Executive standard work: Using digital to realise the full promise of continuous improvement

It seems counter-intuitive but standardisation of processes, technology and even people can be a winning strategy for companies today. As a management philosophy, Executive Standard Work (ESW) or Leader Standard Work (LSW) – the process of ensuring standard work processes and practices are in place and consistently followed – instils a sense of ownership, responsibility, accountability and empowerment across all levels of the organisation.

Termed Executive Standard Work (ESW) at senior level, Leader Standard Work (LSW) creates the foundation for creativity, innovation and continuous improvement. It is also a key driver of leadership success. While it’s true that the proportion of standardised work as a percentage of total time decreases higher up the corporate ladder, it’s still fundamental to the development of world-class operations.

Many leaders may argue that standardisation will hinder their ability to solve a crisis, but standardisation is precisely what prevents problems from recurring. In fact, in lean circles, LSW is a structured lean management approach vital for achieving consistent, high-quality performance and eliminating wasteful activities.

Good leadership shapes an organisation’s culture, improves productivity, drives bottom-line performance, and is the mainstay of organisational health. These leaders keep the corporate gears grinding in unison. In contrast, great leaders inspire, energise and innovate to move the business into ambits of growth and opportunity, even in times of crisis. This kind of pioneering leadership is only possible if there is a structure in place that keeps processes moving along efficiently while freeing up time to drive value-added actions.


The Big Mac standard

McDonald’s is a good example of how a large corporation has standardised processes to an extent where most of the organisation’s creative energies are spent on finding solutions to core business issues like product development, driving growth and marketing. The fast-food giant is no longer ‘manufacturing’ a hamburger; instead, customers are experiencing the service side of a standardised platform.

Customers know exactly what they’re going to get when they walk into a McDonald’s outlet anywhere in the world. This level of consistency has helped them reduce costs, achieve greater customer satisfaction, and remain competitive. The success of McDonald’s highlights the importance of standardising processes as well as tasks. Correctly applied, ESW ensures that leaders are focused not only on results, but on the processes involved in achieving the result.

Repetitive and redundant work can be automated to a large extent, thereby saving the organisation’s energies for more strategic initiatives. Leaders can spend their time more efficiently by shifting their mindset from issuing commands, directing, and solving problems for teams, to leading by empowering and coaching work teams to solve problems themselves. Only then can you start fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Ideally, executive leaders should have a standard process that they use for strategy development and goal setting, as well as financial controls and reporting. This focus on process enables the behaviour of solving problems as they become visible so that leaders at all levels become problem-solvers instead of problem-avoiders.

Standardisation should be part of the ongoing problem-solving activity at all leadership levels, where each leader should be asking the following questions:

  • What is the standard?
  • How do I know that visually?
  • How do I know if we are meeting the standard or not?
  • If the standard is not met, why are we not meeting it, and what do we do about it?

Roughly 10%-20% of an executive’s activities can be standardised. These include:

  • Problem-solving activities
  • Daily planning (including personal activities)
  • Coaching and mentoring of direct reports
  • Gemba walks
  • Stand-up meetings or team huddle


LSW goes digital

With the rapid pace of technology development in the era of Industry 4.0, there is little reason to believe that what worked for leaders in the past is likely to keep working in the future.

As businesses continue to eliminate paper throughout their organisations, traditional hand-written Leader Standard Work is gradually giving way to digital leader standard work. Digitised LSW lends itself to quickly compiling and analysing data, allowing leaders to focus on the most critical needs and opportunities to improve.

However, for leaders to make effective decisions, they need to model the right behaviours so that strategic priorities flow rapidly down the organisation and intelligence about the business quickly flows up. That’s why leader standard work is so important for senior executives, especially when it operates on a digital platform.

Digital LSW provides leaders with vital feedback at every level on what’s working now, what could be working better, and what hasn’t even been attempted yet. These insights are critical to making better decisions around strategy and resource allocation. It also guides them in their work, allowing them to make better use of their time for high-level problem-solving, capability development, and fulfilling their duty as role models for the rest of the organisation.

For example, a large food producer has provided all production employees and all management layers with a digital app to support their problem-solving. Leaders can now measure the velocity and effectiveness of their problem-solving, with full transparency into the problems each team and leader is solving and, consequently, how they drive their performance gains.

A potential pitfall of behavioural adjustments is that it can become congealed quickly, thereby hampering the operational flexibility and faster information flows that the behaviour is supposed to shore up. However, ESW is a living process and must be examined and improved continually to reflect the new current state.


“If you think of ‘standardization’ as the best you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow – you get somewhere. But if you think of standards as confining, then progress stops.”
– Henry Ford


How digital LSW pays off

The power that comes from a modern digital version of LSW can be enormous. Implementing digital standard work in your organisation yields the following benefits:

1. At a glance, leadership can view the tasks and responses from a vast number of completed standard work checklists. The ability to analyse responses compiled over a lengthy timeframe produces more reliable data.
2. Large volumes of data collected over an extended period detect anomalies more clearly and objectively.
3. This data quantity can be charted and prioritised using the Pareto Principle to reflect variable and attribute data, and will help achieve maximum efficiency.
4. Electronic signatures and time stamps boost traceability by providing objective evidence of when and by whom tasks are performed and completed.
5. Trend chart responses to compare data visually and statistically over specified periods – day to day, week to week, shift to shift, or year to year.
6. Statistical process control (SPC) is used to understand variable data responses.
7. It lets you define and document specific reaction plans and follow-up actions to unforeseen or anomaly responses.
8. It sets clear standards of expected behaviour and practice, which focuses the leaders on doing the right things (process and results).
9. It supports the movement from one standard to the next improved standard without slipping back.
10. It drives accountability by aligning strategic objectives to the process.
While there are many leadership traits, skills and behaviours, four core leadership behaviours correlate closely to leadership success. They include being supportive, focusing on results, seeking different perspectives, and solving problems effectively. Leaders who consistently display these behaviours and standardise them are most likely to achieve continuous improvement success.

A seven-step formula for success

Despite LSW’s deceptive simplicity, few companies are successfully implementing standard work, and often the tools and methods they’re using to practise it aren’t working. The following seven steps will spark the necessary change in your organisation, and help shift your focus from reactive to forward-thinking:

  1. Make standard work visual and digital

As production plants migrate toward Industry 4.0, digital visual management is gradually replacing the traditional whiteboards, daily planners and paper-based, documented routines. This approach is especially useful for updating internal information in real-time, and gives everyone the opportunity to intervene in the event of a malfunction, regardless of their position.

At each critical point, at a glance, each stakeholder knows where the team is in the process and can meaningfully participate in meeting organisational objectives. Leaders, too, can recognise stalled progress and act quickly to help since the focus of meetings changes from updates and explanations to an opportunity for strategic planning and problem-solving.

  1. Formalise problem-solving

By formalising problem-solving, finding solutions becomes an automatic, ingrained response that saves time in the long run. Structured problem-solving methods typically consist of four to eight steps, tend to centre around the same basic themes, and enable people to uncover the root cause of a problem.

Remember, successful problem-solving is less about the methodology you use and more about developing the skills required to apply problem-solving techniques consistently.

  1. Go see for yourself

The gemba walk takes senior executives to the ‘real place’ where value is created in a business, such as the shopfloor. It is an opportunity to capture topics and concerns related to how effectively your team is performing. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) gives gemba walks a whole new perspective.

Virtual reality (VR) and especially augmented reality (AR) are emerging technologies that enrich the gemba walk. Performance and manpower data – superimposed on a real-time view of production – presents leaders with a better perspective of the state of production and personnel. A unique benefit is that a single subject expert can cover multiple plants. The digital gemba walk can bring great benefits, but it must retain the cultural benefits of communicating with operators on their terms and in their locations.

  1. Ask the right questions

The success of standardised activities such as gemba walks is largely dependent on the quality of your interactions. Be mindful of how you initiate your conversations, for example, asking: “Who did this?” may lead to defensiveness and blame-shifting. Instead, use less direct language such as:

  • “What is the standard state?”
  • “What were we hoping to achieve?”
  • “Do you feel that there is enough support to achieve the results we want?”
  • “We didn’t achieve the results we wanted, what do you think happened?”
  • “Where is the opportunity for improvement here?”
  • “What do you think is the best way we can improve on these results?”
  1. Coach and mentor your employees

As an executive leader, your focus should be on coaching, growing and mentoring your employees. Coaching employees to solve problems themselves will save you time and help you build an autonomous and empowered workforce. Also bear in mind that your people might be better equipped to offer solutions to problems as they are closer to the work and have a deeper understanding of it.

  1. Establish a fault-tolerant environment

Standard work enables the scrutiny and comparison of work tasks, thereby contributing to a culture of relentless problem-solving. As a leader, you need to empower your employees to uncover and resolve problems. Instil the notion that ‘problem-finding’ is not about apportioning blame, but rather about actively seeking out opportunities for improvement.

  1. Learn to let go

Getting to grips with standardisation takes some time and effort, but once you and your team have adapted to the change, the time-saving benefits will quickly become apparent. At this point, you need to trust your people enough to let go – give them the latitude they require to solve problems independently and make empowered decisions.


LSW and organisational performance

Companies looking to realise the full promise of continuous improvement at scale will need new ways to help entire management teams commit to leader standard work. The good news is that a variety of new digital technologies are emerging with the potential to make it easier for organisations to measure the effectiveness of its leaders – and to help them become more effective by reinforcing the behaviours that they need to follow. By building a culture that embraces standardisation, you create a leadership standard that keeps improving along with the organisation’s performance.


Download the how-to guide: Leader standard work for executive leadership to help you create a cycle of learning and continuous improvement that will rapidly take your business to new heights.