Executive Standard Work: the formula for optimal performance

Executive Standard Work: the formula for optimal performance
Executive Summary
For senior leaders, standardising work processes translates to optimal efficiency and better time management. Executive Standard Work (ESW) is an opportunity for leaders to put structures in place that eliminate the need for firefighting, and, instead, create space for innovation, growth and continuous improvement. Find out how to catapult your leadership, and your organisation, from good to great with a formula for Executive Standard Work success.


Good leadership is the mainstay of organisational health — it shapes the culture of an organisation, improves productivity and drives bottom-line performance. Good leaders keep the organisation’s engine running; great leaders, on the other hand, energise, inspire and innovate so that the business moves into new realms of growth and opportunity. This kind of pioneering leadership is only possible, however, if there is a structure in place that keeps processes humming along efficiently, and frees up the time required to drive value-added actions.

In lean circles, Leader Standard Work (LSW) — the process of ensuring standard work processes and practices are in place and consistently followed — is a key driver of leadership success. This structured lean management approach is vital for achieving consistent, high-quality performance and for eliminating wasteful activities. Leader Standard Work is common practice at operator and team leader level, but it is equally useful and applicable at senior leadership level.

Leaders may argue that every day is different, and that standardisation will hinder their ability to solve a crisis, but standardisation is precisely what prevents crises from recurring. It assists the leader to focus on the right things to eliminate waste and non-value-adding activities. Leader Standard Work —or Executive Standard Work as it is termed at the senior level — is the springboard that catapults leaders from good to great by creating the foundation for creativity, innovation and successful problem-solving.

executive standard workThe Big Mac effect
By standardising their processes, McDonald’s has managed to reduce variation in everything they do. When a customer walks into McDonald’s, they know exactly what they’re going to get — it’s this level of consistency that has helped the organisation reduce costs, achieve greater customer satisfaction and remain competitive. In fact, so successful is their standardisation, that the ‘Big Mac Index’ is now seen as an economic indicator for purchasing power.

McDonald’s success 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 end result. 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.

By shifting their leadership mindset from one of solving problems for teams, to one of leading by empowering teams to solve problems for themselves, leaders can spend their time more efficiently.

Executive leaders should have a standard process that they use for strategy development and goal setting, as well as financial controls and reporting. Such a process should be designed to achieve certain results. Therefore it follows that the better the design of the process, the better the chance of achieving the desired results. 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. Leaders throughout the organisation 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?

How standardisation pays off
A recent McKinsey leadership behaviour assessment survey of 189 000 people at 81 organisations found that four core leadership behaviours correlated closely with leadership success. They included: being supportive, focusing on results, seeking different perspectives and solving problems effectively. Leaders who consistently displayed those behaviours, and, moreover, who standardised them, were most likely to achieve continuous improvement success.

executive standard workWhen you implement standard work in your organisation, it:

  1. Sets clear standards of expected behaviour and practice, which focuses the leaders on doing the right things (process and results)
  2. Allows for a systematic approach to daily tasks supporting stability and reducing variation
  3. Supports the movement from one standard to the next improved standard without slipping back
  4. Ensures standardisation of management practices across sites
    For standard work to take root in your organisation, it requires a profound shift in organisational mindset.
  5. Ensures continuity when leaders leave or transfer
  6. Reduces ambiguity
  7. Gives guidance to inexperienced leaders, thereby increasing their chances of success and shortening training time
  8. Prevents new leaders from introducing their own approach, which may contradict the objectives of the lean system
  9. Drives accountability by aligning strategic objectives to the process

The eight-step formula for Executive Standard Work success
For standard work to take root in your organisation, it requires a profound shift in organisational mindset. As a leader, you need to catalyse the required culture change by modelling the right behaviours. Remember, standard work is not about solving all your organisation’s problems single-handedly ­­—­­­ it’s about coaching your people to detect and solve problems themselves, thereby fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

The following eight steps will spark the required change in your organisation, and help shift your focus from firefighting to forward thinking:

1. Make standard work visual

When you make standard work visual, for example, with white boards, daily planners and documented routines, you are setting an example for your leadership team to follow. It may seem paradoxical, in this digital age, to make use of a white board or printed planner, but most executives report that they are more likely to stick to their plan when they can see it in front of them, rather than having to open it up on a device. Encourage your team to make use of task boards and project boards to display daily schedules, progress and results.

2. Formalise problem-solving

Structured problem-solving will give your people the tools they need to uncover the root cause of a problem. 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, and tend to centre around the same basic themes. Remember though, successful problem-solving is less about the methodology you use, and more about developing the skills required to apply problem-solving techniques consistently.

3. Conduct regular gemba walks

executive standard workThe gemba walk takes senior executives to the ‘real place’ where value is created in a business, be it the shop floor, warehouse, utility lines on site or office environment. The idea of the gemba walk is simple: Go to the place, look at the process, and talk to the people. This encourages leaders to talk to process owners, and to observe and understand the processes carried out on a daily basis. It gives executives a deeper understanding of the successes and challenges faced, as well as an opportunity to guide problem-solving and corrective actions.

4. Ask the right questions

The success of your standardised activities, such as gemba walks, is largely dependent on the quality of your interactions. It’s important to 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?”
5. Become a coach and mentor to your employees

As an executive leader, your focus should be on coaching, mentoring and growing your employees. When engaging with your people, it may be tempting to provide solutions to the problems they face; a better approach, however, would be to coach your employees to solve the problems themselves. This has two long-term benefits: it will save you time, and help you create an autonomous and empowered workforce. Remember also 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.

It is estimated that approximately 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 huddles
6. Create 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 ensure that all your employees are empowered to uncover and resolve problems. Impress upon your people the fact that ‘problem-finding’ is not about apportioning blame, rather it is about actively seeking out opportunities for improvement.

As a leader, you need to ensure that all your employees are empowered to uncover and resolve problems.
7. Document it

Your standard work and that of your executive team must be documented and visible to others. Put problem-solving charts, work standards, process flows and value streams on display so that you and your team have regular line of sight. Set up a task board in your office to ensure that daily, weekly and monthly tasks remain top of mind. Remember, Executive Standard Work is a living process — when any improvement activity is conducted and new standards are implemented, the ESW should be changed accordingly to reflect the new current state. An old or outdated activity should be replaced on all ESW documents.

8. Learn to let go
executive standard work

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. It is at this point that you need to trust your people enough to let go — give them the latitude they require to solve problems independently and to make empowered decisions. Even with the right standards and methodologies in place, your team will still make mistakes on occasion. Remember that mistakes are an opportunity for learning and a crucial part of the continuous improvement process.

Standard work is critical for saving time and improving process efficiency. When cascaded through the organisation, it provides the opportunity for work processes — at all levels — to be scrutinised, compared and improved. With the right coaching and training in place, standard work becomes a vital cog in the organisation’s problem-solving machinery. But it all starts at the executive level — by building a culture that embraces standardisation, you create a cycle of learning and continuous improvement that will rapidly take your business to new heights.


This resource has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice. You should not act upon the information contained herein without obtaining specific professional advice. Competitive Capabilities International (CCi) does not accept or assume any liability, responsibility or duty of care for any consequences of you or anyone else acting, or refraining to act, in reliance on the information contained in this resource or for any decision based on it.

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