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How Leader Standard Work might have prevented the 2nd outbreak of COVID in New Zealand

Leader Standard Work

What a COVID response leader could have learned from practising Leader Standard Work

Breaking our winning streak of more than 100 days without community transmission of COVID was disappointing and frustrating for all New Zealanders, even if that period was a global first. With scientists still looking for the source, and (some) media and politicians looking for someone to blame, I’m not prepared to jump to the conclusion that the cause for the 2nd outbreak was a lack of leadership oversight. But the new lockdown is too disruptive for us NOT to reflect on learnings. These are learnings related to Leader Standard Work; unfortunately, many New Zealand organisations still have a lot to learn about this.

Leader Standard Work is the routine interest of a leader in HOW – and IF – the work is done. It’s often expressed as a (check)list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks where leaders go and see the work of their teams (and organised in tiers in larger organisations). This check follows the 4 rules of work: a leader will want to know if the work is done as per the agreed method, that the expected outcome is achieved across the functions of the organisation, and if the worker can see ways to improve the work or overcome barriers.


It’s equally a teaching and learning moment, where leader and worker take both roles. The leader practices the ‘humble enquiry’ method; the process oozes mutual respect.

Twice now we have heard that leaders managing the COVID surveillance and containment response had issued instructions and found that these were not followed strictly. Twice this was about surveillance testing expectations. Let me be very clear first where I stand on this point. I have ABSOLUTELY no intention to point out failure or blame anyone in the public sector that is working in front-line at-risk situations or in the tough leadership positions charged with keeping our team of 5 million safe.

My intention is to look at where the process was insufficient and needs to be improved.

In this instance, what could a COVID response leader have learned from practising Leader Standard Work? She or he may have learned that health workers found the work demanding: dealing with test refusals, aggressive behaviour, a constant risk to get infected or to take the infection home, a watchful media, busy and/or long hours. The leader will also have been inspired by the work done. But most importantly a leader would have learned the front-line reality: 100% testing was not achieved. And that the front-line workers needed help, needed barriers removed, needed leadership support to achieve 100% testing. Action could have been taken, which could have been further reviewed. This is part of the mindset of continuous improvement that will help solve this problem.

A leader must ensure their team is set-up for success, and Leader Standard Work is the way to verify this is achieved. How often do you as a leader, go see the work and practice the ‘humble enquiry’ method, to learn, to teach, and to ensure your team is on-track to achieve industry leading performance?

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People and Co-founder of the Global Lean Alliance