Welcome to our blog post on standardisation efficiencies and burdens! Inherently, every person has been exposed to standards throughout their lives but increasingly standardisation is being applied in radical ways to restructure businesses, the way they operate and the way they function with others. Over my employment I lived and breathed standards, defining new ones, ammending them and ultimately improving them. I found that with the lean and mean approach that businesses are adopting that one crucial element of businesses was falling away...maintaining standards adequately. Every business has time to create a new standard it seems when the time comes but unfortunately when you define a standard this also encumbers the business with the burden of maintenance. This isn't to say that all standards are good either, as if a standard is poorly considered it can also cost a business a great deal too.
Unfortunately many businesses see standards as single workflow documents that get revised and updated but in many cases standards have what is referred to as branches. A branch is an alternate existence of the same document often seen in software and in truth, ideally wouldn't exist. As an example, if I was to build a house to a set of standards I had written (assuming meets or exceeds australian standards) then I would expect it to comply on completion and as I revised the standard I could within reason maintain and upgrade the house to suit the latest revisions. Now lets say I build five (5) houses to the same specified set of standards and another five (5) against a new revision, the first five (5) cannot fully comply to the same standards as the newer houses as they were constructed differently but I need to define the compromises for these earlier houses in a new revision of the standards...this is a branch. Because branches are generally ignored and only the mainstream standard will be maintained and defined this means that compromises are not documented or maintained making long term maintenance difficult. Sounds painful, complex and time consuming...it is and it is also something that many businesses fail to handle well or even at all. Often the issue of branches is left to people who don't write or own the standards creating a scenario that is generally dealt with on an adhoc basis resulting in undesirable outcomes, sometimes resulting in costly choices and end products that don't comply to any documented standard.
So consider this...the reason that standards exist is to set a minimum acceptable standard that goods, services or business practices should comply with. They are defined to encourage efficiency, clarity and to foster an environment that is consistent thus reducing cost for the business overall. So if standards are a gateway to improved cost then why are they managed so poorly? Surely, businesses have in place processes to ensure standards are maintained? I'm sure they do, but in reality you need resource capacity to acheive effective standardisation and to manage the associated burden which is often shaved off to realise immediate cost relief causing standards to lag and become a greater cost burden. The idea of standardisation is to reduce the amount of time spent by employees determining how to proceed and to improve the reliability and performance of outcomes (business practices, goods or services). If you have standards that aren't up to date but still exist you have also the potential for future works to be completed against lagging standards which can result in additional costs as well. So is the burden worth it? Well, by investing in developing documentation this requires at least three (3) resources to ensure the integrity of what the standard recommends and the costs associated with their time. So, if the cost savings exceed this cost of the resources required then, yes, it is worthwhile. In case you are wondering why you require three (3) resources, this is to fill the roles of author, checker and approver to satisfy integrity through peer review.
Standardisation has a lifecycle that should include being continuously reviewed and updated. If you cannot commit to this as a business then strap yourself in for a ride, because you are now opening up the world of creative decision making. It sounds fun, can have completely unpredictable outcomes and has the added potential for creating some lasting undesirable outcomes that can usually be resolved for a hefty sum. Don't get me wrong, standardisation can have undesirable impacts too if the wrong choices are made and documented, which is why it is so important that standards have integrity. It only takes one uninformed decision to lump a business with a hefty cost burden which is why it shouldn't be left for the work experience kid or the graduate to complete. There is only one thing I forgot to mention...if your employees don't value standards or read them, then they are less than useless. A standard is a tool, unused it is just a document you maintain and creative decisions rule anyway.
So how do standards go wrong if they are valued? A great question but effectively a standard goes wrong when it stipulates that the process or goods to be used incurs greater cost to the business than it saves. This is often the case when cheaper products are stipulated that require more maintenance or fail more frequently. In services this occurs when a standard stipulates a process that is inefficient, ineffective or cost prohibitive. An example of standardisation that everyone is aware of but knows by another name is restructring of a business which defines who will do what and alters the business operating practices. This is also a great example of where changing one standard can create issues for other standards, procedures or policies that may stipulate a role responsibility that no longer exists...yes this does happen, yes this is an issue and yes this is rarely considered when restructuring a business. It takes time to make well considered, informed and well managed changes which is why it is ironic that businesses who often champion these processes often are the ones who are most guilty of rapid, ill considered changes on staggering scales. It is actually very frustrating and funny in many ways, especially when employees are barely working for extended periods due to confusion, lack of direction and scrambling to get answers resulting from this creative decision making.
So yes, I like standards, I think they can save businesses money but, I am man enough to say they are not the magic bullet. I have worked in workplaces that don't have ones when they should and been in ones where they existed but went unread. It is something to evaluate for your business if standards exist, if they are used and if they are maintained. I agree that it is boring to read and update a document...there is nothing worse than having to edit a 100 page plus engineering standard but it needs to be done to keep the business current. The assembly line was one of the greatest developments in the modern world as it allowed mass production to occur but required a standard approach to acheive the outcome. While you read this post understand that the outcome was likely defined by several hundred standards all working together to make this happen. If you are interested in finding out more about what we can do for you then please feel free to visit our main website or contact us. Thank you for your time, for reading our blog post and it would be great if you feel the need to share or like our articles via one of our social media platforms with the @ActsIntuitively tag as applies.
Technical Services Manager
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