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How Much Standardization?

post # 431 — September 12, 2007 — a Managing, Strategy post

Here’s what I hope will be an interesting question for many people. A correspondent of mine wrote in as follows:


I work for a firm of about 20 people (15 consultants.) We all work independently, the consultants rarely meeting up – if we do, it’s for training sake. We are sole practitioners at the client site, coaching and leading client teams. Our projects get little or no oversight, as long as the client is happy and we are getting results. We do have “standard methodology”, a standard project roadmap, some standard analysis tools, and some standard training presentations and exercises that we use, or at least they are available to us.

Compliance to the standard methodology is low. The tools are typically used, but there is huge variation in the exact project sequencing/schedule and the training presentations. Many of us in the group were hired in from different companies and we have different backgrounds and we all bring something different to the table.

Most of us personalize and adapt the training material based on what and how we like to teach. I think some of the training material is either incomplete, inappropriate, or unprofessional. So, I spend time customizing the slides, sharing some of them with co-workers in an informal way, but, again, nobody is really watching to see HOW I do my consulting work, just to see if I’m delivering results (which I do).

Recently, we had a very frustrating week-long offsite meeting as a team. There was a lot of contention and confusion about this idea of standard methodology, namely who defines it? How much standardization is enough?

A team of four people volunteered to look at the issue of standard methodology — but those of us who didn’t volunteer (or weren’t chosen) didn’t realize how much power this group would have. Instead of looking at ALL of the variation and the ways some basic training presentations were crafted and delivered, they picked one version and made edits to it, basically ignoring the input that the rest of us would have given.

In our consulting, we preach that standardized work can’t be dictated to people — yet, we’re doing the same thing within our group. Can we ever get 15 diverse people to perfectly 100% agree on what material should be presented and in what order? There are too many diverging opinions (and too much history of not being perfectly standardized) for us to all just suddenly get on board.

We’re getting very inconsistent and schizophrenic “direction” from our leadership. On the one hand, they’ll say “the standard is the bare minimum of content, you can add to it” and then later saying “you must all do the work exactly the same way.” Is it enough to have a standard framework that we can all customize to our personal tastes and client needs? Or, do we have to be “consultant-bots” who follow a perfectly scripted program, for the sake of consistency?

I fully believe “nobody likes to be told what to do” and that it applies equally well to assembly workers, nurses, and consultants. If I am told to perfectly standardize on what I consider to be sub-par material, I’ll most likely look for a new firm (or start my own). I understand the need to deliver a consistent experience to our clients, but how standard is standard enough from their standpoint? I can handle standardizing to the level of “here’s what you must accomplish in a 16-week project and here’s what you should be doing each week, if all goes well.” But dictating every single slide seems like overkill, like standardization for the sake of standardization. If we’re all getting good results with slightly different methods, isn’t that ok?

What are your thoughts? Is this a common problem in a consulting firm?


My first instinct is to share the view that no-one like to be dictated to on HOW to do things. In general, as you suggest, the key is to have very solid accountabiity for outcome effectiveness, and then let people do it their own way “on the day.”

But let’s think about this. Under what circumstances might you argue the opposite? If you’re not involved and can look at it in a detached way, then you could observe that standardizing the process is exactly what businesses have done for centuries to capture efficiency and get things done with lower cost workers. Does MacDonalds let each outlet decide how to do things? Should they? What about a steel mill?

Now, I’m not arguing that fits your situation. I merely observe that I know consulting operations whose entire business model is built around getting lower paid people to deliver very effective standard methodologies. You and I might not want to work there, but it’s not inherently a dumb idea.


Duncan said:

The business model used seems to almost require standardised work – I’m guessing that your correspondent has matured through the pipeline of the business and is now perhaps a little too senior in experience to stick around. This is probably also a natural consequence of the model they’ve adopted – attrition of more senior people when they are very comfortable with the standard material, completely autonomous and have better ideas about how to do it.

It’s a real shame that they haven’t leveraged the experiences of the team – it could have really raised the level of the new ‘standard’.

posted on September 12, 2007

Dave said:

I think that there are some really great reasons that a consulting practice may want to move towards standardization:

– As “intellectual capital”, pre-existing templates and work products can lower the cost of delivering a service, thus increasing profit. While the author of the question certainly understands this from their own perspective (as she/he has added to training templates on their own), it is important to realize that leveraging the size, or the “crowd”, is a good way to allow a consulting firm to fully utilize all of it’s human assets.

– Standardization can help to ensure quality standards by forcing certain components to be included in deliverables.

– Standardization can allow comparison of efficiency and quality among peers.

Having pointed out a couple of advantages of standardization, I see two potential drawbacks that the question asker has already implied:

– Standardization can stifle creativity, and potentially innovation.

– Standardization efforts may actually lower overall quality, if the standardized materials are of lower quality than the materials used by an individual practitioner.

One system that I’ve seen at IBM is a particularly cool innovation regarding templates and “intellectual capital”. In this model, every practitioner has an incentive to take existing content, improve it and modify it as they see fit, and then post the resulting template to an online database with meta-information about the template which can be searched. Then other practitioners (“the crowd”) can search the database for content, and “vote with their actions” through a rating system. Like ebay, content can be rated in terms of usefullness. Content that practitioners find useful ends up bubbling up to the top, and other practitioners will be likely to use that as a starting place in improving it for their own engagements. In this model, practitioners are not required to use a specific standard set of content, but there is a natural incentive to improve and share those improvements with others. Still, even with such a system, differences will arise in methodology and firm identification that may need a top-down approach. For example, it might make sense to allow consultants to use whatever format they see fit for worksheets and day-to-day project materials, but to have some practice-wide standard format for a final delivered product. Because the question was specifically dealing with the example of training, I would think that it might make sense for a firm which provides training to have a “standard” set of materials such as textbook and powerpoint deck which was used by all practitioners, in order to ensure consistency in the final-delivered product (to allow for repeat business).

posted on September 12, 2007

Ed Kless said:

This is a classic Jim Collins “perserve the core/stimulate progress” question.

Agreement to a standard does not need to stiffle creativity. I would suggest bringing the company’s methdology in line with an industry standard such as the Project Management Institute’s PM-Body of Knowledge rather than one developed by one person inside the company, otherwise, there will always be a we/they mentality.

Once a framework is adopted, creativity should be encouraged in its use and poor areas changed or removed. To do this I strongly encourge the use of after action reviews on every project.

posted on September 12, 2007

Carl Singer said:

Although I serve on an international standards board — or maybe because I do ….. I’d suggest looking first towards a sharing of “intellectual capital” — among your consulting practitioners. You’ll need to decide how to implement this sharing and where along the “must” spectrum it will fall (from extremes of YOU MUST DO THIS – our way or the high way — to — here’s some good stuff, feel free to use it if you’d like.)

Let me recommend my introductory article in the in the August 2003 IBM System’s Journal and several other articles that appear in that issue — available free for download

http://researchweb.watson.ibm.com/journal/sj/423/singer.html or from my website (above.)


posted on September 12, 2007

Fiona Torrance said:


I enjoyed reading your post “How much Standardization?” very much. You’ve (your correspondent) raised a number of valuable questions. While standardization does grant a form of quality-control, there are three main areas that it may compromise (which some above have commented on): 1. Innovation 2. Strategic and sustainable competitive advantage 3. Responsibility. A standardized product or service does not engage creativity and therefore eventually is devoid of strategy and sustainability to be competitive. Eventually, responsibilities (whether economic, environmental, or social – community & people) will fall short. So, if applied generally – what are solutions to balance the need for standardization with the need for innovation, strategic & sustainable competitive advantage, and meeting responsibilities?

The IBM one is a great example where “IBM community” combine intellect & creativity in a “knowledge management system” which is based on “standardization”. Yes – it will have “bugs”, but there is a central communication system through which to communicate. Keeping communication channels open to all in the process is paramount for 1. 2. 3. Developing and improving on this type of example is a start.

posted on September 12, 2007

dick troll said:

My comments are, perhaps harder edged and limited to the delivery of legal services. From one vantage point, the history of lawyering has been nothing more than power over a specialized vocabulary and access to information not readily available to those being served. Under the cover of this darkness lawyers delivered a product that was, for the most part, already standardized- but offered as truly innovative work- and billed accordingly. The internal battle over standardization was often a power play over which set of templates would be presented to a client as the custom tailored product of brilliant minds.

But, of course, the Internet has changed everything. And lawyers, like others who sell information, are scrambling to adapt.

posted on September 12, 2007

Christopher Marston, Esq said:

I agree with Dick,

but I believe that lawyers need to get over their insecurity and stop worrying that people will think they are a commodity. If they do they can stop hiding behind standardized langauge that has proven itself throughout the years and add their true value to clients through creativity, and the crafting of customized language on the core terms that are unique to each deal. There is no such thing as a commodity in legal services. . . . . that is. . . unless you actually believe it!

posted on September 13, 2007

Carl Singer said:


(Small world.) Thanks for the plug. I was lured to IBM about 12 years ago to work on the system that you mention and had the good fortune to be part of the team that conceived and implemented same.

I invite you to read my article in the IBM Systems Journal (August 2003) — also downloadable from my website that provides some insight into this model.

Briefly, an important success criteria is a culture that encourages and rewards such cooperation.

Best regards,


posted on September 15, 2007