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12 Feb, 2009 | by David Kaufman

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I am searching for a word, maybe it’s a phrase, but it eludes me.  I don’t say that often, I take pride in my ability to communicate complex ideas creatively and succinctly.  Yet, I can’t find that perfect word to describe a state of being many of us in Process Management live in every day.  How do you describe being the best but also continuously improving, at the same time?

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a leader in Store Operations at a growing retail company.  He had some interesting observations on some things I take for granted.  His point was simple.  In an organization with a young talent pool and longevity measured in months, not years, labeling something as “best” sets a standard to achieve, not exceed.  After all, once you’re the best, don’t you put your feet up and relax?  This got me thinking, is the concept of “best practice” outdated?  Can you implement a “continuous improvement”?

Let’s take a step back and define these terms.  Keep in mind, language is important.  In many organizations, like the one mentioned above, words are taken at face value.    What is a best practice?  It is a method that has been identified as the best approach yielding the best results.  What about continuous improvement?  Again, just like the name implies, it is an approach, or more an organizational culture, to continuously improve. 

At face value, these concepts seem to clash.  If you have truly achieved a “best practice”, do you need to improve?  If your company is continuously improving, can you ever consider a practice “best”?  In fact, as our Retail Executive pointed out, if you label something a “best practice”, will that be all your organization strives to achieve, never looking to break new ground?

In an ideal world (at least my opinion of one), the two concepts actually go hand in hand.  You see, the above definition of “best practice” isn’t complete.  It is missing the footnote “for now” and that is key.  It should read “a method that has been identified as the best approach yielding the best results, today.” 

Permit me to use a sports metaphor.  A quick search on the Internet reveals that the men’s pole vaulting world record was 4.02 meters in 1912.  As someone that gets winded running up a flight of stairs that sounds pretty good, a best practice if you will.  That would be something to shoot for, the ability to leap over thirteen feet in the air using just a stick and your own two legs.  If you wanted to emulate that, you would find out more about the athlete.  How did he train?  What was his routine?  How did he do it?  Then you would try and mimic the behavior.

But times change.  Sports science as a field of study has allowed athletes to push their bodies further then ever before.  Nutrition has changed as food sources have become more plentiful.  Even material sciences have evolved making the pole of today a changing factor.  How has all of this affected the results?  The 1994 record was 6.14 meters, a jump (pardon the pun) of over 52%, a new best practice.

If athletes didn’t strive to not only match, but beat records, those extra seven feet would not have been realized.  But business takes this concept to a whole new place.  You see, when you add collaboration into the mix, a best practice leads to continuous improvement.

Picture for a moment a team of ten managers, distributed across the country, working independently.  They have ten processes to achieve the same task.  Each works and is improved to work better regularly, but ten distinct processes.  Let’s engage them in a project, let’s set a best practice. 

How would you do it?  Well, there are plenty of approaches; so let’s not go too deep into the how.  But there are a few concepts you would find on any good project.  Team engagement, communication, ownership/accountability, measures for success and a readiness of associates and the organization to adapt to the change are just a few concepts you should see in this project.

Do you see it yet?  Many of the concepts used in setting best practices are the same as those employed in a culture of continuous improvement.    It comes down to a willingness to use these tools continuously, and not stop when the project completes.

Communication – Any good project will have solid communication between team members, to leadership and the larger organization.  In continuous improvement your organization must have the means to communicate safely.  There can be no “sacred cows” or “stupid questions”.  In our example, not only must the ten store managers have open communications to discuss adapting and leveraging the new process with each other, but line workers also need the ability to communicate freely how the new process is working and share any opportunities they discover.  No idea is silly, no opportunity too small.  

Engagement/Listening – It may seem strange to equate these, but they really are similar thoughts.  It’s important to get a team involved, but you also need to listen to their input.  In continuous improvement, you encourage your organization to get engaged in making things better.  There is nothing worse than asking for input and then ignoring it, or worse, forgetting you ever got it.  If you encourage your associates to trust you and take the time to engage in a project or a continuous improvement effort, you need to make sure people are also taking the time to listen. 

Change Readiness/Adaptability – At some point in your project, the question will be asked “Are the associates and organization ready for the new process?”  You won’t succeed if they aren’t, so any good project is working on this as well.  Once you go live, a willingness to improve and adapt is key to continuous improvement.  It can even be an element of the process you design in your project, making improvements easier down the road.  After all, you don’t want to hold the 1912 world record in 1994 and miss out on 52% growth.

Measures - These can be scary, but they really will help.  How else will you know if things are working during your project or after?  Regular reports, widely distributed, go a long way with getting compliance on change.  They flag areas and/or associates needing more attention or opportunities in your process.  They also do a lot in the way of recognition and healthy competition.

Ownership – I’ve left this one for last.  Project teams come in all shapes and sizes, but in the end, accountability cannot be shared.  Your project will work to identify clear roles and responsibilities, including your process owner.  Your owner is responsible for leading the initial change but in continuous improvement,  also for gathering those opportunities, evaluating them, building teams to put them in place and communicating results.  (No, he or she doesn’t need to do all of those themselves, but would act as the decision maker and project sponsor for those that do).

Do you see how they go together?  Our best practice is nothing more than a starting point or an enabler.  Now, instead of having ten talented executives working in silos, you have a powerful team of professionals collaborating on improvement.  So perhaps we no longer call it a “best” practice, but a baseline, not to achieve, but exceed.

As for our Retail Executive, I understand the hesitancy to label something a best practice, language is important.  But perhaps where best practices and continuous improvement collide is in an organization’s willingness to change, or trust that a young associate, like a pole vaulter, can see a way to leap higher tomorrow.

Which brings me back to my word search.  How do you convey the synergy between these two concepts when on the surface they collide?  Process Management has taken some great Japanese words, kanban (score cards), kaizen (continuous improvement) and my favorite, muda (waste), but I find myself lacking a word that merges the concepts of being the best today and continuously working to improve tomorrow.  I’ll go back to my thesaurus; after all, the best terms we have today are only the starting point for the innovations of tomorrow.