Leader standard work: A fundamental shift in management philosophy

Asian worker holding laptop talking to female manager in a manufacturing environment
Key takeaways
  • Leader standard work involves a shift in mindset, one that coaches and empowers teams to improve processes and solve problems for themselves
  • Leaders can then spend their time on more strategic issues and longer-term planning
  • Leader standard work sustains improvements in both practice and performance, and verifies the new standards are being followed once improvements are made
22 November 2022 – Leader Standard Work (LSW) entails a fundamental change to a leader’s routines that reinforces and sustains improvements in culture, performance and practices. LSW as a management philosophy instills a sense of ownership, responsibility, accountability and empowerment across all levels of the organization. In this blog, Senior TRACC advisor Mary Williamson shares her view about LSW, and how it applies to leadership tasks and processes in an increasingly digital environment.

What is leader standard work?

Leader standard work is key to developing a world-class operation as it enables leaders at all levels to convert Lean principles into daily practice.

Leader standard work establishes regular schedules for routine tasks. However, it is very different from operator standard work because leader standard work is up- and downwards accountability that is evaluated on a daily basis or several times a day using visual controls. Daily evaluation is critical because it verifies that work is being done properly and it ensures that everybody is held accountable for working to the standard.

Most of the leader’s standard work is focused on activities at the place where work is done, gemba, as this creates opportunities to interact meaningfully with direct reports and see for oneself how processes work. The remaining time is spent on more strategic planning and driving continuous improvement.

A leader’s behavior is an important aspect of leader standard work as leaders set the example for best practice. The purpose of leader standard work is to move away from an “audit” mentality toward one of structured coaching that encourages collaboration and active problem-solving at all levels. As teams start improving processes and solving problems themselves, leaders can spend their time more efficiently. There is a shift from reactive or crisis management to proactive management.


Download the how-to guide Leader standard work for executive leadership to learn more about leading your organization to world-class success.


Are leaders only standardizing their own leadership tasks?

Standardizing tasks for leaders who have adopted LSW is two-fold: Leaders need to standardize their own work tasks, and they also need to ensure that the teams reporting into them are working to standardized work processes. When leaders verify the standard of those reporting to them, it is not about leaving them with a list of things to do. It is about coaching to a standard and showing through their actions that it is important to follow a standard.


Why is it so important for teams to standardize their work?

Having a standardized process in place, especially one that is visual to all stakeholders, is a way of “pinning down” and ensuring everybody agrees to the process. Once a standard is in place, it provides a platform from which teams can scrutinize and continually improve the process. Process improvement is difficult if each team member or shift implements that process in a different way. Any leader who hopes to empower their teams to solve their own problems and improve their processes must ensure that the standard is first put in place.


Why would leaders standardize their own leadership tasks?

Not all leadership tasks can be standardized, especially those ad hoc or strategic tasks. Generally speaking, the higher up in seniority, the less need there is for standardization of work practices. However, even at the top, there is always some degree of work that can be standardized.

It is important to note that LSW is not simply about standardizing leadership tasks. Successful implementation of LSW ensures that leaders are focused on both the results and the processes involved in achieving the end result. By scrutinizing processes, leaders can move their focus away from persistent crisis management to one of empowerment through coaching. By shifting their leadership mindset from one of issuing commands, directing and solving problems for teams, to one of leading by empowering and coaching teams to solve problems for themselves, leaders can spend their time on more strategic issues and longer-term planning.


How do you encourage this mind shift and get leaders to buy into leader standard work?

Leaders need to understand that their words and actions have a significant impact on the organization’s culture. Their mindset and behaviors should reflect the culture that is needed to support practice and performance improvement. The individual goals and rewards structure for leaders should consider both the results as well as the leadership practices used to achieve the results. Leaders must also recognize and reward their direct reports for both practices and performance.

Organizational surveys can also be an effective way to motivate leaders to adopt LSW. Feedback on their current leadership style will likely trigger some considered action amongst leaders.

Finally, emphasize that being a humble leader is key to a lean leadership style; you never stop learning.


How much of a leader’s work can be standardized, and what are examples of leader standard work tasks?

A core aspect of LSW is ensuring that standard processes and procedures are in place and consistently followed at all levels of the organization. Standardization must be built from the bottom up, starting with the work that is done at operator level, because this is closest to where value is being created for the customer, and building up to executive level. Structured, standardized work should therefore make up around 95% of work at an operator level.

However, as one moves up in seniority, smaller percentages of time are spent on standardized tasks, as follows:

LSW for team leaders (roughly 80% of time is spent on standardized tasks)
Standardized team leader tasks, which should be structured between other leaders in the same role or level, could include shift handovers, problem-solving methodology and administrative tasks. These tasks could also include routine, scheduled activities to verify that operators at shop floor level are following their standard procedures and work.
LSW for middle managers (roughly 50% of their time is spent on standardized tasks)
At this level, there are still portions of work that are standardized between leaders in similar roles, such as meetings, problem-solving, reporting and administrative tasks. Middle management LSW would also include routine and structured activities to verify that team leaders and supervisors are also following standard procedures and work. This could be executed by doing on-site or remote gemba walks, as well as documenting reviews that are generated by teams and team leaders. Middle management’s primary focus is team leaders or supervisors, but coaching should still be done at shop floor level as well.
LSW for site leadership level (roughly 25% of their time is spent on standardized tasks)
Even at site leadership level there is a fair amount of standardized work. Activities that are common between leaders at this level should be standardized too, including meetings, problem-solving methodology, reporting and administrative tasks. Additionally, there should be routine, structured activities to verify that middle managers are following their standard procedures and standard work. This can be executed through direct observation and reviewing of standard work documents. Site leaders’ primary focus is on middle managers, but there is still some coaching that should take place at all levels.
LSW for the executive leadership team (roughly 10% of their time is spent on standardized tasks)
Executive leaders should have a standard process that they use for strategy development and goal setting, as well as reporting (FAFSA, financial controls and reporting). Additionally, they should include routine-frequency gemba walks at all the sites for which they are responsible. Their primary focus is on leading site leaders, but some coaching should take place at all levels.


“To standardize work methods is the sum of all the good ways we have discovered up to present. It therefore becomes the standard. Today’s standardization is the necessary foundation on which tomorrow’s improvement will be based. If you think of standards as confining, then progress stops.”
— Henry Ford, Today and Tomorrow, 1926


There is a certain degree of coaching-style leadership across all levels. Is this what makes LSW an integrated effort?

In practice, LSW should be implemented as a collaborative effort between the work owner and their immediate superior. Together, they should agree on the tasks that the work owner should perform daily, weekly and monthly – as well as a time frame for each task. This provides a minimum standard that must be achieved.

Leaders cannot verify standards unless these standards have been established where the work is actually done. Building from the bottom up ensures the process is following the standards aligned to support the business’ priorities.


Standard work documents should be highly visible to all via visual tools such as charts, physical or digital boards, document trails, process maps or scorecards. These visual tools should be displayed in or close to where the work is done, or in a general meeting area. Visual tools also help all levels remain accountable and focused on their goals because high visibility of standard work means it is easily accessible by anyone and kept top of everyone’s minds.


What is the value of LSW and standard work in a modern factory?

LSW is the wedge that sustains improvements in both practice and performance, and verifies the new standards are being followed once improvements are made. If there is no LSW to support improvements, the improvements will regress over time. The time, effort and expense it takes to make those improvements will need to be reinvested to achieve the same improvements. This is true even in digital operating systems.


How can digital technologies enhance the implementation of LSW throughout an organization?

Digital tools and technologies can streamline and accelerate the improvement process.  They can also streamline and support the implementation of LSW. Digital tools can support the implementation of LSW in two ways.

First, digital technologies can automatically trigger issues and help focus leadership on areas where more support or coaching is needed. Information and data can be automatically visualized and communicated to enable faster decision-making at the right level. Digitalization will also support virtual work when required.

Second, digital technologies can enable more transparency between levels and functions within an organization. Greater transparency of information underpins the culture that leadership is striving to create.

Many organizations struggle with managing and implementing LSW effectively. They may lack adequate LSW knowledge or useful tools to implement LSW, or the implementation may not be properly integrated with the business imperatives.

Although various lineside systems assist some organizations with mapping and managing standard work, LSW is often reliant on manual processes which are not visualized and cannot be tracked. So there is no real way that businesses can monitor or hold leaders accountable for the LSW practices they have in place. Various digital tools and technologies now make it possible for leaders to schedule tasks, and view and track progress on a single dashboard, ensuring accountability. From this dashboard, they can also share information, and identify trends and problem-solve using advanced reports and analytics.

These tools and technologies help leaders identify LSW activities that improve business performance, link them to standard work and execute them in a consistent way across the business while working on-site or remotely – this ensures people, practices and processes remain integrated.


In closing, for leaders to apply LSW to their own leadership tasks, a mind shift that encourages accountability and empowerment at all levels is required. Visual tools keep leaders focused on their goals and highlight the minimum standard of work required across all levels of operation – visible to anyone entering the leader’s workspace.


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