Standard work takes many different forms once it is applied. In an assembly environment with 90 second cycle times, it may lay out step-by-step precise activities down to the second and whether you use your left hand or your right hand. When people see those examples, they think standard work doesn’t apply to them. That could be a 4-hour cycle time to be building something of great complexity, or a knowledge worker who is writing code, managing a marketing program, or settling a contract dispute. Standard work doesn’t apply, right?

In The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Atul Gawande explores this premise primarily through the lens of one of the most complex fields of work available – medical. If standard work can work there, it should be able to work anywhere. The primary medium through which it is applied is checklists, hence the name of the book.

In the book, an explanation of the application of checklists to investing is shared through the story of Mohnish Pabrai of Pabrai Investment Funds. Gawande explains:

“The checklist doesn’t tell him what to do, he explained. It is not a formula. But the checklist helps him be as smart as possible every step of the way, ensuring that he’s got the critical information he needs when he needs it, that he’s systematic about decision making, that he’s talked to everyone he should. With a good checklist in hand, he was convinced that he and his partners could make decisions as well as human beings are able. And as a result, he was also convinced they could reliably beat the market.” (p. 167)

The mechanism of building standards must fit the need and the situation. It has to fit how people would use it. Too often, people design standards based on how they want others to use them, instead of how they will be used. We should make standards, whether checklists or otherwise, as simple as possible, but no simpler. Gawande adds this perspective:

“It is common to misconceive how checklists function in complex lines of work. They are not comprehensive how-to guides, whether for building a skyscraper or getting a plane out of trouble. They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals.” (p. 128)

As I like to say, standard work is not a replacement for skill and knowledge, it’s purpose to enable skill and knowledge to be applied consistently and effectively. Despite some of these obvious advantages, we still resist. Gawande sees this barrier not as that we don’t have time or don’t invest the time, but something deeper:

“We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us – those we aspire to be – handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. These do not have protocols and checklists.” (p. 173)

Most work cannot be done by robots; it is done by people. And so standard work must be designed for our needs, as an aid, not a crutch nor a hinderance.

Reflection question: are you designing your standard work as a help or a hinderance to those who use them?