The allure of Best Practice; delusion or panacea?

A common situation I encounter is a client disappointed that a well-publicised methodology failed to transform their business into an example of best practice, often after a substantial investment in time and money on training and consultancy, wholesale revision of internal processes and diversion of staff from their day-to-day activities. Some areas of the business are improved noticeably but the overall result underwhelms.

Most of us can recognise and admire examples of excellence and identify readily with the characteristics that they teach us but applying them to your own business is more likely to prove annoyingly elusive. One reason for this is that in most cases you must start from where you are and somehow make meaningful and balanced progress, while carrying on with normal business.

Almost everybody wants to do a good job and the way a business operates is usually based on sound experience and reasonable principles. The road to worthwhile improvement should be based not on embracing a generic vision of perfection offered by a general-purpose methodology but firstly on understanding why things are done the way they are and how they might be done better. This should inform and encourage pragmatic and progressive adaptation that offers substantial gains for minimum pain, rather than taking giant steps that increase business risk, are expensive to implement and risk confusing staff, customers and suppliers.

Many exponents of best practice and quality improvement are well-versed in theory but lack actual line management or business experience, while the literature is devoted to a mixture of generalised advice and case studies that are too specific to offer real help. Almost all businesses work hard to develop their unique selling proposition, so it is hardly surprising that they turn out to need some quite special solutions to improve themselves.

The ultimate goal of a business improvement programme is unlikely to generate much disagreement. Taking the first steps towards it is usually quite the opposite and can be very difficult. Having the knowledge and expertise to evaluate a current business situation and also know how to move it in the right direction from where it is and in a cost-effective manner requires real business experience across a number of relevant industries and organisational cultures, preferably internationally, together with a clear understanding of what is achievable. Happily, if unusually, such a tailored approach is likely to cost less than taking the generic leap towards best practice, as well as offering better results quicker and the chance to continue improving towards the same objective.

Improving quality and the way a business operates should be justified by a business case, just like any other investment. If the returns are inadequate, uncertain or take too long, then a better alternative needs to be found. A tailored solution that delivers a planned succession of measurable benefits will often prove less expensive than a more ambitious and disruptive approach which, as well as being highly risky, may deliver any or all of increased costs, worse performance and lower staff morale.

Steve Johnson

This entry was posted on Monday, October 29th, 2012 at 5:22 pm and is filed under Blog Category 1. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “The allure of Best Practice; delusion or panacea?”

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