Leader standard work is a term with many different connotations. But for me, in essence, it’s the system that enables leaders to continually push and improve the performance and effectiveness of an organization at every level. That may sound like a commonplace strategy, but I find organizations don’t have a full appreciation for the many positive outcomes that can unfold when leader standard work is both present and practiced.
What happens when this system is not in place? I’ll quickly share an example of a manufacturing organization that experienced a classic case of leadership breakdown. This organization normally has a process for fulfilling orders that is overseen at four levels: by a director, manager, group leader and frontline leader. An additional person, on the receiving end, is the internal customer: the person in charge of putting the product on the truck and sending it out.
On one particular day, the two individuals in the middle of the process, the manager and the group leader, were both absent. As the designated decision maker on site, the frontline leader decided it was time to improvise, and deviated from the standard fulfillment process. In fact, they later admitted that their sole reason for doing so was that they simply didn’t want to follow the regular procedure.
Because of this deviation, the wrong product was almost sent out the door. Fortunately, at the last minute, the internal customer recognized the problem and called it to the attention of the director. The director then had to drop everything and bring all the parties together to resolve the issue.
Granted, this organization had been trying to improve its leadership processes for only six months, and the culture and mindset of the team had not yet had sufficient time to change. But the bottom line was that the confusion took the director’s attention off other more strategic issues and also created rework for each of the functions involved. What was lacking was the application of leader standard work: the leader was gone, and with them, the discipline to do the work the way it’s supposed to be done.
The practice of leader standard work requires that leaders organize their time and effort to focus on the most important decisions of the day — especially, the tasks that are nonnegotiable. In the example cited above these might be, at a minimum, making sure the organization has the right team in place, and that everyone knows their roles and responsibilities. It’s a way of making sure the leader’s time and energy is spent where it has the most impact and not wasted on interventions that could be dealt with more effectively at lower levels — or better yet, prevented from being needed at all.
The process of leader standard work begins by defining the activities the leader should prioritize and focus on. The second step is for the leader to start interacting with the process in a way that is defined through leader standard work. Here, the focus is on what kinds of behavior patterns the leader should exhibit, or particular scripts or checklists they should follow. These patterns could be certain meetings they need to attend or key elements and touchpoints of the business in which they should engage.
When I consult with organizations on this topic, I have found it’s best to work incrementally. I help the leader think about the first 20 minutes of the day, for example, and consider which activities or points of focus should occur during that short period of time that will help them position themselves and their organization for maximum effectiveness. After getting some practice managing that limited period of time as leader standard work, we then increase it gradually until the leader is spending longer and longer periods of their day focused strategically, as opposed to “putting out fires” and other purely reactive behavior.
By the way, as important a discipline as I believe leader standard work to be, it’s not the solution to every problem — and the example shared above is a good case in point. After such a breakdown, you really need to have an intervention that helps all the affected parties together walk through what happened to identify processes that need to be tweaked or reinforced. The most successful teams I’ve seen work as groups, rather than as individuals — whether they’re collaborating as peer-to-peer, customer-to-supplier, horizontally or vertically.
Of course, it takes time for people to change their behaviors, especially behaviors that have become established over a long period of time. In fact, it takes a total of 63 days for a new pattern or behavior to become ingrained. During the first 21 days, the new behavior is starting to make sense to the leader. It’s the repeated performance of the new behavior over the next 42 days — consistently, every day — that truly helps it to become ingrained.
It’s far more effective to prevent chaos from occurring in the first place. This proactive approach requires a new way of thinking about management that emphasizes leader standard work. This not only leads to better leadership and processes but also a more engaged workforce that is empowered to solve many of its own problems.