Creativity Through Standardization

“In Lean Manufacturing, standardized work is a means of establishing precise procedures to make products in the safest, easiest, and most effective way based on current technologies,” writes Claire Lamarre. 1 Taiichi Ohno, Japanese engineer and one of the founding fathers of the Toyota Production system, is famous for implementing standards while developing the system that has become the lean manufacturing philosophy used by thousands of companies worldwide. Ohno said “My first move as the manager of the machine shop was to introduce standardized work.” 2

The word standard can sound constricting; like a rule imposed upon you that must be followed. But there is a dichotomy to standardization. First, standards are to be followed precisely. But second, standards are meant to be improved and changed through creativity and innovation. Rather than a rigid system of rule following that turns people into robots, standardization actually increases creativity while also ensuring there are clear guidelines for each process. Ohno says “Standards should not be forced down from above but rather set by the production workers themselves.” 2 That means your boss, or your bosses boss, should not create (all of) the rules that define your job, you and your team should. Standards are the best known practices that create the best possible outcome, and the people who know the best practices are those who actually do the job every day. Standardization is not just a lean manufacturing tool, it can also be a powerful tool in daily life or in any other job role.

Jocko Willink served as a US Navy Seal, the elite special forces units, for 20 years. Willink’s service earned him both the Silver Star (the third-highest military decoration) and the Bronze Star medals, as well as many other personal and unit awards. During the Iraq War Willink commanded Seal Team 3: Task Unit Bruiser which would become the highest decorated special forces unit of the conflict. Upon retiring, Willink wrote the book Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win with his fellow Seal Leif Babin. Willink and Babin describe in detail how standardization helped them to save lives, win battles, and also allow for creativity.

Willink is famous for the slogan “Discipline equals freedom.” He and Babin write that “The more disciplined standard operations procedures a team employs, the more freedom they have to practice Decentralized Command and thus they can execute faster, sharper, and more efficiently.” 3 Decentralized Command means that leaders “…ensure they are running their teams to support the overall mission, without micromangement from the top.” This is exactly what Taiichi Ohno did by allowing frontline workers to create standards, as long as those standards helped support the overall mission of the team or organization. When there are standards, and leaders know how their teams will operate, it gives the leader freedom to focus on the big picture because they can trust that the frontline troops or workers will perform their job to the best known ability. The team creates standards, the best way to do something, and everyone knows those standards. Willink and Babin write “We standardized the way we loaded vehicles. We standardized the way we mustered in a building on a target. We standardized the way we “broke out” (or exited) from buildings. We standardized the way we got head counts to ensure we had all of our troops… There was a disciplined methodology to just about everything we did.” 3

In war, things can become confusing and deadly in the blink of an eye; “… when things went wrong and the fog of war set in, we fell back on our disciplined procedures to carry us through the toughest challenges on the battlefield” says Willink and Babin. 3 Because of standards, the troops knew what to do when things got crazy. Everyone knew where to go, how to communicate, and what was expected of them. This literally saved lives and won battles. In business and regular life, lives may not be at risk. Livelihoods, however, are often at risk. When standards are in place, it doesn’t matter how busy things get because everyone knows exactly what to do. Instead of devolving into chaos, stressful situations are manageable through the use of standards. The whole teams knows the best way to do their individual or collective jobs and can execute without even thinking about it. Leadership can then focus on solving bigger problems without having to worry about their teams. This, in turn, helps everyone.

Willink and Babin said “Instead of making us more rigid and unable to improvise, this discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient.” 3 This is the dichotomy of standardization. In business, war, or life, standards both create best practices and set a baseline that can be improved upon. There has to be a combination of following the standards and creatively adapting the standards to new developments and discoveries. “If frontline leaders and troops executing the mission lack the ability to adapt, this becomes detrimental to the team’s performance. So the balance between discipline and freedom must be found and carefully maintained” say Willink and Babin. 3 I forget where I read this analogy, but think of it like a bowling alley with bumpers in the gutters. The ball represents the frontline leaders or troops, who have some freedom of movement within set guidelines. The ball is moving towards the pins, or the team towards their goal, but doesn’t have complete freedom because the bumpers keep it in the lane.

Claire Lamarre perfectly describes the benefits of standardized work in a blog post for Tulip, a manufacturing app platform company.

1. Reduces variability

2. Helps your people

3. Increases safety

4. Improves continuous improvement 1

Standardized work reduces variability by creating a process for the best way to perform tasks which everyone who completes that task follows. Work is predictable because part of the standard is knowing how long the process takes, what the outcome of the process is, and being able to predict possible problems. If you have 10 people on a team and each person performs a task differently, it can be very hard to reduce variability in quality, time, and accuracy.

Standardized work helps your people because is provides structure, removes stress during processes, increases the quality and efficiency of processes, and makes training easier. Work is consistent and efficient because everyone performs their tasks using the best known process. Stress is removed because employees have steps to follow, rather than making the same small decisions over and over again. Training is easy because all you need to do is teach the standard to new employees.

Standardized work increases safety because part of the standard is performing work in the safest possible way. Employees develop standards that decrease the possibility for injuries or product defects.

Standardized work improves continuous improvement because “… it is only possible to evaluate improvements objectively when existing procedures are standardized and documented. As standards improve, the new standard becomes the basis for further improvements: improving standardized work is a never-ending process,” says Lamarre. 1 If you do not have a baseline to measure against, it is hard to tell if a change is actually an improvement or not. With standards, an employee is able to create a new way to do something and say things like “my improvement decreases product defects by 5%,” “my improvement makes the process 10% faster,” or “customers are reporting satisfaction 5% more often.”

Standardization is often used by some of the world’s top performers to reduce decision fatigue, get a consistent start to the day, and optimize cognitive abilities. Tim Ferriss has reported that many of the highly successful people he has interviewed for his world famous podcast follow a standardized morning routine. Ferriss says that “By putting those particular steps on autopilot, having that boot up sequence, you conserve your cognitive calories for the things that matter most. Meaning rather than deciding what you’re going to have for breakfast, what type of toothpaste you’re going to use, where you’re going to sit on the toilet; whatever it might be you are sparing yourself that cognitive burden so that you can apply your energy where your unique strengths can best be applied later.” 4 When I say that standardization actually increases creativity, this is what I mean. Following a standard means that you do not need to think about what you are doing and all of that brain power is free to come up with great ideas. Ferriss told Richard Feloni for Business Insider that “the more constraints I can create where I fly on autopilot and get a result I need or enjoy, the more horsepower, the more calories I have to allocate to being creative, and to doing things where thinking should actually be applied.” 5 Willink and Babin found that in one of the world’s most elite military forces, the “…unit that has tighter and more-disciplined procedures and processes will excel and win.” 3 When the mind is free to think and be creative, rather than make repetitive small scan decisions, improvement, success, and brainpower flourish.

Every day, there are hundreds of small decisions to be made; what to wear, what to eat, what time to perform a task, or even how to complete a task at work. Wasting brainpower on insignificant decision making will deplete your ability to be productive and creative when it actually matters. If you can implement standards that pull you through just a portion of those decisions without you having to actually think, you will be free to think, create, test new ideas, and win. Discipline truly does equal freedom. Think about what you, your team, or your company can standardize to become “more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient.” 3

As always, lets keep the conversation going and get better together! Please like, comment, or share.



1. Standardized Work: What is Standard Work and How to Apply It, by Claire Lamarre, August 15, 2019, accessed 1/17/2021,

2. 28 Mind-Blowing Taiichi Ohno Quotes, by Brandon Gaille, Jan 11, 2017, accessed 1/17/2021,

3. Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Publisher : St. Martin’s Press; First Edition (October 20, 2015), ISBN-10 : 1250067057, ISBN-13 : 978-1250067050,

4. The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Morning Routines and Strategies (#253), by Tim Ferriss, June 4, 2018, accessed 1/17/2021,

5. Tim Ferriss follows the same routine every morning to maximize his productivity, by Richard Feloni, Dec 1, 2017, 4:47 PM, accessed 1/17/2021,


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