Leader Standard Work — a Fundamental Shift in Management Philosophy

Leader Standard Work (LSW) is far more all-encompassing than its name would have us believe … it’s about so much more than standardized work. LSW entails a shift in leadership philosophy — a move away from traditional management, or as we like to call it: ‘a move from cop to coach’.

LSW entails a fundamental change to a leader’s routines. Leaders mimic the behavior they would like to see, setting the example for best practice. Furthermore, they move away from an ‘audit’ mentality towards one of structured coaching. In this way, LSW as a management philosophy instils a sense of ownership, responsibility, accountability and empowerment across all levels of the organization. Senior TRACC advisors Maureen Sobolewski and Mary Williamson share their views about leader standard work, and its applicability to leadership tasks and processes.


What is Leader Standard Work (LSW)?

Standard work is a common lean concept, but leader standard work is very different to operator standard work. In a lean management system, nearly 95 percent of the operator’s, 80 percent of a team leader’s, and 25-50 percent of a manager’s daily work is explicitly defined and standardized. Included in standard work for leaders (managers and team leaders) 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 not only verifies that work is being done properly, but 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) with the remaining time spent supporting incremental improvements.

With LSW, are leaders ensuring that their direct reports are standardizing their work, or are they standardizing their own leadership tasks?

Standardization of tasks for leaders that have adopted LSW is two-fold: leaders need to standardize their own work tasks, but 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 using an 'audit' mentality. Nor is it 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.  In this way, LSW is very much about structured coaching.

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 it in order to continually improve it. Improvement of a process 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 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 scope 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 though, that LSW is not simply about standardizing leadership tasks. Successful implementation of LSW ensures that leaders are focused not only on results, but on 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 teams to solve problems for themselves, leaders can spend their time more efficiently.

We said earlier that standardized work is applicable, to a greater or lesser degree, across all organizational levels. Roughly how much of a leader’s work can be standardized, and what type of tasks and processes can be standardized?

A core aspect of LSW is ensuring that standard processes and procedures are in place and are 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 percent of work at an operator level. However, as one moves up the corporate ladder, smaller percentages of time are spent on standardized tasks, as follows:

LSW for team leaders (roughly 80 percent 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 percent 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 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 percent 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 standardized documentation. 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 percent 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.

Based on the above, each level of leadership is responsible for the tier of leadership directly below them, but there is a certain degree of coaching-style leadership across all levels. Is this what makes LSW an integrated effort?

In practice then, LSW should be implemented as a collaborative effort between the work owner and their immediate superior. Together they should reach a satisfactory agreement 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.

It seems simple enough for a leader to standardize their own tasks — should they buy into LSW, but how would a leader manage standardized tasks of their direct reports?

Central to successfully implementing LSW is verifying that standard procedures and processes are being followed at every level. In practice this means that the work owner’s immediate superior would be responsible for checking that they have completed their standard tasks on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

This should be done by direct observation of the work being done. For example, work done by operators must be verified on the shop floor. LSW at more senior levels could be verified by observing a meeting.

There seems to be an inextricable link between LSW and visual management. Would you agree?

Standardized work should indeed be highly visible to all via visual tools such as charts, 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 to remain focused on their goals because high visibility keeps it at the top of everybody’s minds.

In closing, for leaders to apply LSW to their own leadership tasks, a change of mindset is required. Establishing standardized routine tasks wherever possible enables leaders to achieve their goals, and if this is done using visual tools, it visibly highlights the required minimum standard of work across all levels of operation. This brings new levels of accountability to leadership tasks since these standardized tasks are visible for any person entering the leader’s work space. (Download the How To Guide on Leader Standard Work for Executives for more information.)


"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