Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Check the checklist: What has standards work done for me?

January 24, 2012
By Dr. Timothy

This is one question that lurks behind most discussions I’ve had about standards and standards work. Those who find standards work challenging tend to respond with, “What we’ve been doing has been good enough,” or “That worst case hasn’t happened yet,” or “That’s okay for (insert name of competitor), but we don’t have that kind of time.”

So, what I ask them to consider is, “What has standards work done for you lately?” And often where I start is the checklist.

I’m also a private pilot, so I like to use aviation as an example. I point out that we all like it when the plane takes off, flies level and lands softly. We take it for granted. What many don’t know about is the history of the aviation checklist.

Boeing developed a plane in 1935. It flew rings around the two competitor’s planes. When it came time for a final “fly off,” the aircraft made a normal taxi and takeoff. It began a smooth climb, but then suddenly stalled. The aircraft turned on one wing and fell, bursting into flames upon impact. The investigation found “pilot error” as the cause. The pilot, unfamiliar with the aircraft, had neglected to release the elevator lock prior to take off. Some newspapers had dubbed it as “too much plane for one man to fly.”


Boeing was given another chance. They built 12 aircraft and the pilots sat down and put their heads together. What was needed was some way of making sure that nothing was overlooked. The result was a series of checklists – for takeoff, flight, before landing and after landing. The airplane was not “too much airplane for one man to fly;” it was simply too complex for any one man’s memory. These checklists for the pilot and co-pilot made sure that nothing was forgotten.

With the checklists, careful planning and rigorous training, the 12 aircraft managed to fly 1.8 million miles without a serious accident. The U.S. Army eventually ordered 12,731 of the aircraft they numbered the B-17.

The idea of the pilot’s checklist caught on.

Nowadays, we have checklists as standard operating procedures. We place them where they will be used, we use abbreviated checklists as visual aids and we follow them. From manufacturing to health care, we use checklists. In fact, The Checklist Manifesto – How To Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande, points out that the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people consistently, correctly and safely.

Gawande begins by making a distinction between errors of ignorance (mistakes we make because we don’t know enough), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes we make because we don’t make proper use of what we know).

Failure in the modern world is really about the second of these errors. It’s too easy to use rules of thumb or some informal method of work and make mistakes. Experts need checklists. They need written guides that walk them through the key steps in any complex procedure. Gawande shows how his research team has taken this idea, developed a safe surgery checklist and applied it around the world with huge success.

We see standards work all around us – in the keep-warm sandwich wrappers that read “Place sandwich here,” to the “who’s cleaned which bathroom when” checklists. In industry, we see standards work in visual management, industrial checklists, signs and banners that show how the work is to be done and so on. We see it in Toyota plants, of course, but we also see it in job shops to reduce operating errors. In every case where you must get the job done right the first time (i.e., you don’t have the time or the money to do it over again), you’ll find standards work.

Consider this, when you don’t have the time or money to do the job over again (and frankly, who does?), you need standards work. Otherwise, you’ll likely have in place a patchwork of “So-and-so knows how to do that,” “It hasn’t happened yet” or some other defence of doing things the old fashioned way.

You need to calculate the costs of rework, scrap, personnel, shipping defective parts to your customers, and all of the other costs associated with not getting it right the first time. When I worked with the Toyota Supplier Enhancement team, I met with suppliers that did not want to supply Toyota. They would rather stay with their “rules of thumb” and costs than practice continuous improvement. Even though their traditional customers were dying and they needed to land new customers to stay in business, they did not listen to the sage advice behind standards work – “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”

So, the next time you ask, “What has standards work done for me lately,” just sit back and enjoy the flight!


Reference: How the Pilot’s Checklist Came About, by John Schamel


This column originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

Question from the floor


QUESTION: How difficult is it to sustain Lean philosophies in a team?


ANSWER: I received this question awhile ago in preparation for a Yellow Belt certification training session that I was about to do with a major Canadian retailer. It’s a good one because it asks about the most important part of Lean – one that nearly all consultants and Lean “experts” overlook.

I tell people that 20 percent of Lean successes come from a mastery of the tools, while 80 percent come from creating the standard work and sustaining them across time. Now, most people never get to creating the standard work or they face challenges in doing so. They also fail to connect peoples’ accountabilities to those standards. Without creating new standards and connecting peoples’ accountabilities to them, people will fail to comply with them.

This won’t be their fault. They will get busy, they will put out fires and their attention will eventually slip away from Lean goals. This is compounded by two things. First, their Lean trainers concentrate on the tools alone, often without connecting them to the gemba. Second, their Lean “leaders” call the work that they do “projects,” which implies a start date, a process and an end date. Lean is continuous; it is a process and it has no end date. Moreover, it takes about two years to start a Lean culture.

When it comes to sustaining Lean in a team, you must make sure that:

• You’ve got support from senior management;

• You have new standard work to replace informal rules of thumb;

• You connect people to their accountabilities;

• You audit their accountabilities; and

• You celebrate team successes.

Print this page


Story continue below