NOW is the Best Time for Best Practices
Originally published: 04.01.10 by Theo Etzel
Creating a continuous-improvement mindset will make your company more competitive today and tomorrow.
Vince Lombardi — the late, great Green Bay Packers' coach — often is misquoted when people say, "Practice makes perfect." The actual quote is, "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."
Typically perfection is unattainable, but putting into action best practices that point teams toward perfection can increase performance and protect your company frm mediocre competitors.
Considering the business climate of the past two years, it is tempting to push off creating a best-practices program until "things get better." Don't give in to that thinking. Now is the time to invest time and effort in best practices for multiple reasons, including:
Staying competitive: The recession revealed a harsh reality: Customers are harder to get and keep, and they expect businesses to use the most efficient and cost-conscious models possible to deliver the greatest value. Not aiming for perfection is, in reality, a defeatist business model. Ongoing continuous improvement based on documented best practices is the only way to survive and thrive in this — or any — economy.
Finding new ideas: Many business leaders have taken on more day-to-day responsibilities as staff has been cut, and companies have had to more frequently rely on existing, internal resources. While these tactics can be necessary to maintain profitability during downturns, they also can limit creative thinking and the discovery of new ideas. If a company stays focused on cash management and cost-cutting for too long, it will become less focused on customers over time, and thus, less competitive.
Identifying existing best practices and searching for new ones is a way to refocus the company on customers. Examining alternate methods and programs produces choices that can then be evaluated and implemented according to company goals.
Improving productivity: Mediocre people deliver mediocre results. The hardest realization and highest hurdle for a leader often is the fact that not everyone in the company will fit into a best-practices culture. The discomfort of a failing business must be greater than the comfort of a second-rate business to move the leader to change and seek better, and then best, practices.
Are You Ready to Commit?
The process of finding, reviewing, developing, and implementing best practices is just that, a process. It will require time and energy, so be sure to have already made the commitment before starting. If you aren't there yet, then ask yourself, "Is it worth the time, risk, investment, and effort required of me to begin the process of creating best practices for my company?" If you can answer "yes," then move on to "why" you believe it to be important for the company. Put this way into writing and be comfortable with articulating it multiple times and in multiple ways. (See "Expect Disruption and Prepare to Respond," Page 11.)
Identify Improvement Opportunities
Once you have made the commitment and conveyed it to employees, ask your staff to review the tasks and processes they perform within their responsibilities. Then ask them what frustrates them about this work. Frequently, frustration reveals opportunities for improvement, i.e., this takes too long because I have to wait for X before I can do Y, I don't have enough of X to complete every job, this equipment breaks down all the time, etc.
Ask your staff to document what they would do differently with current resources to make these tasks/processes less frustrating. Even if the outcome is just one or two changes that yield minor improvement, you have set the best-practices pursuit into motion. When employees see that focusing on improvement makes their jobs less frustrating, they learn to think with a continuous-improvement mindset.
Give employees time to experiment with improving their work, but do assign a deadline for them to document the current best practices. Let them know that they can update the best practices document if they find an even more efficient way to perform the task process in the future. It would be wise to have everyone in the company using the same template when documenting best practices and to store these documents in a place that is universally accessible. In this way, you are creating standards that can be referenced and replicated throughout your business via training, collaboration, etc.
An important caution: Don't improve on something that should be eliminated. For example, if an employee says it takes too long to get approval on a monthly report, ask about the value of the report before asking how to improve the process. Often, a practice or process will persist long after it loses value. Ask what value is created by every action under review. If the value doesn't contribute to customer satisfaction and company goals, the action should probably be eliminated.
Get an Outside Perspective
Have outsiders observe your operation. Different perspectives bring different questions, comments, and ideas.
Industry resources such as ACCA Mix Groups and consultants have "industry eyes," and non-competitive business leaders in your community can provide points of view that cross industry boundaries. I belong to two groups — a Mix Group made up of noncompeting hvacr leaders from across the country that meets twice per year; and a CEO group in my community, again non-competing, that meets monthly. Both of these groups are dedicated to developing, discussing, sharing, and examining best practices for each other's businesses. Both groups have conducted a complete business review for me with very revealing results. I have also reviewed businesses to offer constructive suggestions and modifications to their methods. No matter which role I am in, I always came away with new ideas for my own company.
These reviews can cause discomfort, but comfort is typically the partner of mediocrity. Discomfort brings change, and change for the purpose of improving the person or company is worthwhile and necessary.
Create Your Own Accountability System
In the beginning, you as a leader will need to be highly visible and handson to demonstrate the importance of a best-practices initiative. And yes, you must do this along with all of your other responsibilities.
Here again, look outside for support. Both of the groups to which I belong hold members accountable for the changes they have agreed to implement. This is, in itself, a best practice. To be required to be accountable to your peers is a great motivator for business leaders. It is a constant nudge to move you out of your comfort zone and toward perfection.
Prioritize Improvement Ideas
Business reviews such as I described — or even industry and leadership seminars — are great motivators and can yield tons of improvement ideas. But your staff will experience terminal frustration and confusion if you attempt to implement these great ideas all at once. Prioritizing ideas you glean from others and methodically putting them into practice is the best way to get those practices adopted.
As the best-practices process becomes routine, changes tend to be more incremental in nature and not as overwhelming as in the beginning. Properly done, your key people will develop an eye and ear for best practices from other businesses with which they come in contact. Again, it's up to you and your management team to prioritize these new ideas.
Positioned to Stay Ahead of Change
Finding and implementing best practices inside your company is all about a continual improvement process. Over time, what was a best practice may no longer be the best. The fundamentals upon which a business is built typically don't change rapidly. However, the tools we use to conduct the running of the business often do change more quickly than we are prepared for. The obvious area we see this is in technology. Another area is labor relations. Time has changed the expectations of benefits and the level of engagement of our whole staff. Staying competitive, keeping up, and then getting out in front requires us to constantly look for better ways to run our businesses. Best practices implementation allows companies to successfully evolve.
Taking your company to a best-practices level is an intentional decision. It will involve some pain, time, trial and error, personnel adjustments, an open mind, and discipline to see that ideas are executed and implemented to the point where they become habits. Then, as the shampoo bottle says, wash, rinse, and repeat. Keep the process going, and you'll be the one establishing the best practices for your business, market, and industry — an enviable position to be in, in any economy, but especially now. Customers will reward the best companies with the best compliment they can: spending their hard earned dollars with you and not the company down the street.
Theo Etzel is the CEO of Naples, Fla.-based Conditioned Air. He is a seasoned business executive and passionate entrepreneur who believes in providing the highest level of customer care, services and products to his clients. For additional information, visit www.conditionedair.com.