Standardization is often the underappreciated key to the success of many of today’s most inventive companies. Although headlines emphasize the brave steps forward that resulted in brilliant innovations, we sometimes forget what happens next. How a company implements an innovation is what actually creates lasting changes.
In a well-managed organization, a fix to frustration is communicated across a group. The problem becomes a thing of the past. The solution becomes the new standard.
How Tragedy Standardized Fire Safety
Today, we may walk through a building, barely noticing the fire extinguishers, alarms, or sprinkler systems. However, each of those now-standard components is a solution that was developed to prevent future tragedies.
Take, for example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy of 1911. During a typical day of creating garments, a ferocious fire broke out on the ninth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Some of the fire exits and stairwells had been locked, leaving many employees unable to escape the blaze.
Fire-fighting equipment was scarce, and what fire hoses the desperate employees were able to find were in such poor repair that they did nothing to stop the flames. As a result, 146 workers died within 20 minutes. This was one of the most significant workplace tragedies in American history and prompted sixty-four new labor laws.
However, standardization doesn’t just improve safety. Standardization boosts quality, productivity, and even more surprisingly, morale.
The Benefits of Standardization
Imagine you walk into a Starbucks and placed your usual order. Instead of knowledgeable baristas quickly churning out lattes, the barista proceeds to create your order from scratch. She looks up the specifics of the drink in a recipe book, checks that they had the right coffee beans, decides how finely to grind the espresso, is uncertain of the type of milk to use, the amount of flavoring, and then cautiously mixes it all together before tentatively handing over the result. No one would be impressed. What’s more, you likely wouldn’t return because of the amount of time the exchange consumed.
The brilliance of many institutions like Starbucks is that they can produce the same outcome reliably and efficiently across thousands of locations. In addition, baristas can work through massive amounts of orders in a shift because they are able to practice and refine their craft hundreds of times in a week.
Henry Ford was committed to changing the way the world traveled. He recognized that the only way to innovate at the speed necessary was to standardize. This realization created an environment where the assembly line could change manufacturing. It did so by producing the same components on repeat, independently of one another. Employees were able to predict their daily tasks and master them. Guesswork and unpredictable results were left by the wayside to usher in a new age for automobiles.
Long before Henry Ford, in 1100, Venice was constructing merchant ships. By 1320, they had so refined their processes that they were able to produce a fully outfitted vessel almost every single day. At this time in other parts of Europe, it wasn’t uncommon for a similar ship to take months or even years.
What did the Venetians do that others didn’t? They standardized the building process. While many others were custom-creating and designing parts for each ship, having the same builder create the rudder, the sail masts, and the furniture, the Venetians were years ahead. Their secret was using three stages for each ship’s construction; framing, planking, and cabins. Then all were assembled. Craftsmen didn’t need to be a jack of all trades; they mastered one thing and completed the same task on repeat. They were able to become experts and specialists, cruising past the competition.
You would think the repetition of standardization may result in a rather mundane workplace. However, it creates stability that provides an environment where employees can fine-tune their craft to a place of excellence. Standardization often results in:
- Improved clarity – individuals understand what they need to do and guesswork is eliminated
- Higher quality – employees can refine their methods and produce better results
- Increased productivity – tasks become faster and easier with repetition
- Decreased frustrations – instances of ambiguity and inefficiencies are greatly reduced
When you put these benefits together, the result is an environment where employees can excel. This leads to greater job satisfaction and lower turnover rates.
How to Implement Standard Solutions Across Facilities
Great organizations don’t solve the same problems repeatedly. They search for a great solution once and quickly standardize the approach across all locations. For this to work, communication has to happen rapidly.
When a problem is recognized, one facility must reach out to others and also to corporate contacts who can assist in coordination. Once a fix is selected, all facilities with the same issue should move to adopt the solution. When this happens, the problem is eliminated before others learn the same lesson the hard way. Rather than each location reacting the same issues already suffered by others, and making the same mistakes on repeat the company blazes ahead proactively. The organization is pulled able to solve new problems and innovate in their industry.
Frustration-Free Work Days
Imagine you work for your company as an inspector across many facilities. You walk into a factory in Indiana and know exactly how the security team will complete the sign-in process and what protective equipment you will be required to wear.
You enter the facility, guided by signage that is present in all locations. You easily find the large packaging unit that you need to investigate. A very similar piece of equipment resulted in an incident the month before in Austin, Texas. As you arrive, you see the equipment is being retro-fitted with the same automation that was just implemented in Texas, preventing the same occurrence in Indiana. You inspect the equipment and note the changes.
After completing your inspections, you enter a meeting room to discuss the results. You are easily able to connect to the projector and upload your presentation because all systems are the same across the company. The meeting goes well. As you leave for the day, you sign out at the security checkpoint and look back on an efficient and productive day, free of frustrations.
Is this a dream? No, this is the power of standardization.