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A standard is a rule or principle that sets a minimum level of acceptable behavior. It is also something to which other things may be compared, such as a breed standard to evaluate dogs, or a measurement standard used to certify meters and testing devices.

Standards in business are useful because they take ambiguity out of requirements. Unfortunately, when used inappropriately, they can also take creativity and initiative out of a workforce.

Standards come in a variety of forms. Company policies, inspection checklists, standard work, and process flowcharts all communicate expectations.

A good rule of thumb is to always have a standard if something is at all questionable, and consistently follow it. But if you don’t like a standard, change it.

Standards define what good products or services look like. They establish what the customer requires in terms of quality. Miss the standard, and customers are unhappy. But greatly exceed the standard, and you are likely spending an excessive amount of money.

A good standard must balance cost and performance. A standard should be set by the requirements of the situation. For example, in a highly competitive marketplace, customer expectations rise, so the standard would likely be higher than if there was not as much competition. Higher standards are also required when the products or services have a critical role, such as in hospital processes.

In normal conditions, though, many people are unsettled by the concept of actively choosing to do less than you are capable of. Sometimes, the incremental cost of providing slightly better quality can be prohibitive if the customer is not willing to pay for it. While Lean efforts can certainly improve quality while making an operation more efficient, there is still a cost to exceeding a customer’s expectations.

Think back to high school. You may have been able to improve your history essay by spending more time reviewing and editing it. But if you also had a math test the next day, you would have had to sacrifice that grade to improve your history grade. Exceeding one standard consumes resources that may be necessary to meet a different standard.

In addition to quality, standards also help in planning. Knowing how long a process should take, for example, helps establish staffing levels and lets schedulers predict lead times.

Rules for standards:

  1. Make standards clear and understandable.
  2. Make standards relevant. They have a cost, so meeting the standard should providea benefit.
  3. Make standards measurable. Vague standards create anxiety.
  4. Communicate the standards. Don’t surprise people when you refer to one.
  5. Enforce the standards. Make sure people know what will happen if the standard is not followed.
  6. Update the standards. When one becomes outdated or unnecessary, change or eliminate it.

  • Don’t make every standard overly punitive. People should be inspired to follow standards, not threatened.
  • Undocumented standards are inconsistent standards. Your company will have many unwritten rules, but if you dive deeper into them, you’ll find that different people interpret them differently. But…
  • …don’t go overboard on documentation. Too much paperwork buries the important stuff. If something isn’t an issue, don’t document it just for the sake of documenting it.
  • Standards should be possible for employees to meet, collectively as well as individually. Taken alone, most companies make realistic standards. Often, though, they pile on so many standards that there is not enough time to meet them all.
  • Processes should support every standard. Employees should not have to rely on memory to stay on track. Their methods should have standards built into them.
  • Standards should not be set in stone. If team members come up with better ideas, they need a realistic way to change the standard quickly. Don’t let standards limit continuous improvement.

Think of standards as a contract. Many people feel micromanaged when they have documented standards that they have to follow. In truth, standards help employees more than they help the company. They reduce your frustration by letting you know exactly what is expected of you.

They also help you when you discuss workload with your boss. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you can point to the specific standards that are in jeopardy when you are short of time. It puts your boss in the position of having to

  • Actively disregard a standard. They will probably not do this.
  • Consider changing a standard. They might do this if the situation warrants. Your life gets better.
  • Add resources. This is generally a last resort option, but happens on occasion. It may come in the form of better tools, or more help. Your life gets better.
  • Help improve a process. If your work gets easier, your life gets better.

Written standards should be clear, and as concise as possible. They should be prominently posted, and people should be trained. A standard that is not checked is not really a standard. People will quickly recognize where the real limit is, despite the posted standard. Look at speed limits. In the oil crisis in the 70’s, the speed limit was reduced, and signs were posted that said ’55 means 55’. The police enforced the speed limit without much leeway. Today, it is common to see whole packs of cars zooming by with no fear of tickets. The leeway in speed limit enforcement has translated to a new standard that is a few miles per hour over the posted limit. The intermittent stopping of a speeder does little to alter this new de facto new standard—consistent enforcement, however, would.

One company standard that is generally well enforced is an attendance policy. Managers and employees both know the standard. It is easy to tell when someone is late. It is enforced the same way every time. Use that as a model for any standard in the workplace. Just be sure to avoid being overly punitive. Well managed standards should not require punishment.


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