Is Leader Standard Work A Thing?

It is a recurring expression in forums, conferences, and papers about Lean Leadership, but unclear because of the ambiguity about both leaders and standard work.

What’s a leader?

You often see a contrast drawn between the leader — the trailblazer who inspires others — and the manager — the gray bureaucrat. The icon of leadership, in this sense, is Steve Jobs addressing the graduating class at Stanford in 2005:

The manager, on the other hand, is shown in the movie Office Space, insisting on new cover sheets for the “TPS reports,” which, in this context, have nothing to do with the Toyota Production System:

But business schools, for 100 years, have been teaching Henri Fayol‘s concept that the role of a manager is plan, organize, control and lead. In this view, there is no opposition between managing and leading. Leading is simply the part of management that consists in getting others to execute the plan, work with others as prescribed in the organization, and respond to controls. The leadership style of the manager in the above clip is nagging. It’s not effective in the movie, but it often is in real life.

What further muddles the discussions is that leader is often a job title with a variety of meanings:

  • A team leader in Lean Manufacturing is a member of a team of a handful of operators who knows all the jobs assigned to the team, has a production work load occupying about half the takt time, and uses the rest to maintain the pace, help other members, make sure they have all the materials and instructions they need, update production records, coordinate changeovers, and organize the 5S activities at the end of the shift.
  • In some software development companies, a team leader is responsible for making a team of programmers completing a project but not in charge of personnel choices, raises, or promotions.
  • Sometimes, a member of an organization is called leader being influential beyond what his or her title would suggest. Deng Xiaoping was, for several years, China’s “paramount leader” without occupying any formal position.

What is “Standard Work”?

Toyota and the LEI use a confusing terminology, literally translated from Japanese, where Standard Work is the precisely choreographed sequence performed by an operator within the takt time, while Work Standards are the specs and instructions on how to perform each of these task. Work Standards have been a staple of Industrial Engineering for 100 years; Standard Work is a technique invented by Taiichi Ohno. Most Lean consultants and most of the Lean literature routinely uses “Standard Work” to mean work standards, and even Toyota people make the confusion. To avoid it, you can use “work combination” or “operator job design” instead of Standard Work, and “work instructions” instead of Work Standards.

These issues are extensively discussed in Chapter 7 of Working with Machines, and in the following posts in this blog:

If Standard Work is taken in the official TPS/LEI sense, it obviously does not apply to any one in a management or leadership position, with the exception of cell or team leaders in production. From first-line manager on up, nobody’s work consists of a sequence of tasks to be repeated exactly every takt. Managers have agendas, with certain activities conducted periodically, but the work content changes with every daily production meeting or every yearly hoshin planning sessions.

Work instructions for a daily shop floor walkthrough might include “Remember employees’ names and show empathy,” but sincerity is not something that you can mandate.


Everyone who hears about “Leader Standard Work” has an idea of what a leader is, of what standard work means, and therefore of what Leader Standard Work might be, but no two have the same idea. It sounds like a thing, but it’s really not.

#StandardWork, #WorkStandards, #OfficeSpace, #SteveJobs, #Lean, #Toyota

3 comments on “Is Leader Standard Work A Thing?

  1. Comment on LinkedIn:

    There most certainly is standardised work for leaders, it’s sometimes described as “working menu”. It involves identifying the key tasks a leaders undertake and organising them to a set schedule. These schedules are cascade across the different management, supervisory and team leader levels to ensure alignment.

    They formalise times and activities across the organisation including things such as layered auditing, safety and gemba walks and other important activities.

    • Yes, managers/leaders have lists of tasks, which could be called a job description, or work standards, but not “stantardized work” or “standard work” in the Toyota sense.

      Again, Standard Work is the precisely choreographed sequence of tasks a production operator does on a sequence of machines or stations within the takt time, and it is posted at the head of the cell.

      Work Standards, on the other hand are the instructions and specs on each of these tasks, posted at each station. The problem I have with confusing the two is that the actual Standard Work is lost in the shuffle, and it’s unfortunate because it is one of the most innovative tools to come out of the Toyota Production System.

      In my experience, if you don’t use it when setting up a manufacturing cell, you are leaving about half the productivity improvement potential on the table. It’s applicable to production work, but not to management.

  2. In my experience, for each manager like for each operator, there is a “precisely choreographed sequence of tasks” that could (and possibly should) be standardised. Those regular management activities may include the review of new improvement ideas to determine cost and benefit. Or the structured review, prioritisation, and resource allocation of improvement initiatives. I found that standardising those activities, using a “standard manager diary”, ensure discipline and consistency.

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