Best practice standards are commonly seen as a sure-fire route to successful improvement. After all – who could question the value of implementing best practice? If you are by now used to my writing style (after 3 years of output) you will have guessed that I am one person who would question the value of ‘best practice’.
Why question it?
Any method has to make sense in the context and purpose of what it is trying to deliver. Best practice in cleaning tables might be vital in preparing an operating theatre but might be excessive, costly and irrelevant when applied to a door making factory. The purpose of the work is important. Best practice in answering a phone call succinctly, clearly and efficiently might be the last thing that a service caller with an unusual problem wishes to hear.
I can remember being told by a customer service clerk, when attempting to return a clothing item in exchange for a refund or credit note, that “the company’s returns policy was recognised as best practice in the sector” – but sorry – no I could not have a refund (they suspected, or should I say assumed, that I had already used the item – which I plainly hadn’t). Their answer was no answer and no help to anyone (I did eventually get my refund).*
In services you need to build in flexibility. This means that you have to think carefully about what your users want and therefore what you must do to meet that need – otherwise a poorly considered method will not deliver what is really needed. Deming always used to ask ‘by what method?’
Over and above this, if you do implement a standard way of working, you tend to build in both rigidity (a lack of flexibility to meet differeing needs) and you push users’ experiences further away from the ideal. Seddon states “Don’t codify method” in services – in other words don’t write it all down and demand that everyone sticks to the written code. But why – surely standardisation will ensure quality (especially if the standard is shown to be best)?
Imagine – you call a service centre with a particular query in your mind – the telephone menu asks you to press 1,2 or 3 for different services, then at the next menu another 1,2,3. Even if you get through cleanly to the final stage do you really feel satisfied as a user? And what about the false trails, the accidental hangups or the misdirection to the wrong department? It all gets a bit depressing and, frankly, wasteful.
Even in Ofsted inspections of schools, the error of inspecting and expecting a best method of teaching is now discouraged since the method is dependent on the learning needs and nuances of the students at the point of the teaching intervention. Yes – it figures.
To paraphrase Mitch Ditkoff, when imitation replaces creativity, something invariably gets lost – and innovation eventually goes down the drain.
Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.
*P.S. As I gave my explanation they could see my receipt where the value of other items I had bought (with no refund requested incidentally) far exceeded the value of this item by about a factor of 5! As a clearly ‘valued’ customer (read: insulted) I chose to withdraw my custom from that outlet – for about 15 years – the lifetime of family clothing purchases – not out of spite, I may add – I just lost any sense of preference to buy from that store.