Standardizing the Work Process: Is It Worth It?

What's the best way to create standard shop procedures and is it worth the effort? September 7, 2013

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I am finally getting around to formalizing a process flow chart and linking each step to more detailed procedures. I have a fairly small operation, so for years I told myself that I didn't need this sort of thing. But after going through several key employees in the past year, I am burned out on training and am starting to miss things. This small set of documents should make training much more comprehensive and uniform. It will be compact and user friendly to act as a memory aid to managers so that I am freed up from day-to-day operations. Looking on down the line at exit strategies, it should add value to the business.

In a previous career, I led the ISO 9001 implementation for a manufacturing company that also met FDA requirements for medical devices. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who encouraged a decentralized system that required minimal updating because it referred to procedures maintained on the shop floor. I'm using that same approach now so that this core documentation will not have to be edited much in the future unless the actual process changes in response to major new equipment, etc.

For example, I have single page reference cards on several machines to call out standard dimensions and basic procedures. No need to duplicate these in a central document. Just control who is authorized to edit these local procedures.

In thinking through each step of the process, you can identify what exactly is critical and what is open to minor variation. This helps spell out what to emphasize during training. Many people need to be told the "why" behind the rule or else they will revert to their own personal method, possibly compromising your quality. If you emphasize the goal for each step, you open the door to creative thinking for ways to improve the path towards achieving that goal. You can also spell out what can go wrong and how to avoid it. Having to write this down will encourage you to fix things in such a way as to make it harder for someone to screw up.

How many of you have done something similar? How detailed did you get? Has it been useful?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor X:
Without going too far into the details, I want to make sure you know you're going to need someone to be solely responsible for enforcement and implementation. It's unlikely that anyone will be able to do this sort of thing on top off existing responsibilities and you need to back them up when they have to bring the hammer down on compliance. I have been in the position of having to enforce standards and procedures for prior employers only to have the rug pulled out from under me if I tried to enforce rules on the "favored" employees. If you're going to go with what is basically an operations manager, then do it fully and correctly, or else you're just pouring time and effort into a void.

From contributor Y:
Out of curiosity, what happened to the ISO 9001 company - in my experience companies that implement such strategies are not long for this world.

From the original questioner:
Good point on follow through. I think that the most important part of even a bare bones system like this is that top management is fully on board.

When I ran the ISO program, my title was Director of Operations, and the president was committed, so it was a direct reporting relationship. We had a single large format double sided piece of paper for each batch that captured everything from formula to individual check-offs for each step, ingredient lot numbers, yield, and final QC test results. The FDA inspectors would start out puzzled by the lack of documentation until we taught them that nearly every requirement was indeed captured in this single paper. It was easy to control and easy to use.

When I left the company to start this cabinet door shop 10 years ago, one of my replacements had just the quality role. The volume of paperwork doubled or tripled as he sought to justify his salary. This did not add any value to the company and turned a 1-2 hour per day responsibility into a 4-6 hour waste of time. He left recently to do this sort of thing full-time.

This scenario is all too common in this country, from business to government. I have been trying to stick to lean principles and my goal is to provide just the basic principles that will keep turning out high quality doors. Ideally every employee will feel like they are owners and protectors of the system. If I see a great looking batch of raised panel doors coming out of the sander, I don't tell just the assembly/finish guy what a great job he did. Every process from ordering material to ripping and milling, laying up panels and shaping, required someone that was paying attention. Those people get an attaboy and get asked for feedback on how the job went. If the guy breaking down lumber gives the wood from a particular dealer consistent poor marks, it doesn't matter how many lunches the sales rep buys, right?

At any rate, right now I'm focusing on paring away anything that is not essential and will live with this as a training reference system. If nothing else, it will help me to stay consistent. I will keep it lean and meaningful.

From the original questioner:
Contributor Y, that ISO 9000 company sold for a lot of money to a big corporation that will surely ruin it... It is all too easy to interpret ISO 9000 as a bureaucratic nightmare that everyone ends up hating. It can be done in a lean focused way that adds value.

From contributor G:
We have an ITP system that is in line with ISO requirements. Problem is maintaining it to ensure it is all done. Plus in a millwork shop such as ours, we do different work every week, so one checklist does not work for all of our jobs. Anyone worked in a custom shop doing ISO900? One page training sheet would be great, but for sharper you may need one page for each profile run so that you can record the setups. Key to sheets would be pictures of part assemblies.

From contributor T:
One of the characteristics of a mature industry (such as door making) is that enough capital has already been attracted to the niche that the price for your products are pretty much beat down to what it takes to do the job. If there was wild and crazy money available for making doors, there would be more door making companies and fewer Starbucks franchises.

The takeaways here are that it is your competition that sets your price for you and all the low hanging fruit has already been harvested. This means that all your opportunities live under a rock somewhere. This does not mean that the opportunities are not obvious but rather that they are hard to harvest.

Training and choreography are the remaining untapped frontiers in this industry. Workers and business owners alike would rather take a beating than develop a viable training program. This is not the case in other industries so much.

Starbucks, for example, already has a training program in place for people they have never yet even met. They know what their new people are going to learn on the first hour, the second day and by the end of the week. It is not this way in our industry. You can spend a whole career in the construction world without anybody ever one time formalizing a plan for your edification. All of our training programs are developed on an ad hoc basis. Brute memorization and powers of observation form the nucleus of our strategy. Eventually if you stick around in this industry you get to add intuition to the mix, but the only consistent part is inconsistency.

Your product is pretty common. You probably don't build as good of a door as we do, but you build a good enough door and certainly a less expensive door. In this respect you have no differentiation from your competition. You do, however, have the opportunity to train your people differently.

Learn video. Hook up with an English as Second Language program. Be the go-to guy in your district that has the ability to communicate with people that don't speak English. You don't need to rely on everybody nodding their head and smiling.

If you look at other industries you will see that the people who are actually making the money are those who control communication. If you make training your market advantage you probably could develop a company with an exit strategy.

From contributor D:
Contributor T, I'm going to have to disagree with you on this. My disagreement is based primarily on the evidence at hand. You have been talking about training and documentation in one form for another through this forum and on the phone with me for over ten years. But you are the same size company, in the same size shop, producing the same volume of cabinets and making the same amount of money as when we first spoke a decade ago. If you had gone on to become the type and size of company you have been working towards these many years, I would be firmly on your bandwagon. I'm not saying I'm any better. I'm a lot like you, with a plan in my back pocket that I've been pursuing relentlessly for the last twenty years that I'm positive is going to pay off any day now.

I just hired a kid, so I have some context here. His first day, he produced a couple dozen sticks of molding that consist of two pieces stacked together with nosing on the front. My foreman produced a piece through the first series of steps, then watched as the kid produced the next, and then the kid produced the next dozen. When that was accomplished my foreman showed him how to use the lipping planer to flush them up, and how to finish sand them. He watched the kid produce one, then left him to finish the stack. Total training was probably 30 minutes, and we'll likely never have to show this kid how to do butt joints again.

The next day he built about 12 end panels that had a 45 degree stile assembly on one long edge. Again the same steps were followed, and again the kid did the tasks as shown. We will no longer have to teach him how to do miters. Butt joints and miters, quite possibly 90% of cabinet assembly. No documentation, no videos, no process manuals, no laminated cards.

I just don't see the point, and you are going to have a hard time convincing me otherwise unless there is proof to back it up. Proof, of course, being a track record of running a very profitable manufacturing business for many years. Anything else is just theory.

From contributor T:
I remember having a young man come to work for me once who only wanted to stay for one year. He was willing to work for $10 per hour if he could also learn something.

Like your kid he learned how to glue boards together. The problem was that our top shop guy told him that all you had to do was lay down a bead of glue and squeeze the boards together. He was also taught by another worker here who had studied under James Krenov at College of the Redwoods. This fellow said he should spread the glue out with his finger. I told him to use a small stick and drag the glue along. The way this guy actually ended up doing his gluing depended on who was around him when he was gluing. He didn't want to upset anybody.

A similar situation occurred at our shop just this Thursday. We were building a really fast turnaround library. There were 30 plywood shelves with 1 1/4 lumber nosings.

The kid who glued these up oriented the nosing/plywood/clamps exactly the opposite to how I would have done them. He developed this method either on his own or was taught to do it this way by one of the elders. His method required using our Hoffman lipping planer. Mine didn't.

This is the first time I knew he was doing it this way. This is not a department I wander into very often. It's likely going to take dynamite to stop him from using this method now that he has adopted it as his own.

Perhaps if somebody had gotten ahold of the guy that does your training earlier, your company could stop using lipping planers altogether. Building a training system is an investment in your company. Training people is an expense.

From contributor D:
I guess my point would be this. I don't think it matters much whether a guy uses his finger to spread his glue, a roller or a stick. I see all of those methods in use at my shop, and frankly I don't care which method is used because in my experience they all yield similar and satisfactory results. I am not interested in spending the energy necessary to study, document, adopt and enforce an official gluing method for my shop.

From contributor T:
There is a seminal article you might (or might not) be interested in reading called "Decoding the DNA of Toyota." It was originally published in the Harvard Business Review about 13 years ago. It probably has the same weight in the Lean community as "THE GOAL" has for you TOC people.

Of particular interest to the original poster might be the part about how people learn at Toyota. The part that interests me right now is how activities today are sculpted to also make money in the future.

The part about training is interesting in how it talks about empowering workers. Most laissez faire approaches tend to make your least experienced people in charge of corporate policy. While this can be a more entertaining day for the crew, it is probably not the most profitable approach long run.

I also like how they discuss how to amortize today's expense for additional dollars of income in the future. I think about this in the context of how to get decisions from customers. This is probably my biggest constraint.

From contributor P:
That was a good read. This round goes to Lean. The scientific method is also integral to TOC and dare I say to economics? I really like how the article stated that this was the main driving force behind Lean. I also liked the idea that investment in human capital was a driving force.