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Define Your Organization’s Habits to Work More Efficiently
Brad Power / Harvard Business Review / May 17, 2013
We don’t often think about the way we usually operate at work, whether we’re performing an informal five-step process for evaluating a new proposal, or setting priorities for managing our time. But our ability to improve the ways we do things depends on defining and shaping our daily habits of mind and practice — our “standard work.”
Consider the experience of my friend Lynn Kelley, who joined Union Pacific Railroad, the largest railroad network in the United States with 46,000 employees, as vice president of continuous improvement about two years ago. When she arrived, she learned that a large proportion of the workforce would retire over the next decade. So the organization started documenting standard operating procedures to capture employee know-how and wisdom. She told me, “I initially thought standard work would make people into robots. Instead we learned to use standard work to involve workers in documenting and improving their work. Managers think that they should find out what the best practice is and then roll it out. But we decided if we did that, we’d pay for it in worker engagement. Instead, we look for work groups that are willing to be involved in developing their own standard work, and implement there first.”
In the discussion that followed my post on balancing compliance and autonomy, I learned that there is great richness and breadth in the reasoning behind how organizations have defined standard ways of doing things. But it struck me that the reasons broke down into three broad categories: (1) to ensure people comply with “must do” procedures (e.g., safety checklists), to achieve consistency, avoid safety or regulatory problems, or handle emergencies; (2) to make people aware of “should do” practices (a routine that has been determined to be the best way to do things), to achieve adaptability, flexibility, and even innovation; and (3) to let people know where they have discretion in what they “may do” (e.g., give up to $50 to customers who have been treated badly), to foster creativity, innovation, flexibility to meet customer needs in real-time, and worker job satisfaction.