Optimize when you can, standardize if you must.

We Work Well When We Balance Flexibility and Predictability.

Even Schultz Had a Process

We love to standardize. It makes us feel good. The same actions, the same tools, every team marching together like a good army of the mundane.

Agile, Lean, whatever we start with, always moves towards a depressing slog of sameness.

I’ve been writing about this for years. In 2012, I created a white paper about it called Diversity and Optimization in Knowledge Work Teams. Catchy, I know. It should be called something like, “OPTIMIZATION IS TOTALLY STORMING THE INTERNET!”

But it’s not. Optimization isn’t hype, it isn’t hard but it is work. It just requires you know when to standardize so you are able to optimize.

So, in order to optimize you can’t fetishize how great an individual craftsperson from your own independent planet of awesome you are, you need to be able to work with other human beings.

We want to optimize so you can be an individual and exercise your option, but assuming we are smarter than Deming and that we can totally know what we do without being able to describe it is pointless egoism.

The balance, as shown in the white paper, is this…know what you can and should standardize and what you should absolutely not standardize.

From the White Paper with appropriate emphasis added:

Each of the teams was using a healthy mixture of standardized tools (like Sharepoint) and individual tools. The latter here was most obviously exemplified by the structure of the kanban boards themselves. Every board I saw was different in some way. … I’d like to note that all the teams are highly aware of the structure of their work. They understand how they, as a team, are providing value and are exploring the best ways — at a team level — to express that value delivery strategy.

The boards, in this regard, can be seen as flexible standardized tools. The boards themselves all had common standardized components: Value stream, work in progress limiting strategy, visualization of work in progress, visualization of backlog. This is appropriate standardization.

The next impetus would be to make all the boards look or flow the same — indeed this is what most companies try to do. This is inappropriate over-standardization.

How Things Work

All these teams can describe their work as a process. If that upsets you, please note that describing your work systematically to others is a prerequisite for being a professional. It is also highly likely that you can in fact describe your work as a system or a process, you just don’t want to.

You cannot improve what you cannot explain. If you fancy you do improve your work, then you must be able to explain it.

When we do that, we have to ask hard questions (in no order).

  1. What work is repeatable?
  2. What work is subject to variation?
  3. Where does invention, innovation, or the unknown lie?
  4. What form does our commitment to quality take?
  5. How do we onboard people into our work?
  6. How do we spot problems or opportunity?
  7. How do we respond to problems or opportunities?
  8. How do we enjoy our work?
  9. When do we talk to customers?
  10. What don’t we know that would help us get our work done?
  11. How do we communicate with other teams?
  12. Where have we given up?

When we answer these questions or ones like them, we understand our process. We understand where we can agree to stabilize types of work or communication for a time (standardize) and how we revisit these standardizations often to make them better (improvement).

We further understand where we do not standardize work between teams and provide flexibility for change, relationships, personalities, etc. This doesn’t mean they are in chaos, it means that they have flexibility. That flexibility doesn’t mean they can ignore the 12 questions above, it means they have to ask the questions (and others) every day.

That is optimization.

Optimization means the team produces the best quality work for the happiest customer in a way that makes the team members the most professionally satisfied.

It’s different for every knowledge work team.

No team can optimize without appropriate standardization. No team can optimize in the straight jacket of over-standardization.

Ask yourself and your team, do your current rules, rituals, and processes appropriately or over-standardize your work?

You have the right to control your own process.


More articles about sane and humane work:

What’s Your Modus?


About Jim

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller: Personal Kanban. His other books include Why Limit WIP, Why Plans Fail, and Beyond Agile. He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking and the Brickell Key Award. He and Tonianne teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. He regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.