Standardized Work: The Source of Creativity

Knowledge workers often push back against the adoption of lean by claiming that their work is fundamentally creative and unpredictable, and therefore unsuited to the standardization that lean requires. That complaint is legitimate when it comes to the actual creative work. And yet, standardized routines are necessary (or at least helpful) underpinnings for the flowering of your creative genius.

There's a terrific article at that explains this concept. It points out that the magic of creative inspiration is more likely to occur when you have routines built into your daily work process. This is what Steven King says about the importance of routines in his writing:

There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.

Notice the elements of 5S and standardized work at play here, even though his job — dreaming up fiction — is the epitome of creative work.

Steven King's approach ties in nicely with what the psychologist William James said about the importance of habit:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automation, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their proper work. There is no more miserable person than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision….

Toyota gets this idea, too. Our friend Mark Graban at the Lean Blog says that

I've heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that's not fatigued from constant decision making.

Obviously, this kind of control over daily workflow is more difficult to exert if you're working in a cubicle in a large organization. But there are ways to absent yourself from the chaos around you — park yourself in a conference room, go to another floor or department in the building where no one needs you, run out to a local coffee shop, put on headphones, whatever.

Consider it a kaizen opportunity to find a way to bring some semblance of routine to the hectic frenzy of your day. (One caveat: don't make reading email first thing in the morning a routine. That's the road to disaster.)

Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The perspiration will more likely lead to inspiration if you create some standardized work to structure it.


  1. [...] is a common theme among prolific people. I’ve written before about the way Stephen King gets himself ready for work: There are certain things I do if I [...]

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