The Problem with “Best Practices”

This post was inspired by today’s Dilbert cartoon:

“Best practices” usually means copying the mechanics of what successful companies do, and trying to shoehorn them into your processes and culture.

For example, lots of companies “benchmarked” Toyota for decades, and never really gained understanding of the underlying culture and thinking.

Other companies, even today, struggle to try to find working examples of improvements applied to their exact industry and circumstances.

This is an especially deadly combination when they have a culture where experts (or their bosses) provide the solutions, and they simply have to carry them out. Where creative thinking has been effectively stamped out (at least around how the business is run), it is hard to get people to quickly embrace what “empowerment” really means.

Dogbert is selling a quick fix that doesn’t require the client to engage in struggle, hard work, or learning to think for himself. (In the case of THIS client, that is probably appropriate. Winking smile )

I’m going to resist the temptation to add a lot more to this one right now.

Happy New Year.

Internalizing Outside Knowledge

Continuing on a theme – a kaizen event should be primarily about learning, using the real-world improvement opportunity as a vehicle.

Outside consultants (some style themselves as “sensei”) can be a good way to bootstrap this process by bringing in existing experience so you can develop your own more quickly. (Full disclosure here – Right now I am one of those consultants, though I have played on both sides of the game and learned a lot from others.)

But it is important to use them the right way.

The way that doesn’t work is to bring in an outside consultant to lead improvement for you. Typically this means that the company assembles a working team, delegates the improvement to that team, and hires a consultant to lead them.

Once the event or activity is over, it might be repeated again with a different group of people, on a different project, even with a different consultant.

Though this can be somewhat effective at dealing with individual issues, the company’s capability to do this themselves is never developed.

Learning might occur within the company, but it will be a random event.

On the other hand, if the client company puts together a team that has an internally designated leader, and that leader is also charged with capturing knowledge, and there is some continuity from one event to the next, then a working relationship develops.

In my opinion, this is a legitimate role of a Kaizen Promotion Office, and is likely why a lot of consultants (at least the ones with the clout to impose conditions on their clients) insist on the company forming one.

The people in the KPO have two roles.

  • To capture and internalize the cutting edge of skill and knowledge for the company.
  • To practice that skill and knowledge by teaching others.

I have personally experienced both situations – where I am asked to be a substitute leader, and where I have the opportunity to develop people in the company. I can tell you that the later is a lot more fun, and the former is mostly frustrating.

I also see a difference in follow-up. Where there is no internal leadership, it is much tougher for the team to stay on the game and push the changes to a point where they are ingrained and sustain.

If you are interested in some expanded thoughts on this topic, I invite you to read the white paper “Getting the Most From Lean Consultants” on the “Resources Page.”