Standards and Discipline

The Japanese instilled a really strong mindset in me that that centres around two things: Standards and Discipline. In a ‘similar, but different’ way, the military refer to them as ‘skills and drills’; the drills are the standards, and the skills are the competencies and disciplines to get them done fast and effectively.

Let’s look at these points.

Standards – the right things,

Discipline – done right and at the right time.

Standards are what I call the right things. These are standard processes that have been designed to deliver a quality outcome in the safest, most effective manner, with minimum cost, maximum integrity and are designed to be simple as possible to operate and manage. These standards must be user friendly. They must deliver the expected outcomes whether it is a standard operation for a work task, a meeting agenda, a new product introduction process or 5S standard for a workplace.

Even if you accept this however, there are two areas where you might still fail. These are qualitative and quantitative.

First, let’s accept that you’re doing the right things and that you have standards and processes in place; ok so far. However, these are worthless if they are not well written. If they are not simple, they will not be used. If they are not effective, they will cost you money. If they do not have integrity, they will not deliver the required outcome.

The things we do have to be right. Or we need to stop doing them. These are qualitative failings.

They can exist, in this failing state, because we have neither the time nor the skill to establish them properly. Or they may exist because we haven’t set the parameters correctly and the resultant process is tolerant of variation.

Second, we need to be doing the right amount of right things. I find too often that performance is suffering because a significant aspect is not measured, or reported on, or that no meeting exists to communicate the importance of a process outcome. In these instances, we need to ensure that we have standards and processes for all significant events.

I came across this in an automotive client where they were trying to introduce Standard Operations across the site. I have often said that introducing standard operations from scratch is like mowing your lawn after a winter; it’s a pain in the ass the first time you do it, but as long as you stay on top of it and cut it every week, it becomes an easier process.

This client dived into the task and allocated a resource pool to write the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). They started well and covered all the major products, writing assembly SOPs for the majority of running products.

However, the business also experienced significant losses in capacity and in inventory holdings because of the long machine changeover times, but strangely this was not an area that the SOP team chose to look at. Their argument was that every changeover was different and that it would take too long to write Standards for every machine and tool combination.

Needless to say, there were no standards for machine maintenance either, or standard agendas for production meetings.

These are quantitative failings and are often the most common.

They usually exist through lack of understanding, commitment, or resources.

So, two key messages here then relating to Standards:

  1. Quality of Standards. We need to ensure that any significant action, that has an impact on the performance of the business, has a standard or process to cover it. These need to be well written, simple, owned and should guarantee the desired outcome.
  2. Quantity of Standards. We need to also ensure when we have an expected outcome (e.g. meeting report, product quality, 15-minute changeover on a machine) that there is a robust process in place to deliver it. There should be no gaps – if there is no standard, there is no result. And no improvement!

The third aspect that underpins these two themes is then the Discipline to both follow the process and to follow the process correctly.

I call this doing the right things, right.

We need to execute these processes in a way that guarantees a cost effective, quality outcome. It is often an area that is neglected and can cause standards to fall by the wayside. Nothing dies quicker than a process that isn’t being used properly, no matter how robust it is in its own right. Once we start to deviate, we introduce variation and very quickly a process that was designed to deliver required outcomes is no longer aligned or indeed capable.

We see this all the time; processes that cannot and do not deliver the information, quality or outcome that is required and then process gaps, where processes like these have been removed since they weren’t seen as contributing.

But let’s not forget. Achieving Standards and Discipline is very, very difficult. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be talking about it. So why is it so difficult to do the right things right?

Surely, it’s common sense?

Well, it is common sense, but sadly it’s up against some stiff opposition.

To accept that we need to do the right things right, we first need to make a confession, embracing some, or all, of the following:

Confession #1.             We are doing the wrong things, badly.

Here’s a contentious example – suggestion schemes.

You want to improve. You want to empower your workforce. You want their ideas. You introduce a suggestion scheme. You agree to reward them for said ideas.

It sounds great when you say it quick.

Then you struggle with the age-old problem, the relationship between reward and idea. One guy proposes to save the company £500,000. You want to give him a toaster.

You then say that you’ll have an ‘idea of the month’ to dig yourself out of this hole. Only to find that 50% of the idea givers have been waiting between 4 and 8 weeks for a yes/no/maybe response to their idea and have given up proposing.

In 40 years of being in business, I have yet to a see a scheme that works satisfactorily for all parties outside of Japan or a Japanese transplant.

In my opinion, the wrong way to get people’s ideas. Invariably done wrongly, and I say done wrongly because we don’t usually resource the scheme either full or part time to ensure that people’s ideas are given a fair and honest hearing with the guarantee of an early response, leaving people disillusioned and dissatisfied.

And, sadly on some occasions, insulted.

As I said before, I’ve often been given ideas by people who had been treated like this, with the comment that ‘maybe they’ll listen to you, you’re a consultant’.

I worked in a company once that offered £100 for the best suggestion. I suggested reducing the prize money by 50% and won myself £50.

Not bad, eh? Just joking, but it shows the ridiculousness of the situation.


Confession #2.             We are doing the wrong things, right.

An example of this is performance management. I have often seen companies measuring delivery performance of suppliers and reporting on ‘arrears by value’. The supplier’s performance is seen to be improving if the value of the arrears profile is reducing. The measure is easy to implement and maintain – it’s merely the total line-item value of all the line items that are late. Therefore, it qualifies as being done right.

And let’s face it, a reduction is an improvement.

However, it’s the wrong measure. If I’m being measured on value of arrears, I will put all my effort at the month end into shipping you the £10,000 gearbox that I have made that is one week late, not the line stopping, £30 bolt that you have been waiting for, for 6 weeks.

This is a lot more commonplace than you would think. I have laboured for many years to get people to accept On Time in Full (OTIF) as the key measure – and by OTIF, I mean to the customer initial request date, not the first date you have agreed with them.

Yep, I’m that brutal.

Other variations to this can include:

  • Batching up.

Running two or three batches of materials together in order to recoup machine setup costs. I can understand the logic to this; it is, after all, simple arithmetic. However, when the run time for these three batches (two of which are not immediately required) eats into my free capacity to make parts which are required, I’m doing the wrong thing.

I saw a classic variation of this example at a client in Norway. Their customer’s buyers were focused on cost and demanded a table of prices for their parts based on quantity/price breaks. They also demanded cost reductions against these target costs. My client could only offer cost down in the short term by adding batches together and offering them at the lower price break and putting the extra batches into stock.

Unfortunately, the customer’s logistics team were only interested in delivery and my client was steadily getting into an overdues situation. When we analysed how we could free up capacity, we realised that in making volumes that satisfied the buyers, we were consuming capacity that could be used to reduce the arrears situation.

  • Set up reduction.

Some companies spend a lot of time and money on this subject, with great success. I was lucky enough to be taught by the people who gave us SMED (single minute exchange of dies) or more generally, quick changeover. There is a five-step process to do this, and improvement results can be both spectacular and significant.

They also taught me that the only reason you do it is to reduce inventory.

Batch sizes are usually a factor of the changeover time and you would usually seek to run an economical batch volume based on the costs to changeover and to hold inventory. If I reduce my changeover time, I can reduce my batch size, therefore I run batches more often and carry less average inventory.

However, I’ve been in companies who use the five-step process (done right) to reduce setup times and then claim that they have increased their capacity by ‘x’ thousand hours; the saving being the hours saved per changeover multiplied by the number of changeovers in the year (wrong thing).

The reality is that if I spend 1000 hours changing over (500 changeovers x 2 hours per change) and I reduce my changeover time by 50%, I should now make 1000 changes at 1 hour per change, with reduction in batch size of 50%.

There are many, many examples of doing the wrong things right. My favourites tend to be ‘negative measures’, the best of which is wonderful visual displays on the shop floor with ‘easy to read’ graphs (done right), but measuring a negative; e.g. absenteeism, not attendance.

Why show a 2% failing when you could be proud of a 98% success?

Confession #3.             We are doing the right things, badly.

The classic.

Too often we are actually doing the right things; we just don’t do them correctly or adequately. By this I mean in a fashion that is aligned to the business goals or the expected outcome.

I have attended scores of morning production meetings (right thing, tick in the box!) where there was no standard agenda, no required attendee list, no discipline around the meeting (turning up late, rambling through issues, no actions assigned) and consequently, when the MD asks the Production Manager later in the day about how things are looking, he cannot be given a definitive or straight answer. (doing it badly – poor discipline).

Here are some more examples of classics I have come across:

  • ‘We have supervisors and team leaders’.

Maybe so, but they haven’t been trained, their roles are not defined and you don’t have enough in place. A hierarchy is often necessary to keep the chain of command, but it’s worthless if people don’t understand their role or responsibilities. Couple this with having too many people reporting to you and your effectiveness is further reduced.

  • ‘We have standard operations in place’.

Well done, but they were written by engineers, not production. They are not maintained or up to date (maybe because no one feels responsible) and they only show a method to make the part, not guarantee the quality…or the safety.

Very soon this lack of process ownership will result in lack of use or update (poor discipline)

  • ‘Everyone in the company gets an annual appraisal’.

Another contentious one. But only if done poorly. In all the appraisals I ever had, I was reminded of all the things I was bad at and given a ‘top 3 things to improve’ for next time. Needless to say, the stuff that I had been good at became the improvement points for the next year’s appraisal, as I took my eye off the ball to handle my current ‘weaknesses’.

Moreover, my subsequent disappointment deflected me from the following salient facts:

  • My appraisal was 4 weeks late
  • Further scrutiny showed that it only really reflected the last couple of months and had obviously been put together in order to hit the ‘all appraisals undertaken’ target given to my boss

Obviously poor discipline; right thing (perhaps!) done wrongly.

  • ‘We have self-directed, high performance work teams’.

This one really tickles me. I agree with the concept per se and there is a recognised evolutionary grid that teams progress through from command and control at one end, to self-directed at the other.

It’s a well-recognised scale, used in the past by the Institute of Supervisory Management.

However, most of the times I come across this term, I find that the old command and control structure that existed for 30 years has been stripped out almost overnight and, all of a sudden, the team is expected to self-direct.

They find that they can’t (surprise surprise!) and suddenly they are now a low performance team. This can be one of the more dangerous Fads to be caught up in and often leads to confusion, anarchy and helplessness (if you were the unlucky foreman who was demoted).

This is the right thing if you’re a greenfield people/green field facility scenario, where you can develop the culture and operating systems and support structures to give the teams a chance of success.

However, if you’re a dyed in the wool manufacturing business, looking towards your next Fad, do the sensible thing and phase it in over a few years.

The subject of Standards and Discipline is so fundamentally basic, that actually getting people to accept that there is an issue can be a real problem.

But before we get started on the road to recovery, where we define the right things and how we do them, we need to get our heads around where we are. The previous examples are only a handful of areas where we struggle, and most leaders don’t even realise they’re in that game.

Firstly, getting out of denial and admitting this is often too bitter a pill to swallow for some. Much easier for these egotists to hide the error in a kaizen programme, or a six-sigma effort, where the status quo is re-established and celebrated with a pizza and a pint.

Secondly, it takes a big effort in terms of time and resource to create the range of standards that are required. In what is seen to be a ‘non-value add’ activity or more harshly, a business failing, it is often difficult to dedicate the time and resource to bring things back into line.

It’s hard work, which is why teams are often great at starting then quickly lose momentum.

Thirdly, it can be a question of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’. Even if there is an acceptance that standards are required, and the senior management are prepared to invest in getting the processes right – What processes? What do we need? How do we link processes to outcomes? How do we pick the significant things to create standards for?

Sometimes the difficulty is not willingness but know-how.

There is however, a fourth element that makes it difficult to do the right things right. It’s back to yet another Fad problem and the fact that brand name process improvement techniques like lean and six-sigma thrive because processes do not exist or are fundamentally broken.

In the board room, there is much more cachet in saying ‘I’m running a six-sigma programme’ than to say, ‘I’m running a programme of process mending and re-establishment’.

Because, as a business society, we tend not to reward such behaviour either monetarily, or in accolades. The guy who is pioneering ‘the next best thing’ will always be seen to be more progressive than the guy who takes time to get things right – a triumph of Bullshido over common sense.

We reward and encourage the ancient art of ‘turd polishing’.

So, let’s assume that we’re now doing the right things. Our processes, standards, routings, instructions, agendas, policies, and procedures are all aligned to recognised and desired outcomes. We have stripped out sacred cow type processes that didn’t deliver a desired outcome or were perhaps obsolete.

We are, as they say, ‘Good to Go!’

Now comes the hard part. How do we ensure that we don’t deviate from these standards? How do we ensure that we work the process daily, in an aggressive, yet positive way?

What style do we need to adopt to ensure that we stay ahead?

There are many names for what I’m going to describe, but as usual, I’ll keep it simple.

Complex doesn’t work. Complex doesn’t support the state of mind required.

So I call it ‘Front foot thinking’ and this will be the subject of my next ‘No Bullshido’ musing.

As always, thanks for reading. All thoughts, opinions and experiences, mistakes and general wrongness are entirely mine and no offence is meant or inferred.

Comments and corrections welcomed.

But No Bullshido.

We don’t do that.

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