Standardized Work Instructions – Implementing the Improved Process

In Six Sigma our goal is to continuously improve our ability to deliver defect free products and services that meet customer requirements.  Doing so results in higher levels of customer satisfaction and lowers the cost of operations.   In the course of a typical improvement project we define a problem, collect data about the nature of the problem, analyze the data to isolate the root cause of the problem, choose and implement an improved process that addresses the root cause, and put into effect controls to make sure that the improved process stays in place.  Standardized Work Instructions are an essential part of a successful Six Sigma project.

All of the work that is done prior to implementation of the improved process is for naught if we are unable to clearly and concisely communicate to our employees how the process is to be performed using Standardized Work Instructions.   J.W. Marriott Jr. said the following:  “We can hardly expect our associates to do their jobs well if we haven’t shown them how.”

The best Standardized Work Instructions are those that anyone can understand, even someone who has never performed the job before.  They are simple and highly visual.  They define the best known way to perform the work and are the basis for eliminating variation from one employee to the next.

Training MUST be done to a standard.  Having one employee train another without using Standardized Work Instructions is common practice in business and industry, and is the absolute worst form of training.  Bad habits and misunderstandings get passed along, while proper practices are not taught or reinforced.    When quality problems arise, the first question that we should ask is “Are you following the standardized work instructions?”  If the answer is no, employees must return to following the instructions and the results re-evaluated.  If the answer is yes and the result is not satisfactory, the instructions and/or the process may need to be changed.

I use a simple exercise in our Green Belt course to emphasize the need for clear, simple, visual Standardized Work Instructions.    Students are instructed to carefully perform the following tasks:

  1. Begin with a blank piece of 8-1/2” X 11” paper that has no holes in it.
  2. Fold the paper in half and tear off one corner.
  3. Fold the paper in half a second time and tear off another corner.
  4. Fold the paper in half a third time and again tear off one corner.
  5. Open the paper up completely.

If students ask questions about how to perform this work, I tell them that we don’t have time for any further training and that they should just follow these simple, specific written instructions.  Here are some examples of their results:

As you can see, the results vary widely.     The instructions are ambiguous and open to interpretation.  Which way should the paper be folded?  Which corner should be torn off?  And so on.  With instructions like these, which are typical of the vast majority of instructions that are in use in the workplace today, the results are like snowflakes – no two are the same.  Words alone will NEVER result in the paper being folded and torn consistently.  If you don’t believe me, try writing an instruction yourself using no pictures or visual images.  Give your instructions to ten people and see what happens!

Pictures and/or video are very effective in conveying Standardized Work Instructions and should definitely be used wherever and whenever possible. The lesson here is that we cannot be too careful about how we instruct people to do things.

Henry Ford said the following in 1926, and his words are just as true today:  “It is doing anything in less than the best way, not the competition, that matters…If we do that which is before us in the best way…we do not have to worry much about anything else.”

Your comments or questions about this article are welcome, as are suggestions for future articles. Feel free to contact me by email at

About the author:  Mr. Roger C. Ellis is an industrial engineer by training and profession. He is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 48 years of business experience in a wide range of fields. Mr. Ellis develops and instructs Six Sigma professional certification courses for Key Performance LLC. For a more detailed biography, please refer to