Ever had your boss look at something you have done and for them to remark, “This is not good enough”?

Even worse, ever had them then say, “Pull your socks up!”

Even though my career has taken me to forty countries and has made me ork in varied cultures doing a wide range of tasks, I have never understood what the quality of elastic in my socks had to do with whether I did my job well or not.

Too often, organisations have no standards to which employees must complete their work. The standard for the quality of work rests in the head of the individual and their boss.

To explain what I mean consider the following situation. When our first son was born, my wife and I were very young and unprepared for the rigours of parenthood with a baby who would not sleep for more than an hour at a time. We were very tired, my wife more so, having gone through the rigours of childbirth.

Being a good husband, I took on the house cleaning and other domestic duties. After vacuuming, washing up, washing the nappies and generally cleaning like a whirlwind, I sat down to read the newspaper whilst my wife slept. Or so I thought.

To my amazement, I heard the sound of a vacuum cleaner at the other end of the house. Given that our son was one week old I reasoned that we had a very domestic intruder, our son was a certifiable genius or my wife was cleaning the house.

Naturally enough I asked a reasonable question of my wife. “Why are you cleaning?” said I. “Because it’s not clean”, came the reply. “What do mean it is not clean?” came the frustrated retort.

The rest of the conversation is inconsequential to this article however, the message was clear. My wife and I had very different standards we attached to the simple word, “clean”.

Organisations without formal or explicit informal standards of how to operate or what the output of an operation should look like risk having a confused, demotivated and unhappy workforce. The efforts of the workforce to achieve the organisation’s goal will be diffused and therefore unproductive.

Standards come in different forms.

The most obvious are numeric. For example, the reject rate of manufacturing widgets will be less than 0.9%. Numeric standards are good. Provided the organisation has a numerate workforce, numbers have an unequivocal value and their relative value cannot be confused.

For outcomes where the assignment of a numerical standard is not easy or practical, other methods of ascribing a standard must be found. Returning to an outcome such as “clean”, a standard can be assigned in different ways.

For example the standard can be a description of the result of a test such as running a white glove over the “clean” surface and having no visible trace of dirt showing. I think this was my wife’s secret way of telling whether I had cleaned something or not.

Standards for outcomes like “clean” can also be described by the activity required to achieve the desired outcome. That is in this case, cleaning instructions. The standard then becomes the method rather than the outcome itself. Fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s are safe toilet havens around the world because they have the same standard world wide. You know wherever you are in the world toilets will be cleaned to the same standard and the same frequency.

No matter how good a standard an organisation sets, it is only as good as the level of communication and enforcement of the standard.

Setting a standard and not adequately communicating it to employees is as useful as not setting a standard in the first place. The communication must be clear, preferably demonstrated and definitely tested for comprehension. One way emails and circulars as a single means of communication for important standards are therefore unsuitable channels of communication.

Coaching, questioning and active listening are important skills to be utilised when standards are being set, especially if they are being set for the first time.

Once standards are set it is vital that they are measured. If they are numeric, standards can be set with either lower limits or upper limits or both to trigger off corrective action. If they are non numeric, or are instructional in nature, then they need to be audited for conformance.

Setting, communicating and measuring standards are a necessary set of actions for an organisation that seeks to be regarded as professional by others. They are vital to let employees know what they are supposed to do and to what level of quality, quantity and timeliness.

And they are useful for young fathers who need to not only pull up their socks but to also clean up their act.