Leader standard work is the workhorse discipline of modern management and leadership. It keeps the finger on the pulse, and creates time for strategic thinking. It’s at the heart of operational excellence.

Imagine two separate companies, two leaders. Both are committed, passionate, and have similar skillsets. There’s one difference: how they work. With no pre-planning or structure, one arrives keen to embrace whatever challenge the day may bring – and he knows there will be many. The other slips smoothly into scheduled actions. Day-to-day performance may be accomplished by the first CEO, but the second is far more likely to achieve targeted and longer-lasting success. The difference is process: a set of behaviors which streamlines and creates the opportunity for a culture – rather than the hope – of performance. This is the competitive advantage of leader standard work (LSW).

To understand what LSW is we need to take two leaps back in time. First, about a century ago, to the first assembly lines instituted by the world’s pioneering major manufacturers, such as Ford and its imitator across the Atlantic, Morris Motors. When Ford’s first mass production facility cut the time it took to build a vehicle from 12 hours to one-and-a-half, there was immediate proof for the efficiencies, and scalability, of standardization and systemization. Indeed, Ford was prompted to remark on the importance of standards that, “to standardize work methods is the sum of all the good ways we have discovered up to the present. Today’s standardization is the necessary foundation on which tomorrow’s improvement will be based.”

Fast-forward to the post-WW2 decades in Japan. The philosophy and development of the Toyota Production System required corporate leaders to gear culture, guide workers, and coalesce teams. Lean manufacturing methods became increasingly sophisticated, and standards escalated in importance as the base from which to make incremental, iterative improvements. Leaders, as part of the team, needed to improve, too.

Leadership cultivates culture

But standardizing a leader’s tasks seems counterintuitive. The phrase is misleading. For one, LSW is only partly about the leader. Rather, it pulls a bigger lever: the shaping of culture. Culture is complex – a myriad mix of values, attitudes and beliefs, interactions and symbols – but it can be distilled as the way things get done. It is significantly influenced by leadership: how leaders behave models the organization’s ways-of-working.

When leaders are visible and participative, committed to operational standards and improvements, this spurs the engagement of the workforce – by a factor of up to 70%. LSW behaviors, in effect, improve employee trust, motivation, and goal-orientation. Harvard Business School management professor Amy Edmondson notes: “As leaders, it’s your job to convey high standards and to enable people to reach those high standards.”

Whilst there is a tendency to overestimate how much influence a senior leader has on coalface operations, it is simultaneously true that the power to inspire is underestimated. LSW – in emphasising checks and processes – doesn’t assume the former, and capitalizes on the potential of the latter. Specifically, it drives performance in five ways:

  1. Interrogation and improvement of workflows. Routines build understanding – a familiarity not intent to keep things the way they are, but a deeper knowledge of how things work. As this understanding builds, so leadership is better able to zoom in and out, to visualize the larger picture and steer problem-solving in specific areas.
  2. Proactive management. Diligently paying attention, step-by-step, to how things are done creates more capacity to develop skills and knowledge. A crisis can be valuable in providing new insights and lessons. But practised routines build the capability to react appropriately during the crisis, and to be in a position to make the right judgement calls – in crises and in daily management.
  3. Tuning the culture to learning and problem-solving. By advancing Lean thinking, LSW aligns the C-suite and line management, and instils a sense of empowerment and accountability throughout the enterprise.
  4. Catalyzing better financial results. There is a correlative link between organizational and financial performance. The evidence shows that strong organizational capability gears a company to achieve top quartile EBITDA delivery within its industry. Given leadership’s role in aligning the organization to the execution of strategy, the importance of good leadership – and how a leader works – is clear.
  5. Succession planning. It also creates mentoring moments; as leaders adapt their behaviors, so they grow – and are able to pass on learnings in a range of contexts. This nurtures the next generation of the company’s leadership.

Do the benefits still accrue in times of disruption?  

LSW may become even more important in view of two paradigm shifts: digitization, and demographic trends involving new workforce generations.

Agility is mandatory in today’s hyper-complex, hyper-connected business environment. Paradoxically, the rigor of process and habituation creates this adaptability. Foundations are vital, not only to anchor new systems, but also to benchmark the enterprise’s state of maturity. LSW is a core aspect of the pillars from which to build. As former US President General Dwight D. Eisenhower noted, “Plans are nothing, but planning is everything.”

Habits create high performance

In his book Atomic Habits, Habit specialist and author James Clear explains how small, regularized actions cascade into a ‘stack’ of good practices. Consider a leader who starts every day with a 20-minute review of the organization’s real-time vital statistics across production, financial and customer measures. Immediately thereafter is a 30-minute meeting with their senior team, trouble-shooting solutions as needed and checking in on key project progress. They’re then fully primed – to contribute and to deepen their own knowledge and that of the team – for a one-hour factory gemba walk. By mid-morning, operational status is pinned down; the leader can concentrate on strategy, partnerships, innovation, and analyst meetings. Productivity is boosted because the foundations exist via standardized, upfront task-setting.

Time is everything. Leaders have too little of it and there is a risk that key issues may not be given adequate attention. How to prioritize tasks, where to invest effort and energy? These are questions of fundamental importance in managing and leading companies. The principle of LSW can guide and help to cultivate the appropriate performance-related habits – and to optimize the scarcest resource of all: time.

Download the TRACC Leader Standard Work App for further information on how to drive sustainable business performance.


CCi is a privately held global company that enables organizations to deliver sustainable results across the value chain through TRACC, a solution for continuous, integrated improvement.