Driving agility: How standard work helps get it right

By Hugh Alley   

Industry Manufacturing agility standard work training

Establish the best way to execute an action that everyone will follow.

Use a proven methodology for training.

Many companies have demonstrated a remarkable ability to completely retool their operations during the pandemic. Some did it in days and they shifted production to produce supplies and equipment needed to protect workers and citizens.

We have learned a lot, such as how tightly linked our supply chains are and vulnerable to outside shocks. And we learned that when we need to, we can create, test and approve new products faster. In the early days of the pandemic, attention was on the work of the engineers and designers, and the commitment of business leaders to get on with it.

The hard slogging comes as the economy reopens. How can the work be done while keeping appropriate physical separation? Workstations and work practices are getting a rethink about what needs to change. For example, one company didn’t have the space to expand, so it reduced the number of workstations on a line from 12 to nine while maintaining the same production rate.

Standard work

There was a common thread among many companies. They applied the concept of standard work, which allowed them to experiment effectively and rapidly.


Some people shy away from standard work. “It treats everyone like robots,” is a common complaint. Not so. The genius is in how you figure out the precise mix of ingredients to get the flavour and texture you’re after.

Workers adding an ingredient to a vat offer an example. The instruction was to add two scoops. One operator used two heaping scoops and lobbed them in, one after the other. Another added two scant scoops, slowly sprinkling the material onto the surface over a minute or so. Although the additive was a small proportion of the total (7,000 litres of product), there was a 50% difference in how much was added. Note, both operators followed the instruction.

Standard work would have helped produce a more consistent product. In operational terms, we need to know the best way now to assemble an item, or test a subassembly, or complete a sales order, or record a payment. That’s the “standard” referred to in standard work – it ensures everyone uses that particular method. You’re also in a position to experiment and easily see whether the new process gives a better or worse result.

The company reducing 12 workstations to nine was able to rethink the layout and have everyone working efficiently and effectively in a little over a week, thanks to clearly stated standard work in the instruction documents. The Training Within Industry Job Instruction was used to document their work processes. It’s in the public domain and readily available ( If you already have a way to document work, make sure it’s used. Either way, find a mechanism for standardizing your work so you can use it as a base for improvement. That will give you the ability to respond quickly to shocks like COVID-19.

Hugh Alley is an industrial engineer based in the Vancouver area who helps organizations achieve significant performance gains in delivery, quality and cost in a short timeframe. Call (604) 866-1502 or e-mail

This article appears in the September 2020 print issue of PLANT Magazine.




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