Best practice, or, monkey seem, monkey do

Jane Bozarth asked via Twitter today, “Am I the only one who doesn’t believe in such a thing as ‘best practices?'”  (Short answer: not at all.)  She brought to mind the humorist Goodman Ace, who once titled an anthology The Better of Goodman Ace because he didn’t want people coming up and saying, “That was your best?”

I know why people refer to best practice–it’s shorthand, it implies agility, it says “we’re not reinventing the wheel.”  And, in a way, it acknowledges that maybe we here at MegaWidget don’t think we have every answer to every problem.

Not a best practiceStill, you can’t just toss someone else’s practice (best or otherwise) into your organization like a throw rug on a dormitory floor.  Well, you can, of course, and the folks who grumble about “paralysis by analysis” are even as you read busily flinging practices hither and yon.

Typically, these activity dynamos aren’t the ones putting the idea to use, though — they don’t have to actually practice.

To think that if you do what GE does, you’ll be like GE (you can substitute any name you, from “Ben & Jerry” to “Jerry Garcia”) is more than a fallacy–it’s just plain silly.  Rather than imply that because X worked in situation Y, it’ll work for you (hey, wasn’t it “best?”), I like the notion of “better” practice.

That starts where we are now: what are we doing, what are we trying to get done, and can we get that thing done in a better way?  (Note to high-strategy types: we’re assuming that some strategy is in place.  Note to financial-industry types: probably not your strategy, “All the other kids were doing it.”)

What that means is, hmm, we’d like to hear more from customers about how they use our products.  Right now that’s pretty random, with letters and email sent all over the place, from customer relations to the sales department.  What are some better ways we might do that?

Surveys seem to work at Mammoth Industries.  Technoglom has blogs that seem to invite participation.  Uriah Heep Buggywhips & Stuff seems to get lots of input from a product-manual wiki.

With these as starting points, the better-practice approach muses for a bit on whether our customers might use online input or blog comments or wiki pages.  Maybe we’ll whip up a prototype for one group so we get some info.  (“The plural of anecdote is not data.”)  Maybe we’ll find a way to bridge a techno-gap.

A blister packI worked at a pharmaceutical packaging plant last year.  One woman spent most of her 10-hour shift on the wallet line, helping package the cardboard folders that enclose the blister-packed product.  She described two ways of handling rejected product at the end of a run, then said of one, “I don’t think that’s good manufacturing practice.”

She wasn’t a consultant; she was a grandmother working a mainly blue-collar job she liked.  She’d also adopted a process mindset: the point of her job wasn’t just packaging things; it was tending to all parts of the process, and looking for ways to improve it.  That didn’t necessarily mean studying the line at Competitive Pharma; it meant asking if there wasn’t some other way to do thing A and better achieve result B.

Throw rug photo by goosmurf / Yun Huang Yong.
Blister pack photo by incurable_hippie / Philippa Willitts.

5 thoughts on “Best practice, or, monkey seem, monkey do

  1. Dave, I’ve often worried about ‘best practices’. Not for the valid reasons you cite, but because too many times best just means the best that anyone else is doing, a relative best, instead of the principled best that *can* be done.

  2. Clark, that’s an angle I had not considered, but a terrific one. And I agree: almost by definition, “best practice” means “the best anybody is doing right now.”

    GE’s Jack Welch talked once about inventory turns. (If you keep an average of 20 widgets on hand, and you use 80 per year, that’s 4 inventory turns per year.) He said that a lot of process-improvement goals would involve getting to maybe 5 or 6 turns — wow, a 50% increase, nothing to disdain.

    His preference was to set a goal of, say, 12 turns — because that would require more than just doing what you’re doing now, only faster. Even if you never hit the 12, a reframing could possibly get you to 8 or 9 — which would have taken years under an incremental, based-on-current-practice approach.

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