I don’t know about you, but I react badly to the label “best practice”. What gets touted as best practice is often terrible practice. Or at least the wrong practice in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It starts with the words

We call it “best practice”, rather than “quite a good idea that can be useful in the right situation until something better comes up”. The very term implies there can be nothing better. This is it. The ne plus ultra of management practice. People will argue that best practice is constantly changing and always conditional, but that is not how they behave. Processes get put on pedestals and worshipped. Once they have reached “industry best practice”, or achieved certification under some standard or other, people stop thinking. They stop looking for better and stop challenging the way they work.

Best practice is the enemy of innovation and improvement.

Best practice is pretty average

A best practice is something recognised by a community. There must be a consensus. That means best practice is not the most advanced or effective method you can find. It is the average. And just as a convoy sails at the speed of the slowest ship, if most organisations in a field can’t implement it, won’t be recognised as best practice.

Why would anyone take it as a badge of honour to be average?

It is a way of covering your back

I see many organisations using best practice defensively. If I am following best practice, you can’t argue with me or complain about the outcome. It is best practice, therefore there is nothing more I could have, or should have done.

But as we have seen, best practice is usually average practice. In many sectors the so-called industry standard best practice is really an entry-level, qualifying competence. You can see that in procurement exercises where those tendering are required to certify that they are following this or that best practice.

I am sorry, but if you install a new heating system in my house and it doesn’t work, the fact that you were following the approved best practices for your industry is of no interest to me.

I see in the proceedings of the Grenfell Tower disaster enquiry that everyone claims they were following best practice. So accountability for decisions evaporates as everyone did precisely what they were supposed to do.

Applying a practice where it doesn’t apply

What is considered best practice is often a matter of fashion, and like many management fashions gets shoehorned into all sorts of inappropriate places.

I once worked with an automotive manufacturer on a new catalytic converter for their range of vehicles. Being excellent engineers, they started from the target date for the first vehicle to roll off the line, and worked back through homologation, fleet trials and all the other essential steps. They handed our company a plan that said “in this 6-month period between these dates, you will develop, demonstrate and work out how to manufacture cost-effectively, a brand new exhaust catalyst system based on a preliminary scientific paper we read”. We made our excuses and left.

In an even more bizarre case, my boss asked me to develop a generic critical path plan for creating and launching new consumer products. Being a young researcher, I did not have the confidence to express my doubts vigorously enough and gave it a go. It did not go well.

To go from idea to market, there are things you need to accomplish; so a checklist is feasible. But those steps do not organise themselves into a critical path network. There are many possible routes to the end goal, and many activities are conditional. Critical path analysis has no mechanism for – “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s go back and try another approach.”. Critical path analysis does not allow loops. I ended up with something so high-level it was useless for project management, and after a few futile efforts, my boss lost interest.

There is nothing wrong with critical path networks for building a bridge. They are rubbish for situations where the path you will take across an innovation landscape is unknown.

Six-sigma is another abused tool. I was invited to a meeting with the buying team of one of our polymer manufacturing customers. We had supplied them for several years, but they had recently caught the six-sigma bug. They announced that our prices were too high and that they knew that through six-sigma we could cut the cost of supplying them by 30%. They planned to teach us their methods (we would pay for the privilege), we would charge them 20% less and they would generously allow us to keep any additional savings.

We explained it was impossible because our major costs were commodity raw materials, traded globally. They waved this away as not understanding the genius of six-sigma. If we did not agree to their plan, they would reluctantly go to another supplier. We said that was their privilege, and we parted company. A year later the head of procurement had moved on and they were a customer again.

Some suggested rules

  • Try not to use the term best practice. If you are lucky, something will be good practice and useful to you.
  • Best practice is usually average practice. Don’t pat yourself on the back for being average.
  • Are you using industry best practice to cover your back? Are your suppliers and partners doing the same? It won’t save you when the shit hits the fan.
  • Don’t use any practice – good, best or superb – where it does not apply.
When Best Practice is a Terrible Idea
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