If you’re reading this and you work in manufacturing, chances are that your job is affected by standardization.
The idea that processes and procedures are carried out in a consistent and reliable manner has been a central focus for manufacturers since the first industrial revolution. Entire philosophies of work have been created to continuously improve standards, just look at famous methods like TPM and TWI. Controlling the variables in your processes means the margins you depend on are not only able to be achieved, but also systematically improved. If manufacturing standardization initiatives are done right, they have the power to increase productivity while also reducing costs and streamlining operations across workstations, sites, and value chains.
Some common ways to promote standardization in manufacturing:
- Creating and distributing standard work via Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and work instructions.
- Communicating standards with physical work boards or digital communication platforms.
- Audits and Gemba walks.
Most manufacturers are pursuing standardization across their factories and value chains in some of these ways. The only question is, are they doing enough?
In manufacturing, the margins for quality control are tight and tolerances for error are extremely thin. As the industry gets increasingly complex and value chains stretch to incorporate many sites (and countless new employees), it’s paramount that our standardization strategies scale to meet these changing needs.
When done well, standardization is a path to greater autonomy and empowerment for your workforce. When machine operators and their supervisors can trust that the Standard Operating Procedures [SOPs] and work instructions will allow them to get their task done correctly and efficiently, errors and downtime decrease. At the same time, you'll reap the benefit of a workforce that feels more in control of their daily responsibilities.
But often, these standards aren’t the most effective due to a number of common issues.
Common pitfalls in managing standards:
- The content is overly detailed or complex, and is thus difficult to use effectively.
- They’re presented in an overwhelming quantity or format to their end users.
- Standards are perceived as irrelevant for the task at hand, and don’t appear to align with the end-goal.
- They don’t present the most effective way to reach the end-goal.
- They're simply out of date - e.g. changes have been made to improve the content, but these changes haven’t been distributed.
- SOPs or work instructions are simply unavailable, or difficult to locate in the moment of need.
- Standards aren’t taken seriously - they’re perceived as existing only for audits and compliance, rather than driving workforce excellence and product quality.
- Standards exist only at a certain site or factory, and aren’t shared across a value chain.
So where do you start to improve standardization across your value chain?
Below, we’ll explore two extremely practical frameworks we explored recently in our our ongoing SwipeGuide Webinar series. They’ll explore some highly effective ways that industry experts structure and then implement standardization in real manufacturing environments.
Creating solutions that last.
When we think about standardization, we often focus on the tools we give operators to align their work with our desired result. These are usually SOPs and work instructions that describe the methodology of daily work. Indeed, they're essential.
But effective standardization across a manufacturing value chain is much more than a set of great instructions.
It’s also a way of working, a mindset, and a company culture that drives the behaviors that allow these standards to continue to be effective, long after they’re implemented.
This ability to last and continue to create better standards is often referred to as Robustness, identified in six distinct levels.
Level 1: This describes the least desirable solution. Level one initiatives involve simply introducing a new way of working (this could be a new method for executing a machine changeover, for instance), without any systems in place for follow-up or support. Solutions at this stage often fail when teams simply revert to their old methods.
Level 2: The next step is to change the way of working while reinforcing and monitoring adherence to new standards with checks and audits. This helps promote these new standards, but does little to help the workforce accomplish their tasks more effectively.
Level 3: Here’s where manufacturers can start supporting the workforce while simultaneously delivering resources to make their tasks easier and more intuitive. An example: using visual aidsto help clarify the way of working in conjunction with audits to monitor adherence.
Level 4: Level four represents a turning point. True, sustainable standardization initiatives do more than change a way of working - they create a culture and governing philosophy to help make it mistake-proof. Example: Poka Yoke.
Level 5: Full automation of the task at hand. This simply removes the need for continuous support because the task is now automated. Improvement initiatives can instead be focused on other, non-automated tasks.
Level 6: Removing the task entirely. This level deals with overhauling an entire system of processes and procedures, and ideally removes any extraneous tasks. Manufacturers should be continuously identifying and removing potential redundancies and extraneous tasks to streamline the overall production process.
Experts agree that true success in manufacturing starts around level four - when sustainable, robust processes for standard work are reinforced with systems that create a culture of continuous improvement.
Process Confirmation - Enforcing standardization from a culture of continuous improvement.
But what does this look like from a practical perspective? How can manufacturers implement and enforce adherence to standards in a way that’s productive and sustainable? Experts describe this process as much, much more than putting standards in place and making sure they’re upheld.
Rather, it’s about creating an open and productive dialogue between operators and their supervisors in order to answer these crucial questions.
- Do standards exist and are they available where/when needed?
- Are the standards known and applied?
- Are the standards effective in reaching defined goals?
- Are deviations from standards being addressed?
The What of Process Confirmation.
Supervisors should perform regular tours of the shop floor to assess the real execution and implementation of standard work. These often take the form of Gemba Walks - but the most important element is that supervisors are physically present. During these observations, supervisors should be performing real and critical evaluations of the execution of standards. A common pitfall for manufacturers is to simply rely on audits and data to make judgements about shop floor performance, rather than objective observations. At the end of the day - it’s about fostering an atmosphere that encourages a discussion about what’s really working and what’s not.
It’s incredibly important that the authors and [auditors/reviewers/standard-holders] see first hand the general ability to work according to the prescribed standards. Are they realistic? What are the pain points? How can they be improved?
Rather than simply distributing SOPs and work instructions that tell how to do the job, leaders should also focus on developing the team through feedback, coaching, and advice.
Through process confirmation initiatives like these, with supervisors and “higher ups” physically present on the factory floor, a genuine feedback loop can be created and work can improve from a sustainable and holistic perspective. Just remember, it’s not an Audit - it’s an open conversation about the following:
- What we want to achieve - Purpose.
- How we can best achieve it - Process.
- And if we’re achieving it consistently - Results.
Taking standardization to a global level.
The modern manufacturer is usually not operating at a single site. Or even at a handful. Rather, companies need solutions that allow them to empower standardization within complex value chains on a global scale. It’s essential to both product quality and your bottom line that the same processes and procedures are being carried out in the same way at a factory in Sweden, as they are in a factory in California.
But we also need to explore solutions that help manufacturers implement and capitalize on the improvement methods described above. True and lasting success depends on a system that allows teams on the shop floor to create and distribute top-tier standards in a format that actively encourages an open dialogue between the people who design them, and the people who use them every day.
Digital solutions help do just that. Workforce excellence platforms facilitate the feedback loops essential to making continuous improvement a possibility on a global scale. Improvements to processes and procedures can be shared instantly, anywhere within a value chain. Progress can be monitored with the help of skills management solutions, and any essential information can be delivered throughout a supply chain via advanced communications networks.
But like most things, effective standardization in a manufacturing value chain always starts with the human factors.
This article is based on a SwipeGuide webinar from October 28th, 2020. You can watch a recording of the webinar here.
About our expert speakers: