Best Practice Baloney

About 20 years ago, the now ubiquitous  term, best practice, emerged onto the management scene. It promised great things. It implied that there was a best way to do almost everything, that anybody could learn to do it, and when they had everyone would be the best they could be. It was happy, happy, happy. There were visions of sugar plums dancing in the heads of managers as they held hands and skipped around the Maypole. After all – what could be better than the best of all possible worlds.

Ring around a rosy

Remember this children’s poem?

Ring around a rosy, pocket full of posy. A-tissue, a-tissue. We all fall down.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing this, and it just sounded like a bit of fun. “A-tissue” was the English version, which I heard as an adult. “Ashes, ashes” (probably a corruption of rashes) was how I learned it. Regardless of which is correct, and it could be that both were, neither described something to be copied.

It was only much later that I learned it was a rhyme that children invented during the Bubonic plague, or Black Death, which killed 25 million people during the 14th century – one-third of Europe’s population. Boccaccio is reported to have said that people had lunch with the friends and dinner with their ancestors, such was the speed of the disease.

The “ring around a rosy” had nothing to do with flowers. Instead it described the appearance of the rash that appeared on the skin of the victims.

So what?

You’re probably wondering what these two things could possibly have in common. How could the best of whatever be related to almost the worst that can be imagined.

It’s just this: Neither one of them are what they appear to be.

The ring-around-a-rosy sounded like an innocuous children’s rhyme; but instead it was a sing-song about something horrible.

Best practice sounds like something wonderful, but it, too, masks something that’s just as deadly. Instead of killing people, however, it annihilates organizations. Under the guise of “if you do this, then you’ll be the best,” is hidden “if you rely on this, then you’ll never get any higher than the bottom of your industry.”

Frederick Taylor

Frederick Taylor, who is often referred to as the Father of Scientific Management, believed in best practice. That was back in about 1910. Of course, he didn’t call it that, but others did. Well, almost. They called it the one best way, and it was based on the idea that there was one tool and one method to accomplish just about anything you cared to name. And all managers had to do was to identify each and join them together, and, hey presto, you’ve got the best way.

The truth is that there is no such thing. It’s a myth. Neither the one best way nor best practice exist. I wouldn’t even give the credibility of a theory. You see, a theory is a possible explanation of the facts. But in this case, the facts don’t suggest anything of the sort.

Best practice baloney

Let’s look at a few historical examples to help you get the idea.

Back in the early 20th century, when Taylor came up with this ridiculous idea, there weren’t many cars on the road. Mostly horses. Maybe it was a toss-up then for speed and reliability. Maybe horse were slower, but didn’t break down so often, and cars were faster but were in the habit of falling apart. Taylor died in 1911, so we’ll probably never know what he thought about transportation.

Today, there aren’t many horse-drawn anything on the roads. There are exceptions, even in the United States; but where cars are affordable, most families have at least one, and quite often is more like three or four. Even if you have only one car, you probably have a garage that will hold at least two. More to the point, it’s far less likely that you have a stable instead of a garage.

Here’s another example.

Indoor plumbing. Most of us have never had anything else, except maybe when we’ve gone camping. But many people, including in the US, didn’t have running water until after 1945.  That means that you may have a grandparent or great-grandparent who can tell you right now – go on; ask him or her – what it was like to carry buckets of water to the house, heat it up on the stove, and then pour it into a bathtub. Or about how they had to go outside to spend a penny during the night.

Maybe you’ve forgotten about this one.

In the 1968 Olympics, Dick Fosbury won the gold medal for the high jump. He invented a new technique for clearing the bar. In that competition, he was the only one who used it. In the Summer Games four years later, everyone was.

In just these three examples, I’ve shown what utter nonsense best practice is.

Those who believed that horses were best practice would still be using them as the primary mode of transportation today. Those who never had indoor plumbing would still be using earth closets and buckets. And those who wanted to excel in the high jump wouldn’t even make the team by using the old “tummy-down” technique.

There are thousands of examples in just your lifetime that prove beyond all doubt that best practice is just a myth. Just like the ring-around-the-rosy, it fails to reveal the bitter truth.

That truth is that those who are satisfied with best practice will never set the industry standard. They’ll never make any kind of breakthrough. They’ll never do anything important. And they’ll never do anything original.

That’s because they’ll be content to maintain the status quo.

What is the status quo?

It’s what everyone else is doing.

You see, believers of best practice baloney use others as their standard of excellence. They’ve given it an equally lofty and meaningless term: benchmarking.

Benchmarking is a land surveying term, and all it means is, “this is where you are right now.” You can be sure that those who believe in best practice have also benchmarked themselves. They know what the “best” is, and their goal is to get from where they are up to that level. But they’ll only ever be playing catch up.

They’ll always be waiting to see what someone else does before they do anything.

Where do you go from here?

If you want to determine the industry standard, if you want to lead the pack, and if you want to make yourself truly valuable to your customers, then you need a new focus.

You need to take your eyes off of everyone else’s ball and concentrate on your own. That’s the only place that you’ll find opportunities for innovation.

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