Management consultants use the phrase “best practices” often. Perhaps too often. You will see that magical phrase mentioned numerous times in white papers and research on these websites: Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, PWC and Accenture. A few pictures that help explain why best practices are so popular with consultants and clients.
Best practices are like good hiking trails. . .
. . . they are market-tested: Many of these best practices have been around for years. Clients have a sense of comfort that they are following a well-worn path. You don’t have to read the most recent article in Harvard Business Review to know that the Toyota Management System for lean production still works today.
. . . they are repeatable: Consulting firms work with so many clients that they see what works and what does not. Clients think they are unique (n=1), but a lot of the back-office functions are more alike than different. No reason to “re-invent the wheel” on mundane processes. Better to just follow the trail that is already there.
. . . they save time: It might not be perfect or holistic, but best practices will get you most of the way there. Not all clients want to spend the time or the money to dig into the problem. They want the 80% solution.
Best practices are like powerful telescopes. . .
. . . they appeal to the curious: Clients want insight into what competitors and other leading companies are doing. There is a fine line between best practices, benchmarking, competitive intelligence – but the basic conformist tendency is the same: “Show me what other people doing.”
. . . they help you see farther: Having access to best practices or other “special sauce” positions the management consultant as an expert who can bring new and external insights. While the client can draw on 10-20 years of personal experience, the consultant can tap into the firm’s collective history (for Trekkie fans, think of the BORG) and dig up example after example of previous client projects on the same topic.
Danger: Best practices can also be like cookie cutters. . .
- If abused or misunderstood, best practices can become the lazy person’s way to propose a quick, often ill-fitting solution without thinking through the problem
- Best practices are excellent tools, but you cannot “copy” your way to operational excellence or strategic differentiation. The most you will get is parity
- Best practices cannot be simply a cut/paste into an organization. They do not work without the necessary leadership, culture, resources, IT systems etc. . .
- Large ERP implementations (read: SAP, Oracle etc) force companies to adopt industry-standard processes. Whether these are best practices is up for debate
Photo credit: Kid Cowboy, Flikr creative commons; Pale Side of Insomnia, Flikr, creative commons