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Creating Standard Work - the tips you don't want to miss

Updated: Dec 17, 2023


Mount Fuji through trees

Standardised Work documents have a lot in common with children; many of us in manufacturing have got them, they can be tricky to manage, and all seem to have different names. Names like:

  • Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

  • Standard Operating Instruction (SOI)

  • Standardised Work Instruction (SWI)

  • Standard Work Instruction (SWI)

  • Work Instruction (WI)

  • Operation Manual Sheet (OMS)

Whatever you call them, I’m certain you’ve seen and felt their value while also experiencing the pain of weak SOPs (I’ll stick with that acronym for this blog).


We recently proved to a client that 'time' is not the barrier to creating work instructions for the shopfloor. Their belief was...


😩 "It takes ages to create Standardised Work" 😩


...wrong, challenge accepted.


With the Operator it took us 1 hour & 5 minutes (including time for me to understand the process) to create the draft below:

a draft Standard Work SOP

The Operator I worked with, Steve, was the expert and we didn't let perfect be the enemy of good. In this case, a recurring cutting defect was eliminated (if you follow the SOP, but that's for another post...)


But, and it's a big but, this exercise was done to create some momentum on the gemba and to prove the art of the possible. In normal practice, we don't want you to create SOPs in a vacuum as they're the output of an important engineering process. More on that below, but first, a definition...


The SOP - a definition


To ensure we’re on the same page, we need a definition.


"The SOP is the best current method that safely combines people, machines, and materials to produce the quality, cost, and delivery required"


An SOP bestows all kinds of benefits beyond providing good quality parts, safely and on time. It provides a home for recording improvements and special abilities (knacks) and helps your Team Leader with training so they can move people around the line without jeopardising operations. A well-conceived SOP allows your operators and Team Leaders to spot abnormalities quickly by defining ‘normal’.


This blog looks at typical SOP problems and their root causes. But first, what is the lifecycle of an SOP?


The Lifecycle of an SOP


The lifecycle of an SOP is in four stages: writing, training, confirming, and improving.

1. Writing a strong SOP

The design of the SOP can be improved to highlight key points better, enhance instructions, and improve visuals such as illustrations, text fonts, and colours.

2. Training out the SOP

SOP training is best done in a structured way. Even the best trainers can’t know exactly where a trainee’s attention is focused or if they’re overwhelmed or distracted during training. We all think we're being clear but, mostly, we're not! Structured Job Instruction (JI) Training is the best, proven way, to train practically.

3. Confirming the SOP


Confirmation is central to a Team Leader and Supervisor's life - not with a policing / checking-up hat on, but to understand if the SOP can be followed and is being followed. If not, what's getting in the way? Confirmation also presents the chance to find kaizen...

4. Capturing improvements

Whenever operators are truly involved, kaizen ideas flow and you’ll release a raft of continuous improvements and cost reduction ideas.


Where SOPs are born


Like the children mentioned at the top of this blog, SOPs are born. Born as a part of your Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) process. This is a gate style process where the initial drawing for a product gets transferred into mass production via the Process Flow, Process Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (PFMEA) and Control Plan.


This is to make sure that we fully consider:

  1. What needs to be bought to life CORRECTLY from the Customers wishes (often expressed as the signed, agreed drawing)

  2. What problems (defects etc) we can avoid while planning a new product, and agreeing how to prevent, or at the very, least detect them early.

To do this we have Human Assurance and Physical Assurance


Human Assurance

This is your Operator following the SOP (& elements of the Control Plan for non-cyclical work) using the correct tools, materials and equipment


Physical Assurance

These are error-proof devices (aka poka-yoke) and smart fixtures that either prevent a defect being created, warn that one has been created and/or stop the process.


Apologies for the technical background but it's important to grasp the parentage of an SOP before we talk about typical SOP problems.


4 Typical SOP problems

Each of you will have toiled through problem-solving activities using fishbones or 5 Why’s that end up tracing a dark path back to a root cause titled “SOP problem”. From my experience training over a 1,000 people in 100 companies across the globe, I see the same Quality and Delivery problems arising from four common SOP weaknesses:

  1. No SOP exists

  2. An SOP exists, is weak, but was followed

  3. An SOP exists, is strong enough, but wasn’t followed

  4. An SOP exists, is strong enough, and was followed but we still had quality problems


4 Solutions


The countermeasures to these 4 weaknesses?, read on...


1. No SOP exists

Is easily remedied. Remember though, the SOP is the "best current method" so don't be afraid to establish a simple, basic one for improvement over time. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.


2. An SOP exists, is weak, but was followed

A deeper look often reveals that SOPs give vague, ambiguously worded instructions (without decent photos) opening room for mistakes. This is avoidable by using our guidance here to produce a great SOP like the one below.


A strong Standard Work SOP

3. An SOP exists, is strong enough, but wasn’t followed

Is the thorniest issue and often comes back to involvement (see the next section)


4. An SOP exists, is strong enough, and was followed but we still had quality problems

Is prevented by using the Drawing ➡️ Process Flow ➡️ PFMEA ➡️ Control Plan to guide your SOP creation - as per the previous section


Involvement - the Key to strong Standardised Work


Often SOPs don’t reflect the actual operation as the creator has either:

  • Rushed to create the SOP

  • Copied and pasted from another, without considering what's different

  • Not looked closely enough at the operation

  • Written the SOP from the comfort of a desk.

The root cause often connecting all the above is that the expert (your operator performing the work) wasn’t involved or consulted. The key takeaway from this blog: Your Operator, who stands there for 8 hours a day, every day for months and years, knows more about this than you do. So ask


As a bonus, take a look at our YouTube video below to discover the 4 magic questions to ask to understand whether your Standardised Work system is strong enough


Standard Work in it's deeper sense (for the bravehearted)


LinkedIn is full of lean purists who'll pitch their credentials nitpicking on the names of things and arguing that their way is the only way. Truth is, there are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji.


However, it is true that "Standard Work"is a far deeper subject than the documents we use to complete a part on the shopfloor. The triangle below, in an iceberg kind of a way, shows that SOPs and other such documents are the final layer of Standards in a manufacturing business. That's before we get into Full Standardised Work and the relationship to 5s, Visual Management, Built-in Quality, Andon and leader Standard Work.


My advice: one step at a time, keep it simple, and call us for help when you get stuck :)

a triangle showing the broader aspects of Standard Work


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