Bob Hiebeler of St. Charles Partners, formerly of Andersen Consulting, gave a talk on "The Role of 'Best Practices' in Knowledge and Business Process Management," based on his nearly 20-years experience and his book, Best Practices: Building Your Business with Customer-Focused Solutions (co-authors Charles Ketteman and Thomas B. Kelly).
The best nugget from the evening is Hiebeler's new definition of best practices: "An example of the best way to perform a process." It used to be "The best way to perform a process." This acknowledges the complaint that people have with the idea of best practices, that best practices in one company or organization may not necessarily be the best for another. And once they are implemented there are always new things to be learned and new ways to do something that are even better.
This gets into the rest of Hiebeler's talk. His description of business is "people working in relationships, performing processes to reach a goal." Beyond the soap opera of people and relationships, business is about processes. He argues that process should be the heart of business conversations, and that businesses should continually seek to improve those processes at all levels of the business. Process is the backbone of the business.
In his descriptions, taken from work with APQC, Processes are broken into Phases, which are broken into Steps, which are broken into sub-Steps. It is at the sub-step level, where you have things like procedures and formal documentation about "how to do X," though many companies will write guiding principles at all of these level. Along with the basic hierarchical description of process, Hiebeler describes additional forces that influence them or that the processes require. Specifically, he talks about communities of experts on a given process / step who influence and improve that step. He also talks about the requirements of a given step: tools, information, training, etc. Without these, the operation cannot happen.
The other aspect of the definition of a best practice as an example of a best practice is that best practices should be part of the creative process within an organization. Best practices come from outside the organization to inform process improvement effort.
"Best practices should disturb you." was another great nugget. Discovery of how people do things differently gives you the opportunity to rethink how you do things, which gives you the opportunity to think about how to change what you do in light of this new information. This is the role of the process experts at all levels of the process hierarchy: find those different perspectives, get disturbed.
Hiebeler also differentiates between best practices and benchmarking. Benchmarking seeks to measure your performance against a standard or against your peers. But the measurement is against a common process. Best practices, in Hiebeler's mind, are sought for the cognitive disruption they can cause, not because you are going to implement a process exactly the way the company around the corner does it. To clarify, he gave the example of Ford's best practice system in its ~180 plants around the world. As best practices are identified in one plant, they are sent around to other plants with similar operations. While the other plants are not required to use the practices, they are asked to evaluate them and whether there is anything in them of value. As an incentive, when plants are benchmarked against each other, the low-performers are asked what they have done with the best practices that have been sent their way. If they've tried them and are still low performers, Ford can create some focus on improving their performance. But if they haven't bothered trying, they are taken to task and "encouraged" to have a look at the examples from other plants.
The session ended with a half-hour discussion session, where the group talked about a range of issues.
- What do you do about people who are resistant to change? Business is made of people - people tend to act irrationally from time to time, and rather than forcing change down people's throats try to work with their style of work to help them embrace new ideas.
- What is "best?" Best Practice is a difficult term, but what is best in one setting is not necessarily best in every setting. The ideal is to get communities of people talking and thinking about what has worked. You want to transfer the insights represented in the best practices.
- We also talked about the idea that not everyone is willing to raise their hand as having a "best" practice in their area. In my mind this is just like "lurkers" in communities, many of whom are expert that choose not to speak out in public settings. In small, known settings, they may be willing to share. This suggests that organizations need to have a range of methods for soliciting ideas, not only formal community portals or suggestion boxes.
- What about KM best practices? Thought leaders in KM have shifted from the old days of rounding up information to knowledge sharing and getting people involved in process improvement efforts. In the process model that Hiebeler presented, the source of improvement is the expert teams who survey internal and external processes for new ideas.
- How do you motivate submission / use of best practices? Each organization is different in terms of what motivates the people and what motivates the teams, but again, work with the culture, rather than trying to fight it. If you sales force is competitive, add competition to the system. Or modify how success is measured, and people will follow the measures.