A best practice is pretty much anything that, within a particular organization, yields a desired result both efficiently and effectively. This definition is not really standard business-speak, but bear with me a minute and I’ll explain.
Generally speaking, best practices are defined as any sort of procedure or technique that achieves results superior to those that the organization or its associates could achieve through one or more different procedures or techniques. In other words, you get it done better. Naturally, if your organization can get it done better, then other organizations within your industry will want to get it done better as well, and, so, they will adopt your best practices in the hopes that they can repeat your successes.
Thus, the term “best practices” has evolved into a business buzzword that—in practice at least—refers to the standardization of processes or techniques across organizations both within and outside the specific originating company.
Obviously, critiques of this concept of “best practices” abound. For example, the term “best” almost certainly precludes possible improvement. Best is a superlative measure. If your practice is the best, why should you even try to improve on it? In an actual work environment, any best practice should be constantly evolving to keep pace with changes in the business environment, in industry, in technology, and so forth. But, in the absence of an actively engaged workforce supported by an organization simultaneously introspective but open to new ideas, such evolution stalls. The result is that best practices don’t remain best for very long.
The point is that best practices, in and of themselves, are never really best at all. They may, for the moment, be better than anyone else’s practices, but that situation can change rapidly because competitors are always looking for an advantage that will yield a higher profit or a greater market share. Further, if best practices really do refer to an optimum standard, then competing companies should be able to adopt those practices and nullify any competitive advantage achieved by the originating organization.
The problem, of course, is that competing organizations within the same industry are frequently unable to adopt another company’s best practices. For example, Toyota’s Total Quality Management system has proven notoriously difficult for other automobile manufacturers to imitate even after decades of attempts. Because Southwest Airlines has maintained profitability during years of adverse market condition, numerous larger airlines, such as Continental and United, have tried to offer their own no-frills, short-haul, rapid-turnaround services. But virtually all such efforts at imitation have failed. Many wonder why such efforts fail, but a better question would be why anyone ever thought that such efforts would succeed.
After all, organizations are not monolithic entities.
They are composed of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of moving parts. These parts include processes and procedures, rituals and customs, but, at the core, the parts always involve people, the employees who carry out mandates, who provide services, and who produce goods. The best processes in the world will—it is true—diminish the negative impact wrought by one employee’s poor performance, at least for a time. But, if organizations are not monolithic entities, neither are processes and procedures holy writ. When such processes and procedures invariably need to change, it is the employees—as the Toyota system has so frequently demonstrated—who are likely to recognize first the need for any change.
Best practices, in other words, start with the organization’s people, not with any particular procedure, process, or technique. The organization’s management structure cannot mandate good employees, but individuals in those positions can work to create a culture in which such good employees flourish. Part of such a culture involves, naturally, such human resources management factors as salaries, benefits, and both formal and informal privileges. To have any employees at all, an organization has to offer a basic level of such benefits. But other, less common aspects of culture include the organization’s ability to enable employees to achieve their fullest potential by using an ever evolving set of skills to achieve corporate goals. When companies marry organizational goals with personnel development, they can achieve strategic directives through motivated employees.
The resulting culture is not one that attempts to use a “best practice” as one would use some tool, such as a screwdriver, but a culture constantly creating best practices through its energized, empowered workforce.