It is time to revisit the best practices meme again. Over the past few months I have been struck by the way the term is sometimes used in an all-encompassing way, without necessarily clarifying its scope.
One relatively recent post of this type “Innovation Builds on Best Practice” was written by Tom Young of Knoco, and refers to their intriguing Bird Island exercise. Over the last ten years, Knoco have been running workshops in which the participants build a tower with a given set of materials, then improve their designs following a number of KM interventions. The decade of experience has been documented in a set of ‘best practices’ which are used as part of the exercise. As the exercise progresses, tower heights increase significantly, and the maximum heights have also grown over the ten year period. (There is a longer account of the exercise in the April 2009 issue of Inside Knowledge magazine.)
Tom defines ‘best practice’ by reference to work done with BP:
A recognised way of [raising productivity or quality level across the board] is to identify a good example of how to do it and replicate that in other locations. We used the term ‘good practice’ in the BP Operations Excellence programme. After we had identified several ‘good practices’, we developed from them, the ‘best practice’. It was only after the ‘best practice’ was identified (and agreed by the practitioners) that it was rolled out and all plants encouraged to implement that method. After all if there was an agreed ‘best practice’ to do an activity, why would you not want to use it? Learning was captured on an ongoing basis and the ‘best practice’ updated periodically.
If I understand him correctly, Tom is comparing performance in an activity, process or task in one part of an organisation with the same activity, process or task elsewhere in the same organisation. In this context, I can see that practices may well be comparable and replicable across silos. (Although, to answer his rhetorical question, I can easily envisage situations where the context may well require a ‘best practice’ to be ignored. Offshore oil extraction will be very different in the different climatic conditions of the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea.)
However, greater problems arise in attempts to transfer ‘best practice’ between organisations, or even within organisations where more processes or activities are at stake.
More years ago than it is comfortable to recall, I studied Comparative Law. (I even taught it briefly at a later stage.) One of the key readings was an article by Otto Kahn-Freund, “On Use and Misuse of Comparative Law” (1974) 37 Modern Law Review 1. (The article is not online, but I found a very good summary of its key points, together with a later piece by Gunther Teubner.) Kahn-Freund’s argument is that a law or legal principle cannot be separated from the culture or society that created it, and so even when there is a common objective, transplanting the law from elsewhere will rarely work. There is a useful example in the criminal law. The way in which criminal investigations and prosecutions proceed varies wildly between countries. It would make little sense to take a rule of evidence from the adversarial system used in England and transplant it into the French inquisitorial system. William Twining has elaborated considerably on this argument in an interesting lecture given in 2000 (PDF).
The problem that I have with much of the ‘best practice’ discourse is that it often strays into assertions or assumptions that such practices can readily be transplanted. However, like the law, such transplants will often be rejected.
The other aspect of Tom Young’s post that, frankly, confuses me is his treatment of innovation. Here’s an extended quote.
Now I hear some mention the words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’. Perhaps you are thinking that the use of best practice will inhibit innovation and creativity. For me this is where context is vital.
In some situations, you don’t want innovation or creativity, you just want it done in a standard, consistant fashion.
If you are running a chemical plant, you don’t want the operator to innovate. If you are manufacturing microchips, you don’t want the technicians to innovate. If you are launching a new product into a target market, you perhaps don’t want innovation but standardisation. If you are decommissioning a nuclear power plant, perhaps you don’t want innovation during the work phase.
I am comfortable with this so far. Where things are working well, we should carry on. However, there is always room for improvement, even in simple systems.
Innovation should be built on current best practice. One of the key lessons from the Knoco Bird Island exercise is that if you ask people to do something, they will frequently start based on their own experience. When you illustrate the current best practice that has been achieved by several hundred people before them, they are frequently overwhelmed as to how poor they achievement was compared to what has already been established.
Where appropriate give them the best practice and ask them to innovate from there. For example if by the introduction of AAR’s the time to change filters has been reduced from 240 hours per screen to 75 hours and a best practice created illustrating how this is achieved, innovate from the best practice figure of 75 hours, not the previous figure of 240 hours but only if it is safe to do so. In some instances innovation must be done in test area, ideas thought out, prototypes created and tested before the agreed modification is installed in the main plant.
My problem here is that I don’t think Tom is describing innovation. These are improvements in existing processes, rather than adaptations to new scenarios where adherence to the current way of doing things would be counter-productive. In a comment to Tom’s post, Rex Lee refers to kaizen. This is something that is often associated with Toyota. To be sure, the lean production processes in Toyota’s main, automotive, division are partly responsible for its continuing viability. However, another critical aspect is the way in which the company has diversified into other areas such as prefabricated housing, which it has been building since the mid-1970s. This response to crisis is an innovation, and goes beyond process improvement. Toyota encourages both through its well-documented suggestion system.
Going back to the Bird Island, it is certainly correct that no sensible business would expect people to embark on tasks or activities without guidance as to the ways in which they have successfully been done before. However, if the business needs a different way to achieve the same outcome, or a different outcome altogether, getting better at doing the same thing isn’t going to cut it.