Chalmers St – Consulting

The Importance of Leader Standard Work

The great thing about practicing continuous improvement is that it is a field that is evolving and changing. Just when I think I have read and learned all there is to know, something new (or at least new to me) drops on my desk. This year I started practicing Leader Standard Work (LSW) with my clients. I learned about it from a friend and then read about in David Mann’s book, Creating a Lean Culture. It addresses an all too common problem: poor task management in the roles of managing and supervising people. I was immediately drawn to the topic because process improvement is not complete until managers can sustain a new process. I have struggled with how to help managers in this way. Specifically, helping a leader establish new habits around the ever changing standards in their operations. 


We have basic articles that you can read on LSW , so I won’t go into the mechanics of Leader Standard Work here. I’d recommend reading David Mann’s book. Here I will focus on three reasons why LSW is so important:


  1. Establishing a guide for new managers to reference how to do their job.
  2. Effectively structuring a manager’s day, week, or month.
  3. Providing the tools for managers to be efficient and effective. 


To reason number 1, there is a quote from W. Edwards Deming (maybe someone can find it for me) that we promote our best employees to supervise, but it doesn’t mean they know a thing about supervision. Just like in production work or engineering work, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about your job. LSW is a simple time table of the key activities that a leader needs to do and in what frequency. LSW sets the expectation from top management on how to successfully perform a role. It removes the ambiguity that creates frustration which leads to low performance. This is not only true of the supervisor, but also of the team that the supervisor is directly influencing. This is why good supervision is so important, it is magnified throughout the whole of the organization. 


Organizations owe it to their leaders to establish clear responsibility in the form of specific tasks and frequencies and have points where the expectations can be checked, verified, and critiqued. This is what allows a leader to become better over time. Performance management goals are not enough! Supervisors need to understand the daily practices needed to be successful in their job. A good LSW achieves this. 


To reason number 2, it is the case that a significant component of a supervisor’s role is to take the challenging problems from their team and try to resolve them, so that the team can operate under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, this is often all that I see supervisors doing. Jumping from one problem to the next. The machine broke down unexpectedly. The customer is angry. The employee that didn’t show up today. This is not only a drain on the supervisor, it is an endless circle of mediocrity for the organization. LSW combats this by segmenting times of the day, week, and month for systemic problem solving. Systemic problem solving reduces this manic behavior of endless whack-a-mole.


I often ask leaders how they budget for improvement work. I have heard a few good answers over the years, but I also get plenty of blank stares. Improvement work is work! Just like any other task that needs to be completed in a given day. When done well, we reduce the problems that sap a supervisors day and take them away from actual supervision. LSW applies techniques like segmenting time for team huddles, Gemba walks, and process observations. Seeing is not enough; we need to root cause and problem solve too. A good LSW establishes time for collaboration and problem solving. These practices along with check points with leadership ensure that countermeasures are being discovered and deployed continuously.


To reason number 3, I recently attended an economic summit where one of the speakers stated that the current labor conditions will remain, as they currently are, for the next 10 years. I fear this is going to take many goods and services and make them scarce or possibly even unavailable. We can see this happening already. The lack of “people that want to work” is a complaint I hear about regularly. Good leadership has a magnifying effect. It makes the employees better. It makes a workplace more enjoyable and desirable. It makes a team more motivated and engaged in their job. Our only hope is to be as efficient and effective as possible with the people that are available for work. 


LSW is a strategy to make the workplace more enjoyable. No one wants to toil in mundane activities rife with mind numbing problems and thankless responsibilities. LSW designs the leader’s job from the organization’s purpose into the best set of daily activities to ensure they are constantly fixing broken processes, eliminating mundane tasks, and reducing the dependence on large workforces so that more goods and services can be made accessible to a broader segment of the population. Without good leadership we all fail. Without the definition or structure that comes from LSW supervisors are left to their own experience to figure out what good leadership really means.


A friend of mine recently said to me that a skill not practiced is a skill lost. Nothing could be more true. The sad fact of our LSW implementations is that we are not seeing the practice that is really required to make leadership an ingrained skill. We are taking this gap very seriously and over the next months we plan to roll out new solutions to get these practices to stick. You can be sure that I will be writing about these in upcoming newsletters.