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Policy, standard, procedure, and guideline are terms you will commonly hear in the workplace. Whilst having clearly defined and established policies, standards, procedures and guidelines is beneficial for your Lean journey, they can sometimes cause issues. Firstly, we’ve found that in many organisations, most staff members aren’t fully aware of or don’t fully understand all of their organisation’s policies, procedures, standards and guidelines. Oftentimes the terms are used interchangeably, highlighting that the meaning and purpose of each document isn’t clear. Secondly, they are often cited as reasons for doing things a certain way, or as excuses for resistance to change. So, we want to set the record straight on these points.

Before diving into what each of these documents mean, however, we need to talk about why it’s important for organisations to have them in the first place. Businesses spend hundreds of hours creating policies, standards, procedures, and guidelines only for them to be ignored or not fully understood. Oftentimes they are changed over the years and never formally updated or communicated, then when new staff members join or there is uncertainty there is no current document to refer to.

A company’s policies and procedures should  be a distinct strategic link between it’s vision and its day-to-day operations. At a basic level, they are essential because they set expectations for employees, keep management accountable and ensure compliance with laws and regulations. In terms of Lean, they should  help organisations to perform efficiently and minimise waste. However, confusion around content and scope of different policies, procedures, standards and guidelines leads to imperfections, over processing, and poor customer service. In other words, they generate wastes that can be avoided.

So, what is the point of having all of these documents?


Policy – A course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or individual*

Business policies are developed to govern the actions of an organisation and define the limits within which decisions must be made. As such, policy documents can often be quite general in their nature. Policies should explain why they exist in the first place and to whom the rules apply. An example of this is the Health and Safety Policy.

Learning Point: In our experience people have often waved a document which they call a policy in front of us in the belief that this could not be changed and must be adhered to. However someone wrote this policy in the first place so it can be changed via the appropriate channels. And, it may be that the ‘policy’ is not a policy at all, but e.g. a procedure or a local practice that has been documented and which over time has assumed more importance than intended.


Standard – A level of quality or attainment*

Standards are the mandatory actions that give policies support and direction. One of the most difficult things about writing a standard is getting all the relevant parties to agree on what should be included. The standard should define the acceptable level of quality of the users’ behaviour or other aspect of performance such as time-frames. Standards are mandatory and must be enforced.

Leaning Point: If you have no standards you cannot measure process performance and without performance data you have no base from which to improve that process.


Procedure – An established or official way of doing something*

A procedure is a detailed set of instructions for how to complete a task. Procedures should identify specific actions and when to take them. This would include emergencies and should highlight any warnings and cautions. For example, Standard Operating Procedures. As such, procedures often change over time.

Learning Point: Procedures must be updated regularly via the appropriate channels. It is no good handing someone a procedure document on which you have made handwritten changes. Someone else in the team may not make those same changes.
Note that some people use the terms ‘process’ instead of procedure, however they are in fact different. A process is the high-level view  of the task, outlining a set of interrelated or interacting activities which transforms inputs into outputs.


Guidelines – A general rule, principle, or piece of advice*

Guidelines are a piece of advice for how to act in a given situation. Whilst they are recommended they are not mandatory. Ideally, they should be designed to streamline certain processes according to what the best practices are. Guidelines by their nature should be open to interpretation.

Learning Point: Often people take guidelines as procedural rules, which unnecessarily increases process complexity.


*Definitions from the Oxford Dictionary


Here’s a helpful pyramid to understand each and how they influence each other:


Hopefully these definitions make the differences between policies, standards, procedures and guidelines clear. As such, the terms cannot be used interchangeably as each has a specific function and fills a specific need. Our next step, then, is to explore how policies, standards, procedures, and guidelines fit in to your Lean journey.

Often, these terms are brought up during the initial stages of a Lean transformation, and they are presented as reasons why the current process cannot be changed (see the Wall of Excuses for more). However, the key thing to remember about all of these documents is that they CAN be amended. Policies, standards, procedures and guidelines were all created by someone in the first place and so can be changed via the appropriate channels when needed. In fact, it is important that they are regularly updated in line with the changes in the organisation’s internal and external environments. Failure to do this can result in confusion and inconsistencies in operations within an organisation which leads to waste, or in extreme cases it can results in company practices not complying to legal requirements. For instance, when the GDPR came into force almost all organisations had to make some changes to their data handling procedure.

Additionally, it is important to regularly communicate the contents of these documents with employees. As highlighted by the GDPR example, failure to do so can have serious consequences. It is vital to ensure employees understand all of the processes that are relevant to their role. In our experience, people often don’t understand the sections of the process that happen before or after their part of it. If the entire process is not transparent you can often get misunderstanding of process purpose and process silos can form. It’s essential to have a clear and efficient processes so an employee or partner can see what is expected and the task can be accomplished. However, processes that have evolved over time within an organisation often, wasteful steps can build up within in, creating room for errors and misunderstandings. Hence why those who are base their resistance to change on policies or procedure are often the ones who could benefit most from Lean Process Improvement!

What is your take on policies, procedures, processes, standards and guidelines? We’d love to hear from you if your thoughts accord with yours, or if you think there something we have missed!


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