Best Practice in Process Standardization

Steven StantonBusiness leaders, committed to operational excellence, often struggle with the issue of standardization:

  • What performance standards are desirable, and which just get in the way?
  • How should a process leader set and enforce standards?
  • How should a redesign team deal with a lack of compliance to standards?

‘Streamline and Standardize’ are easy to say, but difficult to justify and implement. And who’s most often caught in the middle? Process owners, process improvement teams, and process centers of excellence. That’s why we address best practices in standardization in our core courses:

On the one hand, process standards reduce costs in a variety of measurable ways. There are lower maintenance costs, especially for software; there are fewer versions that require unique training materials; and there are lower costs of moving staff around. Plus there’s the significant benefit of presenting a single common face to the external world.

On the other hand, a dominant standard can stifle process innovation and inadvertently create stale and stagnant productivity. If everyone is using a single version, where will experimentation and innovation blossom? There are also significant unintended consequences from standardization. At a large chemical company, a worldwide standardization effort caused a major geographical unit to lower its performance in order to achieve compliance with the global standard.

Further adding to the complexity is the question: how standard is standard? Does an established standard imply absolute fidelity at all levels, or does it merely indicate a general expectation? At Shell, they’ve established a language to differentiate these two. They have a list of twenty or so SHELLS, which are required ways of working, with no variation. These are seriously enforced. They also have a similar list of SHOULDS, which are more general and allow for thoughtful exceptions.

Another issue mentioned by one of our students was that of honesty. As their organization began implementing standards, they discovered that at operating units that were not yet ready to meet the standards, gaming the measures occurred. This also occurred in other units where process performers were deeply comfortable with the old processes and hadn’t been motivated to change. In this case, there were no obvious WIFM’s (what’s in it for me).

Another course attendee mentioned that, however difficult it was to develop and enforce process standards in transactional work, it was doubly difficult in knowledge-intensive processes. These increasingly important processes such as legal, discovery, and innovation, were far more dependent on their performers, who were strongly resistant to anything that smacked of a cookie-cutter approach to their work.

At the end of the day, the best practices we’ve observed in process standardization are as follows:

  • Present a common face to the external world
  • Create rational standards for compliance
  • Create ‘slush funds’ to resource ongoing improvement to avoid getting stuck
  • Constantly seek external best practices to push performance targets
  • Develop fair and transparent escalation and adjudication processes to de-politicize resistance
  • Be very, very clear on ‘Must do’ vs. ‘Should do’
  • Explain the value and intent of standards, not just enforcement issues
  • Match high and low performers for collaborative assistance
  • Use process documentation to maintain standards and simplify improvement
  • Develop clear boundaries between global standards and local variations

Following these approaches should allow for getting the best of both process standards and process variation. To learn more, register for one of our upcoming courses or sign up for our webinar series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *