Conflicts? Disagreements? Have a standard!

Lean leadership’s lessons learned…


In ‘Lean’, there is a very simple view of problems. In fact, there are only three types of problems:

  1. There is no standard
  2. There is a standard, but it is not met
  3. There is a standard, but it not met consistently

It continues to amaze me how broadly applicable this simple scheme is. I apply it to ‘soft’ ways of working and interacting with each other as well as on ‘hard’ KPI’s and performance agreements.

A ‘standard’ in it’s simplest form is an agreement. This can be an agreed way of working, an agreed way of escalating, an agreed key performance indicator or an agreed financial target. A standard can apply within a team, between teams or between a team and its stakeholders.

I learned to recognize the ‘absence of standard’ as a source of tension or conflict. Look for yourself: in your latest conflicts or tensions: did you have an agreed standard with the other party? Did you really understand each other’s objectives and goals?

In any reasonably sized organization, there is a good chance that business targets are not cross functionally aligned and agreed. In other words: there is no (agreed) standard. Having different objectives drives personal behavior. When unaligned departmental targets are put in people’s year objectives, they become a source for departmental or personal conflicts and finger pointing.

A “lean” mindset solves this: At times of conflict ask:

‘Do we agree on the standard?’.

Agreeing on ‘the standard’ is simply the first thing that should be tackled. What can you agree on? Even if you and your colleague have different goals from your manager, were can you meet? Without an agreed standard, there is no basis for continuous improvement and no basis to collaborate.

Start by identifying the smallest things you agree on. For example: do you agree it’s important to meet on time? Just start with that, it will drive an execution culture and establish a norm in the team. Do you agree on the goal? If not, what sub goal do you agree on? Start small. Don’t overengineer. Better 50% today than 100% tomorrow. By establishing standards in a team, you can establish a first success and move on from there.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to establish a standard that can be measured. For instance, how do you measure software quality? How do you measure R&D productivity? This can be a bit of a search. Sometimes a complex process cannot be measured directly. At that time, you can measure attributes correlating with your main process output.

It’s more important to drive culture in absence of agreed measurements. For instance, while it is difficult to come up with a standard universally applicable quality or productivity standard, you can ask teams what their standard is and ask them to meet their own definition. You can also have teams share their standard with each other. Good chance that one of the teams comes up with a practical measurement.

Measuring variation to standard and acting on it your next step in driving continuous improvement. When you consistently meet a process target, measuring deviations to ‘the standard’ may signal an adverse trend early. Do you consistently meet that response time you defined towards your customers?

Coming from a culture that valued creativity and innovation over standardization, i want to recommend this excellent article explaining that you should Think of Standards as Katas, not rules!

To summarize:

  • If you are not having a standard, expect conflicts and disagreements. Start establishing a baseline you can agree on. Have a standard.
  • Once you agree, measure against the standard. Do you meet the standard? What are root causes of not meeting the standard?
  • Once you meet the standard, check if the standard is met consistently. Do you measure the variation against the standard? What are the root causes of variation against the standard?

Finally, you meet the standard consistently. The team has matured, reached a common understanding and delivers results. Now you can raise the bar! In my experience, this is how you move “continuous improvement” from a buzzword to an organisational reality.

How do you drive improvements?