A paradox of manufacturing organizations is that excellence starts with the basics, and inspirational leadership is rooted in often uninspiring routines.

In today’s age of transformation Leader Standard Work has never been more important, explains Mary Williamson, VP of Operations, Competitive Capabilities International (CCi), Americas.

It’s been said before: The manufacturing workplace is changing. Today, however, the change can be witnessed, not sensed or projected. From automation on the factory floor, to digital twinning, to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, technological shifts and global megatrends are driving a new manufacturing paradigm. Certainly, leaders and managers increasingly need specialized tools. But they also need a methodical practice, a way to better do what needs to be done. Leader Standard Work (LSW) is that system.

Specific LSW tasks vary

What are the crucial activities leaders should be doing, how often, and with which teams or individuals? How will they be followed up for action?

The degree of leadership or management work that can and should be standardized will differ according to role, process or company specifics. And especially seniority: Whilst, in general, team leaders should allocate 80% of time to LSW, at executive leadership level only a small degree of work can and should be standardized. Irrespective, the essence of LSW, as part of lean and integrative improvement principles, is that standardizing those aspects of leadership work which can be habituated will help drive deeper insights into the company’s operations, and liberate time and energy for further enterprise development.

In other words, says Williamson, “focus can shift from daily problems to strategy, from crisis management to value creation.”

Digital is transforming LSW

Digital operations, integrated within a modern manufacturing execution system (MES), may unlock 40% to 50% in further end-to-end value. But this does not mean operational fundamentals may no longer be required. The orchestration of digital systems is paramount and, by solidifying the incremental gains and setting renewed performance objectives, LSW remains a pillar of even the most advanced systems. “The foundations have become more important,” says Williamson. “Digital opens up possibilities – for efficiencies, insights, innovation, collaboration. But how to prioritize, where to strategize and where to act, how to keep improving: These remain management issues which necessitate rigorous, disciplined behaviors.”

Indeed, digital facilitates – and evolves – LSW. Digital tools and applications – big data, analytics, the cloud, among others – can focus leaders’ work in new directions, guide decision-making, and enhance performance measurement tracking. As the degree of automation increases, too, LSW is shifting to embrace broader drivers of creativity and innovation, and the orchestration of customer value. “When leaders standardize their work, they set a baseline for core accomplishments, upon which digital capability can build,” notes Williamson.

So, the question isn’t whether LSW is still relevant; to gear for transformation and to thrive through change, it’s now even more important.

LSW as the seed of organizational culture

Leader standard work is also critical in setting the cultural tone, “the way things get done here”. When the workforce notices leadership doing regular gemba walks, when senior executives interact routinely in scheduled team meetings or task reviews, they see active, operationally engaged and genuinely committed leaders. LSW becomes, then, the managerial glue meshing together complex manufacturing operations or processes, energizing the achievement of KPIs, and steering the business towards corporate goals.

Gallup’s last State of the American Workplace report reflects worryingly low engagement levels among manufacturing workers, at just 25% – the lowest of all assessed occupation sectors. This can be changed: Up to 70% of engagement is influenced by direct managers, so leaders should use LSW to instill commitment, accountability, and a shared responsibility for improvement.

This will be vital for manufacturers in the wider context of global competitiveness. US manufacturers already face a critical skills shortage, projected to curtail US manufacturing output by $2.5 trillion in the decade to 2030. And the problem is likely to escalate as digital transformation flexes towards new skills.

Today, employee engagement factors and digital transformation are two crucial issues facing manufacturing companies. These are organizational culture issues which, for many enterprises, are key to short-term survival through a COVID-triggered downcycle, to medium-term recovery and profitability, and to longer-term futureproofing. The best way to steer organizational culture is to optimize the way its leaders work – effectively, to lead by doing. Which, as a translation of executive strategies to operational execution, is the nub of leader standard work.

A century ago Henry Ford noted 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.”  This still rings powerfully true for 21st Century manufacturers and, as a vital aspect of an improvement culture, leaders should apply the principle to their own work.

Contact CCi for further information about how to implement LSW in your organization. Or download CCi’s TRACC Leader Standard Work App to help truly focus your leadership teams.

Written by Mary Williamson, VP of Operations, Competitive Capabilities International (CCi), Americas.

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