No More Best Practices!

No More Best Practices!

Best practices imply that there’s no room for improvement. There is.

Best practices imply that there’s no room for improvement. After all, if something is the best, it suggests that it’s not worthwhile to spend time finding out what else is out there. Unfortunately, most of us work in industries where the bar continues to be raised on an almost daily basis. In those situations, it makes little sense to assume that what you did last year is going to be good enough next year. Does that mean that your old practice isn’t good enough?

While it’s hard to make a blanket statement like that, we can remember that Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Similarly, best practices assume that future conditions will mirror past conditions, and this may no longer be the case. Moreover, the particular situations in which the practice was seen to excel may be quite different from the situation right now. It’s as simple as that. Things change. Maybe we need to just rename them Last Practices.

Changing the name might actually get people to think critically about when they’re used. That’s a big deal. Defining a best practice can encourage people to stop thinking critically about what the most appropriate method is for their particular situation. For a best practice to be worth codifying, it needs to have aspirations of being useful in more than a single situation. Unfortunately, whoever decided upon a best practice may not have your particular situation in mind at the time. Saying that it’s a good practice that you may want to consider is one thing. Saying it’s the best seems to obviate the need for further evaluation. Best Practices probably need to come accompanied by the detailed information about the specific cases in which they’ve been tried.

Of course, by the time people have done enough study to figure out what a best practice is, it’s probably obsolete. This is especially true when information has to move across an industry, as opposed to within one organization. We’ve seen several clients who spend anywhere between a few months and a year just trying to get the necessary clearances to find out how other companies do something. By the time they’re done, some of the folks that they’ve studied have moved on to doing something altogether different.

The very nature of a best practice means that they’re usually defined for particular business activities. This tends to silo knowledge within business groups. Yet one of the greatest opportunities for improvement comes from unrelated parts of your business. The guys in accounting might have a great idea for tracking documents that might be well-suited for development drawings. Unfortunately, you may never find out about it if all you do is benchmark other design departments.

Even when you find out the “best way” to do something, you may not be getting the entire story. Best practices assume that the most valuable knowledge is explicit knowledge, and that there is no art. Most good engineers can tell you what multiple research studies have shown – the defined practices that end up in a manufacturing process manual often don’t reflect the subjective choices that experienced operators make during the course of a shift. The auto industry has begun to notice the fallout of ignoring implicit learning. For years, Detroit focused on ISO9000 procedures to codify its work, only to find quality drop when an experienced generation of workers began to retire.

Troublingly, best practices can encourage supplier monopolies that reduce competition and increase cost. This can happen when the activities that define a best practice are largely outsourced, and associated with single supplier. If a company decides that it’s going to settle on the Zipco method for widget washing, it may inadvertently lock out the next generation of Zipco’s competitors who are doing it for lower cost or with better quality.

As I near the end of this article, it strikes me that this is usually the time when most sane columnists will begin hedging their bets, offering up caveats and explanations to avoid looking like they’re frothing at the mouth. That’s where we grin stupidly and say that we’re just trying to spur the conversation along. Unfortunately, I’m still in my contrarian mood. So I’ll spare you the apology. It’s probably best if I do.

Dev Patnaik


Dev Patnaik is the CEO of Jump Associates, the leading independent strategy and innovation firm. He’s a board member of Conscious Capitalism. Dev has been a trusted advisor to CEOs at some of the world’s most admired companies, including Starbucks, Target, Nike, Universal and Virgin.