By Jodi Walsh, Guest Contributor

Three Two One

It was March 10th, 2018. I looked like a serious professional hard at work on my computer. Surreptitiously, I had a little window open on my desktop keeping watch on a steaming behemoth ready to take flight. Every once in a while a couple of “talking heads” would come onto the screen to amp up the audience on the spectacle at hand. I could hear colleagues down the hall doing the same thing.

The first voyage of the FALCON HEAVY launch vehicle from Space X.

Be still my heart.

And then that glorious, titanic rocket rose majestically into the air. Capable of lifting 64 metric tons into low earth orbit. And, for a cool $90M, you too can put something up there into the sky. Commercial rocket launching. Boom.

It was spectacular. And then – the launch rockets returned to earth. Two of three landing to launch another day. Completely mind boggling, when you consider the sheer immensity of the engineering task. It seems practically miraculous they had a 66% success rate on those re-usable rockets. 66% and improving.

rocket launch

Rockets, Lean, and Six Sigma

rocket launch

I have a dear friend who worked for United Launch Alliance, the company that builds the Atlas Rockets that power Elon’s monster raptor into the sky. I had the chance to visit that manufacturing floor several years ago. Since I am both a science geek, and an operations hound, I was completely fascinated by the dynamics of the work.

We spoke about many things, including lean and six sigma. It was a real education to learn that a six sigma error rate is considered a disaster for a rocket scientist – 9 sigma was the standard defined by the sign on the wall. It was amazing to understand that the rate of improvement Toyota realized, through the Toyota Production System, was child’s play compared to the advancement towards perfection absolutely critical to the achievement of real commercial rocketry.

It is not that these Lean and Six sigma disciplines are not valuable and necessary – but the modern space industry has taken their own pursuit of perfection to a level which might have seemed magical to engineers in the past.

“If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic – being able to talk to people over long distances, to transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data like an oracle.” – Elon Musk

The level of cumulative and sustained improvements that were necessary for this Falcon Heavy launch astound me.

Not Just for Space

definition standard work

While the space industry has visible and disastrous consequences to a lack of perfection it is not the only industry where defining standards and capturing successful changes is critical. Every industry and every job task has an intended outcome. It is this intended outcome that we all have in common, whether it is a successful rocket launch, a surgical success, a high performance automobile, a printed report, a happy hotel guest, or a perfect cup of coffee.

Our work effort has an intended outcome every time.

Do we achieve this intended outcome every time? The answer is typically No.

This is where the concept of standard work becomes a foundation for success whether for rocket engines or a cup of java.

Standard work can be defined as: “a purposeful articulation, of the current state of the work, with a focus on achieving an intended outcome, while providing a baseline for continuous improvement”.

Key concepts in the definition include:

  • Purposeful Articulation
  • Intended Outcome
  • Baseline for Improvement

Let’s look closer at each one.

Intended Outcome

The most important aspect of work is the result, for it is the outcome that is valuable to the customer. What is our customer seeking when they purchase our service or product? What do they VALUE? This value can be stated to a very granular level. Consider a small portion of a Value Stream or a singular element of a Process map. How does THIS process step produce value? What is it about THIS action that is necessary? While the details of any process are generally important to the outcome – it is uniformity in outcome that is the target, not necessarily uniformity in process.

By its very nature the workplace is dynamic. Equipment ages, demand changes, product mix varies, market expectations shift, worker skill sets evolve, regulatory boundaries develop, technology advances, and competitors innovate. You can probably keep this list going!

It can often be perceived that a SINGLE BEST PRACTICE is a laudable discipline. Compliance with a standardized work practice is certainly trackable, but the expectation that a single defined Best Practice for any given work is simplistic at best. Constraining work tasks beyond a certain point almost dictates that these and other workplace dynamics produce variable outcomes. Standard Work, in the world of Lean, is in fact seeking to produce stable OUTCOMES rather than invariable process. While creating common work practices can be a desirable goal for a given organization, standard work should not be confused with commonization.

An individual worker should be self aware and purposefully self consistent in practice, but uniformity in method with other workers is not the point. To risk unnecessary repetition – it is uniformity in OUTCOME that is the point. An individual worker should understand and document their practice so as to achieve stable outcome and notice a change.

Standard Work is a discipline, but it is not a cage for the unruly.

Intended Outcome

Purposeful Articulation

Purposeful Articulation

An individual worker should know WHAT they do, HOW they do it and WHY they do it in order to achieve the targeted result. Equally valuable is the discussion among extended work teams to refine the what, how and why. Refining standard work, in a vacuum, can lead to limited understanding and unfortunate omissions . Team discussion is like a forge, burning out the dross and making the end product stronger.

Purposeful articulation of work is sensitive to both the elements that must be constrained and the elements that allow adjustment to ensure the intended outcome.

Practically, the elements of this include three categorical details.

  • Timing
  • Sequence
  • Work-in-process


Every process, whether informational, creative, managerial or mechanical, has an appropriate TIME associated with it. Customer expectation of lead time, capacity, and process capability can all be articulated for even complex creative work.

Awareness and specification of the time demands on your process is important to a rigorous definition of standard work.


Most processes have a practical sequence that is required to deliver the targeted results. Some work has an absolute sensitivity to the order of events, while other work, allows greater flexibility.

An effective standard work definition must purposefully identify the optimal sequence of work, including the details of equipment, materials, and people.


Every process will have an optimal amount of work-in-process when it is running normally. This work-in-process can be an easy and visible signal that a process is departing from normal.

An awareness and definition of what the optimal work-in-process levels are is inherent to quickly seeing a drift or change in performance.

Achievement and Improvement

A definition of the intended outcome, however, is not sufficient.

A purposeful articulation of the work is insufficient as well. Recall how standard work is a purposeful articulation of the current state of the work with a focus on achieving our intended outcome while providing a baseline for sustainable improvement. The effectiveness of a standard work effort is measured by two elements: Achievement of the intended outcome and Improvement of the current state. Remember – compliance to the standard work is not the goal.

The goal of our work is value creation and the context of our effort is the pursuit of perfection – thus the current iteration of any standard work is the next to last draft. You are never done! Each subsequent version should demonstrate both rigorous understanding of its current state and provide a stable and visible platform from which changes can be made. Each version of the standard work is like a stair step. It should provide a firm foundation for the next step.

One can envision a purposeful process by which changes to a standard work are implemented – a Standard Work process for changing a Standard Work. Not only does this constant iteration towards improvement yield tremendous results, it ensures we can expect to get the intended outcome every time even as a work task evolves.

Baseline for Improvement

Back To The Launch

Changing Standard Work

Consider the launch of the Falcon Heavy again.

There are over 6,000 employees at Space X. If 10% of them make 1 change to their work which contributed to the successful launch, then 600 changes will impact the next launch. How important do you think it is to manage changes to standard work? Do you think it is important for manufacturing, procurement, and engineering personnel to have the same understanding of how to make a change?

9 sigma quality at every step? Important hardly seems to be a big enough word!

How about the processes your surgical team follows? Does it matter that a team makes 100 changes between the last successful surgery and your surgery?

How about that cup of coffee or that pint of beer you enjoyed on your last visit to your favorite beverage establishment? Does it matter to you that the changes that they make between the last brew and the next brew preserve your experience? How important do you think a purposeful articulation of the current state of the work with a focus on achieving the flavor and consistency of experience was in defining whether or not the change was a sustainable improvement?


standard work

Every industry and every job task has an intended outcome that is critical to that business to achieve. They are not all life and death or even worth billions of dollars, but every business is fighting for its place in the marketplace.

Standard work is a foundational discipline in achieving these outcomes. It may not be sexy, but the ‘miraculous’ is impossible without it.

Just ask the NASA engineers who said “booster reuse is impossible” and what they now think after the Space X team has landed one on a barge in the middle of the ocean. Repeatedly.

One disciplined step at a time. One standardized disciplined step at a time.

About the Author – Jodi Walsh

Jodi Walsh Lexmark

Jodi is an innovator, with a passion for simplification of the complex and creating sustainable systems.

Formally educated at Northwestern University as a PhD Chemist, Jodi is an accomplished manager and leader with key strengths in manufacturing, supply chain, process engineering, and applied research and development.

With 23 years of experience at Lexmark International, she is recognized as a “go-to” person who directs work teams that exceed expectations and pursue continuous improvement. Jodi has developed people, products, processes, and organizations.

But, don’t think Jodi is all work and no play. She is a singer, gardener, home cook, and poet. She has a deep conviction that balancing professional time and personal time are critical to the well-being of people, processes, and organizations. Learning, technical rigor, innovation, and respect for the dignity of individuals are some of her highest values.

Contact: Jodi

See: LinkedIn profile

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