Leader Standard Work - A Seemingly Elusive Must in Lean Management

by Karen Martin

Leadership is often cited as a reason for lackluster results from well-intentioned improvement efforts. From smaller “point” improvement efforts to organization-wide transformation, some of the most common descriptors we hear are disengaged, resistant, and command-and-control.

In fact, throughout our 20+ years of working with clients of all types and improvement professionals around the globe, the most frequent question we’re asked is: “How can we engage our leaders in improvement?” While there are many techniques that increase leader engagement in specific improvement activities, the single best way to guarantee widespread and consistent engagement is by adopting Leader Standard Work.

Leader Standard Work creates a consistent leadership experience for employees, boosts business performance, and is the fastest way to spread proven management practices across the organization.

It’s the glue that—when used in conjunction with operational standard work and daily management—creates high-performing work environments.

The practice applies to anyone who manages work and leads teams. Whether a frontline supervisor, middle manager, or a senior leader, capabilities and results improve when leaders adopt Leader Standard Work.

Yet, even though Leader Standard Work has been an integral part of Lean Management from the beginning, it hasn’t been widely adopted. I believe there are five reasons why.

1. Very little has been written about it.

David Mann’s outstanding book , Creating a Lean Culture, is one of the few Lean books that has a dedicated chapter on Leader Standard Work—but the chapter is 23 pages in a 300+ page book.

Interestingly, the word “leadership” doesn’t appear in the index in Jim Womack’s groundbreaking book, Lean Thinking. To be fair, Womack and his team focused primarily on identifying the philosophical underpinnings of Lean management and they did an excellent job on this front. The book wasn’t meant to provide a deep dive into how to incorporate those philosophies into the DNA of an organization.

The 9th principle in Jeff Liker’s seminal book, The Toyota Way, centers on creating a leadership team that possesses and spreads the necessary mindsets and skill sets across an organization. But, here again, the subject of leadership occupies 13 pages in a 300+ book. Liker and Hoseus’s follow-on book, Toyota Culture covers leadership in far greater detail, but Leader Standard Work isn’t addressed specifically.

2. The little that’s been written about it focuses primarily on frontline team leads, supervisors, and managers . . .

. . . which ignores a significant portion of a leadership team, such as directors, vice presidents, and C-level leaders (in a hierarchical structure)—the segment of the leadership team that has the most sway in creating organizational culture.

3. It hasn’t gotten much attention outside of manufacturing.

While there are pockets of adoption in healthcare and a few other industries, it isn’t extensive enough to elevate Leader Standard Work to a “management standard”—a designation the practice needs to achieve.

4. Its benefits aren’t widely understood.

Leader Standard Work provides significant benefits to work teams, the organization, and leaders themselves.

The benefits to individual workers include greater connection to an organization’s purpose; clarity about one’s role, responsibilities, and development goals; problem solving and critical thinking skill development; and a consistent management experience across the organization, which provides a sense of equity and fairness.

The benefits to the organization are outcomes that result from more consistent work management, greater employee engagement, and lower voluntary turnover. These last two conditions are particularly important. Gallup, the developer of the popular Q12 Employee Engagement Survey, found that organizations with the highest employee engagement outperformed those with the lowest engagement in four areas: safety, quality, productivity, and profitability.

They also found that greater engagement—which is a by-product of well-designed and well-executed Leader Standard Work—reduces voluntary turnover, which is costly and disruptive to an organization. The Society for Human Resources Management and The Work Institute both estimate that voluntary turnover costs U.S. companies over $600 billion dollars a year. Imagine what the global equivalent of that number may be!

The primary benefit to leaders themselves is that they become far more effective leaders by having a defined method for fulfilling the range of responsibilities that leaders have. Leader Standard Work sets clear expectations for leader performance and provides the tools to be successful.

It embeds the practice of continuous improvement into the fabric of a leader’s work and provides the time and methods to help leaders build effective relationships with their teams.

The ultimate outcome is that Leader Standard Work reduces stress and produces better team results without heroics to get the work done.

5. Some leaders underappreciate or overtly resist the notion that they can benefit from Leader Standard Work.

While Leader Standard Work is a powerful way to improve the business and provides a consistent method for leadership development, there’s often pushback against efforts to develop and deploy it. One common argument is, “Leadership is an art and art can’t be standardized.”

While it’s true that each person’s journey to becoming a leader is based on his or her life experience, beliefs, attitude, and drive—and those inputs shape the way a leader approaches decisions and conversations—there are common leadership methods that leaders at all levels should incorporate into the way they lead. Leader Standard Work does not dictate the specific path for leading, but it assures that everyone gets to the same destination.

Like continuous improvement, we look at leadership as a practice, one best developed by doing—but in a structured way. While embracing the leadership behaviors that Leader Standard Work calls for can take some time, with practice, leaders build deep capabilities—regardless of their previous experience.

Another argument we hear is, “Leader Standard Work doesn’t allow enough flexibility in my calendar to react to problems as they arise.”

We like to flip the equation and ask, “What if you could lead in a way that stopped problems from arising in the first place?” That’s the type of work environment that Leader Standard Work enables. Spending time where the work happens and in daily huddles—both key activities of Leader Standard Work—gives leaders real-time information about how a team is doing and how work is progressing, allowing the leader and team to solve problems before they become crises.

Now, we’re not saying that operating with Leader Standard Work eliminates all crises. Unpredictable, externally-produced disruptors, such as sudden demand shifts, supply chain disruptions, geopolitical disturbances, and so forth, will occur from time to time and need to be addressed. But experiencing fewer and smaller internally-produced performance gaps allows leaders more time to address larger, externally-produced problems.

A third type of resistance to Leader Standard Work is, “My direct manager makes requests that dictate how I spend my time.” This is a reality that many leaders face, but if anything, it’s a strong reason for Leader Standard Work, not against it.

Some leaders see a pattern to the types of requests their direct managers make. Others may be asked to perform a wide range of tasks that weren’t on that day’s to-do list. Whether or not leaders know the specifics of what they’ll be asked to do, they can plan time for accommodating those requests in their Leader Standard Work. Better yet, they can co-create their Leader Standard Work with their direct managers, which sensitizes the “boss” to the commitments his or her direct reports need to keep.

These commons points of resistance that surface when an organization wishes to create and roll out Leader Standard Work can all be countered with logic and an invitation for leaders to “just try it.” Once they do—and once they experience the benefits—they’re usually hooked.

So what’s the content that goes into Leader Standard Work? How should leaders spend their time? At TKMG, we decided to take a step back and rethink everything we’ve known, assumed, and experienced—as leaders ourselves and in working with thousands of other leaders. We began our exploration with a fundamental question: What are the key responsibilities of leaders? And then explored how a leader should spend his or her time to fulfill those responsibilities. Our findings make up the bulk of the TKMG Academy course, Leader Standard Work—and will be the subject of part two of this article in the next issue of theleanmag .

Just as operational standard work improves the predictability and consistency of output at a process level, Leader Standard Work improves the consistency and effectiveness of leadership, which—by extension—improves organizational performance.

How leaders lead matters. Outstanding business performance is impossible without an excellence-laced infrastructure. That includes excellent processes, excellent improvement methods, and excellent work environments—all of which are impossible without excellent leaders.

Leader Standard Work is a powerful way to develop excellent leaders. Customers deserve it. Employees deserve it. Investors deserve it. And leaders themselves deserve it.


Karen Martin is the President of TKMG, Inc. and the Founder and President of TKMG Academy, Inc. She’s also the author of five business performance improvement books, three of them award-winning. For more information on Leader Standard Work, consider taking the TKMG Academy course of the same name.

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