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No More Best Practices

Contributor post by Michael Ballé, co-author of The Lean Strategy: Using Lean to Create Competitive Advantage, Unleash Innovation, and Deliver Sustainable Growth.

It often seems obvious that to progress, we should identify “best practices.” Observe these best practices (in the industry, in other industries, etc.) adapt them to our situation (and often lose what is best about them in the process) and lo: behold!

The idea of “best practices” is straight out of the taylorist playbook of “one best way” and perfectly fits bureaucratic silo thinking. Rather than worry about how my department can add more value within a value stream (making the next step easier) to better serve end customers, I can adopt the new “best practice” to catch up with all other companies doing that – regardless of its impact. And since this does not involve collaborating with other departments, everyone will be happy about it.

A Practice is only “Best” in a Certain Context

Best practices, when they emerge somewhere, are the outcome of someone figuring out how to solve a global problem locally. A practice is only “best” in a certain context. The executives that profoundly understand their problem, such as, say, what stops them from delivering to customers exactly on time, and then experiment with their teams until they figure out a new, better way to work eventually produce a “best practice,” like just-in-time logistics – but the route to creating it didn’t come from applying one off the shelf (or being sold by a vendor). It comes from facing a problem and being smart about it.

More deeply, the misunderstanding lies in thinking that learning means “applying” knowledge. This is simply not the case. Learning is a transfer process in which people who understand a problem very well suddenly see a solution in something new they’re shown or told. “Aha!” moments first require a deep obsession with the problem.

First You Must Understand the Problem

Benchmarking is a great idea – we should do more of it. Teardown of competitors’ products and services is an even better idea. And discussing new ideas so that we can copy and improve some of them absolutely the right way to go –IF one understands the problem we’re trying to solve first. If not, this is just industrial tourism at best, and throwing good money after bad in buying ready-packaged solutions that simply won’t fit the current situation. And best case, even should you make the “best practice” work, you’d be only playing catch up, not developing competitive advantage. 

There is an entire industry devoted to convincing us the key to competitiveness is adoption of all the “best practices,” around. This is such a tempting thought: I don’t have to learn, I can buy ready-made knowledge. Unfortunately, it’s a fool’s hope.

To create your own best practices, you first have to face, explore and discuss your problems (never an easy moment) and then experiment (yes, taking inspiration from what others are doing) until you hit upon new ideas that work better – in their specific context. Then, you can ask yourself why? And why? Until you discover deeper insight. The starting point, however, is taking responsibility for your own learning rather than expecting it to find it ready-to-implement in the supermarket of “best practices.”

Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).

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