Monday, November 14, 2005

Is “Best Practice” a new form of Colonialism?

Wherever you go in business these days you see references to “best practice”. You read it in proposals and reports from the big consulting companies, you see it on the web and you read it in those books at the airport that give you the solutions to all your organisation’s problems.

My question is simple. Does the very idea of “best practice” actually make any sense? In particular, does it make sense in Botswana?

When we talk about “practice” we are talking about the way in which something is done. The practices used in a Toyota factory aren’t the car itself but the way in which the car is produced. The practices may include technicalities like the way in which the radiator is fixed to the engine. At the other extreme they may include the way in which technicians who install radiators are recruited and how their annual leave is calculated.

Anyone in business has read about some of the companies that are mentioned in these best practice stories. We hear about Toyota and FedEx and organisations that have done away with inefficiency by allowing the staff to determine their own shift patterns or where the director’s salary is a multiple of the lowest paid employee or where the sales force are forced to memorise the company Mission Statement and recite it at the beginning of every day.

The books and articles all suggest, in various ways, that “if it worked for them it will work for you”. If we adopt the same working practices as Toyota then we will do as well as Toyota. If we let our staff set their own shift patterns they will all suddenly begin to cooperate, form strong teams, work harder and make us millionaires.

The big consulting companies sell us the same idea. The major consultancy companies in the world, and their numbers are dropping as they buy each other or go bankrupt through shady dealings, all sing from standard hymn sheets. These are set by their methodologies, dictated by highly paid consultants many thousands of kilometres away in New York, London or Mannheim.

I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced.

More and more people are beginning to see that standardised practices are not what we always need. I see absolutely nothing wrong with standard practices when they are technical and precise or when they lead to a recognised standard. Production standards and measurement are, I believe, what really matters in business. However, the way in which they are achieved, in other words the “practice”, surely doesn’t always need to be the same?

The management “guru”, Robert Sutton uses the ridiculous example of Herb Kelleher, the CEO of the very successful Southwest Airlines in the USA. Kelleher was famous for his massive consumption of Wild Turkey whiskey. As Sutton points out:

“Do you really believe that if your CEO starts drinking large amounts of Wild Turkey, your firm's performance will improve? It sounds silly, but many companies borrow practices just because Toyota, Wal-Mart, Apple Computer and especially General Electric use them.”[1]

I believe that Sutton and others are right. Just because one organisation adopts a set of practices and succeeds, it doesn’t always follow that if you do the same then you will also succeed. Just because Toyota profit from their new production practices it doesn’t follow that Volvo will as well.

I believe that the suggestion that we should adopt “best practices” from elsewhere in the world is just arrogant. Even at a trivial level, the use of the word “best” suggests to me that they can never be improved. Like the skater scoring 6 out of a maximum of 6, where is the room for improvement? Do we really think that there will never be a better skater, or a better practice?

“Best practices” are fine for where they were developed. They may contain nuggets of knowledge and expertise from which we can learn and profit. However, what Sutton and others (like me) propose is that they should be taken as menus from which you should select what you need, not Holy Commandments that must be blindly obeyed.

Instead, I believe that an organisation should take the more difficult, but actually more practical approach of defining standards and measuring performance against those standards. I think that every bank I enter, anywhere in the world, should serve me immediately. How they achieve that may vary from bank to bank and country to country. Frankly I don’t care how they do it so long as it works.

I think we should take the lead from a market that has already emerged: the Far East. Rather than adopt all the business methodologies they saw in Europe and North America they defined many of their own. They kept many of their traditional approaches and defined their own ways of doing business and despite the ups and downs of the market they remain a powerhouse of design, manufacturing and excellence. Which of us doesn’t own a car or a CD player or a TV from the Far East? It wasn’t just cheap labour that got them where they are; it was their approach. One that they defined for themselves.

I believe that, like them, we should adopt the very best standards but we should define our own ways of achieving them.

The title above makes reference to the “best practice” approach being a new form of colonialism. I’m probably putting this too strongly. Perhaps, but isn’t the essence of colonialism the view that the conquering power has the right to determine how the conquered are governed? Isn’t that what the “best practice” message suggests?

[1] Robert Sutton, The Best-Practices Trap, see,1397,1532120,00.asp