.


DON’T  just document the current best practices without looking for opportunities to improve them.

DON’T  think about standardized work creation as a one-time event; it should be continually refined over time.

DON’T  write the document in a way that is overly rigid, given the situation. Standardized work is not meant to be a substitute for thinking and judgment when the work or customer needs call for it.

DON’T  change procedures or processes without updating the standardized work. Doing so will cancel out the positive impact of standardized work.

DON’T  create a complex procedure for changing standardized work. If the process is too complicated, people will avoid making any such changes.

DON’T  allow unnecessary variation from the standardized work. If the standardized work truly defines the best practice, it should be performed the same way every time and performed the same way by other people. Otherwise, it should be changed.

For more information about what standard work is NOT,
 read this.

The Role of Improvement Software in Standard Work

Start. Spread. Sustain.




Improvement software makes it easy to document your current process, work through improvements to that process, and document the final process all in one platform. Custom templates allow you to keep using the standard work process that works best for your organization, while features like smart notifications, charts, and teams allow you to bring in the right people and the right information at the right time.


Everyone has access to the standard work document from anywhere, at any time, when it's logged in improvement software. They can search for the process, you can set up custom boards for people and roles that show their standard work, and you can send it to anyone who needs it. In this way, the documentation is available on any device at any time. It's easy to share your standards with other departments and teams so that they can implement your changes or collaborate with you on other improvements, really bringing the entire organization under one, best, standard.


Updating standard work should be an ongoing process. Improvement software makes it easy to log ideas for improving the standard, collaborate on the changes, and document the results. It'll remind you when it's time to review the standard, allow you to loop in the people who currently perform the process to get their feedback, and help you manage the process of testing and implementing proposed changes to the standard work documentation.


A3 Montage

Interractive Teams


Improvement software makes it easy for the people performing the work to communicate their ideas and concerns with leadership, and for leadership to respond in a timely fashion. Cross-departmental teams can collaborate without having to work meetings into the schedule and groups can easily build off of the progress of each other.



When documenting standard work, employees are engaged in conversations about their work and identifying opportunities for improvement together. That engagement shouldn't stop once the initial documentation is completed. Building a virtual team in improvement software engages staff in formulating and implementing a plan for improvement and promotes greater buy-in.


User Engagement Summary
User Activity Board


With detailed reports that show individuals’ participation in various continuous improvement work, continuous improvement software makes it easy to see which departments are creating and improving standard work and thus engaging people in a culture of continuous improvement.



Continuous improvement software captures the impact of every improvement that’s made as a result of standardized work documentation (as well as all other continuous improvement initiatives), helping you to monitor and report on the improvements’ impact. Being able to see the combined effect of their ideas will encourage employees to look for even more opportunities for improvement.


Impact Summary

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