Standards for Success

Over the years, it has amazed me how people respond when talking about standards...

Some people love them. They see the standards as guidance from the experts.  They help focus the efforts of many different people so everyone is working in harmony. Standards help us follow the best practices of experience without having to go through the pain of discovery ourselves.

The people who love standards are usually organized team players. They are looking for direction, efficiency and predictability. They want to cut to the quick and get the job done. They would rather not spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel.

On the other side of the fence are the people who hate them. The people who hate standards see them as oppressive. They stifle creativity. They tell us what someone else thinks is best and restrict us from doing what we know is better. Standards hold us back.

The people who hate standards are typically intelligent and independent or creative thinkers. They see standards as an obstacle in the way of them doing what they know is right. Many times these opponents have years of experience behind them and draw from that experience when making their arguments against standards.

Who is right and who is wrong?

The answer to this question is not cut and dry. Standards do help guide us and make it easier for less experienced people to do very complicated tasks. We live with many standards such as what side of the road to drive on, how we pay for goods and services (cash, credit or debit) and proper ways to greet someone new. Some of these standards are very strict and, if not followed, can result in people being hurt or killed. Others are very loose and need to be altered depending on your current situation.

In my experience, I find standards are a great place to start. In most cases (roughly 80% - 90% of the time) it is much easier and practical to follow the standards. When this is not the case, the standards quickly fall out of fashion and disappear in obscurity.

When you are put into a situation that you have never been in, the only guidance you have are the standards set by those before you. Why not start there? Then alter your approach only when you find alternatives that are superior. Oftentimes, when you find a new and better alternative, it may eventually become anew standard.

One day, when I was going through one of my mailing lists, I found a post by a user new to to subject. They were asking about the best way to perform a common task. They had heard about the standard way to achieve their goal but they were unsure about why. Was this standard really the best approach?

A great deal of discussion ensued, including a bit of frustration from the more experienced members of the mailing list. One person said that this new user should go with the standard - it's the way everyone else does it. In this example I agreed, the standard approach was truly the easiest and most practical. But I disagreed with the reason.

A standard gives us guidance and it is where we should start when we are new. But it is the people who question the standards that help us improve upon them and open our eyes when the standard is deluding us from the real truth.

An example:

In the late 19th century scientists believed in a luminiferous aether and used the concept to explain many properties of light they did not understand. Unfortunately, this belief held back scientific advancement. It wasn't until advancements in scientific theories like Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity came about that the concept of an aether became obsolete.

It is the people who question the standards that help us make the big advancements.But we must not forget the value of the standards in our lives. They give us a starting point. The more standards we have to begin with, the better off we will be when starting something new. We can do more, faster, better and cheaper when we use standards.

At the same time we must not forget to question what we are told. I am not advocating rebellion in every aspect of our lives. Instead, I prefer to follow as many standards (and rules) as possible and then pick out those standards that I feel are holding me back from greater achievements. I focus my efforts on the standards that, if broken or changed, provide me with the greatest benefit.

For those people who feel it is their prerogative to rebel against all standards imposed upon them, they will find an endless supply of oppression and exhaust themselves with their struggle. Like a person who takes a giant piece of plywood and stands it up against a river to block the flow as they cross to the other side, they will find themselves in a loosing battle. The river will continually press down on them when all they had to do was turn the sheet of plywood with the current and let the water effortlessly flow on by - or better yet, hold it above their head.

Where do we stand to gain from standards?

The list below contains many of the benefits you and your company can gain by using standards.
No reinventing the wheel:
By using good standards you only need one person to create and determine how to implement a great idea. Then everyone can use it over and over with little to no additional effort.
Better communication between colleagues:
If everyone is using the same standards, they all know how other team members operate. Standardization of language is just an example. If you standardize on operating procedures, it enables a person to just say a few words and others immediately understand the context of the situation and can immediately jump in and help.
The ability for people to switch between projects quickly and easily:
This helps the business and its employees. The business benefits by having the flexibility to move their employees to where they are needed without high costs in time and money. The employees gain further job security since they can do more for the business and, if their job becomes obsolete, they can move to other positions.
Quicker training and set up of new employees:
When you standardize on the tools people use and how they use them, it becomes much easier to bring in new people and have them working productively right away.

I recall one job I had at a local marketing firm. They believed that their developers should have the freedom to choose whatever tools they wanted to use and install software on their computer however they wanted. I also remember that when I started, they paid me for two weeks to wrestle with an old machine set up by a previous employee. I got nothing productive done for 2 weeks and I estimate they spent over $6000 for ... nothing. To top it off, I left in frustration (just about everything there was as wasteful as this) after working for them for only 2 months so they had to do it again with someone else.
Easier to consolidate the knowledge for best practices and ways to avoid or fix problems:
If everyone is using the same tools and following the same procedures, when people have a problem it is highly likely someone has experienced the same problem before and your colleagues can help each other. And if you are continually updating your standards you can implement changes that prevent the problem from occurring again in the future.
Systems are easier to connect:
With standards it becomes easier for other departments to communicate and easier for their systems (either physical or procedural) to interoperate efficiently.
Less of a need for highly skilled and expensive labor:
If your business is growing, this growth typically increases the complexity of the inner workings of the business. Such complexity requires more highly skilled labor. If you set good standards you can reduce the complexity and lower the skill sets required to grow. This doesn't have to lead to employees loosing their jobs. If the few highly skilled employees you have are responsible for creating the standards, you want to keep them around. But the new people you hire need not be as skilled or as expensive.
New products and services or efficiencies are easier to realize:
Once you have everything organized, you will find it easier to make changes and communicate those changes throughout your organization. If a new product or service is very similar to another it is a lot easier to develop the product or service by simply copying an already well organized idea. It is like a factory where creating large number of similar but highly complex parts is easy to do, costs very little money and can be done with high reliability. It is also easier to estimate time lines and costs for the new products and services.

What problems should we watch out for?

The following is a list of the potential problems, either with the perceptions people have of standards or with the way they are implemented and maintained. To get the most out of the standards you and your company abides by, you need to be aware of the pitfalls.
Standards are the bane of the creative mind:
Your most creative employees will often resist standards. Creativity is thinking out of the box while standards are working within the box. You need to find a way to encourage your employees to abide by the standards but always be thinking of ways to improve upon them. Also, everyone should realize that you cannot follow 100% of the standards 100% of the time. I like to use the 80/20 rule: if you stick to about 80% of your standards, it will account for about 20% of your time. And the other 20% that you deviate from the standards will take up 80% of your time. This demonstrates how expensive it is to go against the standards but to stay competitive, it is necessary. If everything you do is standard, you will find it hard to distinguish yourself from your competitors.
Standards prevent us from doing what needs to be done:
It is true that standards can sometimes get in the way. If you find that employees are not following a standard, it is time to review the standard. You may need to alter or remove the standard all together. Don't get into the trap of using a standard just because "it has always been that way".
Standards become stale and no longer relevant:
Periodically go back and review your standards. Times change. Technology changes. Business changes. Consumers want something new. You need to keep your company fresh and on the cutting edge. Upgrading your standards is one way to ensure your business stays on top.
I don't want anyone telling me what to do!
When I hear something like this from an employee, I immediately see someone who is NOT a team player. It takes people who work together to create truly great products and services. If an employee is going to be rebellious like this, you should question whether they belong on the team.