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What is the Standard?: How Lessons Learned in the Military Can Make a Difference in Business.

What is the standard? 

It may seem simple, but I challenge you to ask that question about a process that is causing friction in your organization. 

Was the answer as simple as the question? 

Let’s take it one step further. If there is a standard, is it understood by everyone involved in the process? 

It is my firm belief that that simple question can alleviate many problems in day-to-day operations. 

Is There a Standard? 

There I was, a young officer in the United States Army sitting in my Platoon office trying to make sense of our latest maintenance status reports. Only 40% of our fleet was operational two weeks ago, but now suddenly 85% of our vehicles are ready for a field training exercise that is coming up in a few weeks, and I assured everyone that we were “good-to-go”.

The day we were supposed to head out for training, half of my vehicles either didn’t start or had a fault that was severe enough to prevent us from taking it to the training area. This left us scrambling to figure out how to transport my platoon plus our equipment with half of the operational vehicles required. 

This obviously didn’t go over well with the boss. 

Oh, and did I mention we missed our planned movement time by THREE hours?

A Noticeable Trend

Since I had taken over the platoon, our maintenance readiness had become inconsistent with no discernable causes to justify the fluctuation. 

The maintenance readiness reports were getting filled out. However, the information contained with varied significantly depending on which of my team members had completed them.

Many of reports didn’t have the proper signatures from their first-line supervisor. They also failed to document the necessary details required to address issues. And if a team member didn’t put their name on the sheet, I had no idea who to ask about the equipment’s status. 

Identifying Where Standards are Needed

After getting ripped apart in the maintenance meeting for another week as our next field exercise approached, I finally decided I had had enough of these maintenance issues. I sat down to map out the entire maintenance process with a counterpart to find our deficiencies… and there were many! 

First and foremost, there was no standard operating procedure (SOP) for the maintenance process, only for the required checks and preventive maintenance of the equipment. 

Secondly, we didn’t have our vehicles assigned to anyone. It was first-come-first-serve on preventive maintenance. 

We also had no one responsible for overseeing the maintenance program to ensure that all maintenance activities were being performed properly, get status updates, or check the reports to ensure they were filled out correctly. 

In addition, many of our team members could identify issues but they couldn’t describe it in a way that made sense to someone with minimal mechanical knowledge, nor did they know they needed that amount of detail. 

Implementing a Standard

After we realized the issues, there were three easy actions that solved nearly all our problems. 

First, we assigned different pieces of equipment to different sections of our team so there would never be a question on who is responsible. We also ensured that each section had every type of equipment under its area of responsibility to ensure that every individual in that section would get experience performing preventative maintenance on all our equipment. Most importantly, equipment assignments were posted on our maintenance board in our office and distributed electronically every week to ensure all team members knew what vehicles they were assigned. 

Second, we assigned a maintenance manager to oversee the maintenance program within our team. We tasked the maintenance manager with submitting an SOP for the entire process as well as a process map to visually demonstrate all the steps within the process for approval. When there were deficiencies with our maintenance program, I didn’t have to run around looking for answers anymore. I simply asked the maintenance manager. 

Lastly, each section of the team would go through training to ensure they understood the standard. They would also demonstrate understanding of the process by doing a walk-through, creating a process map, or a combination of the two that would be evaluated by myself or the maintenance manager every quarter. 

Similarities Between Military and Business

At this point you may be saying to yourself, “This all sounds great, but how does this relate to the business world?” 

The reality is that, in the military, we did many of the same things that people do in business. We may have used different verbiage to describe it and key performance indicators (KPIs) to assess it, but the process map that we created in the scenario above is very similar to a value stream map (VSM) that you may create for your process. 

We identified “True North” and examined the requirements we needed to meet within our operating environment. 

A current state map was created that helped us determine our bottlenecks and constraints within the maintenance program. 

We created a detailed SOP that not only explained the process but also described the expectations for how the program would run in the future. 

We created metrics, otherwise known as KPIs, that would help us understand if our maintenance program was operating as it should. We also added standard escalation procedures to help team members decide when to escalate maintenance concerns to different levels of management. 

We even executed process validation and process sustainability steps to keep the maintenance program up to standard. 

We included our maintenance managers in all of our operations planning meetings. Our daily leadership meetings were more effective because the uncertainties of our maintenance statuses were able to be addressed immediately by the manager.

What Standards can do for You

Within six months of implementation, we were had achievd over 80% equipment readiness – the highest in our Company and more than double our initial 40%. 

We were getting our maintenance issues resolved more quickly because our maintenance reports were consistent and detailed enough to create action items for our operators. 

The military is predicated on maintaining readiness of people, equipment, and organizations to react to whatever threat presents itself at any given moment. 

Sounds like operating in today’s business environment, doesn’t it? 

Unexpected market demand, supply chain disruptions, an inconsistent labor market are all threats that can impact your company’s readiness, and without the proper standards in place, you may be struggling to react to these challenges. 

If you are having difficulty with creating, maintaining, or evaluating standards within your organization, reach out to us at Allied Logistics. We have a proven track record of experience that can help you create a standards-based culture, strengthen daily leadership routines, and move away from firefighting and stagnation.

Improve Your Year-End Inventory Results

In a time where no one can agree on anything, it’s nice that at least those of us who make our living making things can be united on one thing: we all share a deep and abiding hatred for the annual year-end inventory.

You want me to forever question your moral compass? 

Tell me you don’t mind doing year-end inventory. 

Tell me that the thought of 12-hour days endlessly counting and re-counting doesn’t send a cold shiver down your spine, and I’ll show you a person who has lost all ability to tell the truth, even to themselves!

Nobody likes doing inventory. From the people doing the counts to the accounting group tasked with pulling the reports and reconciling the results to the management team that knows there will be a reckoning – as there is every year – once the final, disastrous results are tallied, everybody views the days set aside for inventory with a shared sense of dread!

But, there is good news!

While the year-end inventory will likely never be looked upon with a smile by those of us tasked with its execution, it doesn’t have to be the Armageddon-style doomsday scenario that we have all come to know. 

By developing a culture steeped in lean with an almost religious zeal for working according to standards, year-end inventory can come to be seen as an opportunity to assess your material handling weak spots instead of a giant microscope highlighting your complete lack of process control.

Here are a few suggestions for putting your company on the road to competent inventory control.

Develop a PFEP

A Plan for Every Part (PFEP) is the baseline for understanding how each component is to be handled once it arrives at your facility. It should answer questions like:

  1. What is the supplier’s standard packaging configuration? 
  2. Are they shipped in returnable or expendable packaging?
  3. Do they need to be repacked? If so, how should this be done? 
  4. Where should the parts be staged for delivery to production?
  5. Which production area should they be delivered to? How often are they delivered?

By taking the time to define these important characteristics up front, you provide a standard for warehouse associates to execute and for leadership to compare against.

Without a PFEP, warehouse personnel are left to make it up as they go and the production teams can only hope they get the parts on time. 

As you can well imagine, this often results in line operators coming into the warehouse to retrieve their own parts (and who can blame them?), often without telling anyone or performing the necessary WMS inventory transactions. 

Operate like this for a year and it’s easy to see why the year-end inventory results are so atrocious. 

Develop Material Handling Standards and Train Folks to Them

How are new warehouse associates trained at your plant? 

If your facility is like a lot of others, new associates are told, “Go stand next to Ralph. Ralph will train you to work in receiving!”

What are Ralph’s qualifications to train new, would-be receivers you ask? Well, he’s worked in receiving for the last 16 months. What else do you want to know? 

As it turns out, not much.

Too many warehouse managers are more than comfortable using the “stand by Ralph” method for training, and why shouldn’t they be? If the new associate makes a mistake and incorrectly processes an inbound delivery, they can always blame it on the associates’ shortcomings instead of having to shoulder the blame themselves for an inadequate or, worse yet, non-existent written standard.

And this type of “training program” causes more problems than just some lost inventory. It also leads to high associate turnover.

 No one likes working in an unproductive, chaotic environment without the necessary tools and skills to do the job. And managing this type of process is not much better. After all, the warehouse manager is the one having to explain to senior leadership why they have allowed thousands or sometimes millions of dollars in material to be lost and written off on their watch. 

And who ends up footing the bill for such poor process development? The customer, of course! 

To avoid this pain and almost certain loss of profits, take the time upfront to document how the process should work and then train the associates to the new written standard. Have them sign-off that they understand the process and sign-off again any time that there are changes. 

And this brings me to my next point…

Trust, but Verify!!

It’s great that you have taken the time to develop a PFEP and to correctly document each of your processes, but how do you know that associates are following the processes that you have painstakingly written?

You don’t!

Unless you have implemented a system for regularly auditing your standards, you don’t really know that they are being followed as designed. You must make the time to watch your team execute the process. 

Are they performing the standard exactly as written? No? Why not? 

Has something changed in the process? Is there a variable that you failed to notice or capture? 

The shopfloor is constantly changing, and to maintain accurate and adequate standards you must update them accordingly. If you don’t, then you no longer have a standard. You have a piece of paper that represents how they used to do it or how you wished they did it. 


If you want this year’s annual inventory to be different from the last dozen, then it’s important to develop a plan for how material should be handled inside your facility. Next, you must train the team to execute the plan and check to make sure they are executing it correctly. If you notice deviations, take action! Update the standard or retrain the associate. 

Do this consistently and you will begin to reduce the amount of variation in the process which will in turn give you consistent results, i.e. more accurate inventories.

Don’t misunderstand me, starting this from nothing is a TON of work, but it will pay dividends down the road. And if you’re unsure where to start or how to implement the processes and audits we’ve discussed, give us a call. We would love the opportunity to help you and your team establish a culture of standardization and continuous improvement at your company! 

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