Core Practice: focused excellence as a differentiator

A leading cultural assumption in the business world is that anything we do should be benchmarked against world’s best practice. But why pay for gold when copper will do? Rob England says don’t aim for best when there is no business driver to do so.

Organisations are wasting resource and damaging themselves unnecessarily chasing a “best” standard for everything. Save “best” for focused areas where it counts. Organisations that do this will gain an efficiency edge over those who chase it everywhere.

Frameworks such as ITIL try to talk more about “good practice” (but just can’t let go of that “best practice” phrase – it is still in all the books). Some folk now prefer “generally accepted practice”. A concept that deserves more attention is “core practice”: the minimum needed to get the job done within acceptable risk.

“Best practice” is an unfortunate term because of the pejorative implication that anything else is not-best. “Best” is an emotive and judgemental word that implies several things:
• nothing else is better
• anything else is worse (so by subtle inference there is something wrong with you if you choose to do anything else)
• someone has evaluated it to determine it is best (so by inference it can be measured)

Best Practice has become something of a sacred cow in business. It is often taken as a given that organisations want to achieve best practice in everything they do and an organisation that doesn't is somehow less worthy than those that do. This should not be the case. Pursuing Best Practice is a strategic decision, which should be taken when there is an agreed ROI (tangible or intangible) for the resource investment required to get there. The default should be something else.

"Strategic decision" implies there are options: to do it or not. So what is the alternative to Best Practice?

There is not a generally accepted alternative concept to Best Practice. In most disciplines, the standards, guidance or methodologies define only the Best Practice. The only option is “absence of Best Practice”. Occasionally there is both Best and Minimum Practice (seen for example in some health industry processes). Minimum standards are of two kinds: meeting legislative and other obligations/requirements, or not failing. There is usually the implication that the minimum standard is not a desirable state of affairs: users are expected to “pull their socks up” at some later stage and achieve Best Practice. There isn't the systematic approach that there is to the concepts of Best Practice.

The author has the concept of Core Practice:
the strategic decision to minimise cost in part of the enterprise by implementing practices sufficient to (a) meet obligations and (b) to work well enough that risk (to the organisation and to people in its care) is reduced to some acceptable level.
Core Practice could be called CoPr for short: pronounced “copper”, as in the copper approach not the gold one: copper is as good as gold in most applications. It is also malleable, conductive, decorative and resists corrosion. And it is much cheaper.

Never mind TQM and Continuous Incremental Improvement: sometimes it's OK to “do it'll-do”, to stop at good enough. Examples:
• Non-critical projects. Most businesses today have some form of project governance that reviews proposals on the basis of a business case. Many business cases fail simply because the best practice solution is overkill. The project is not strategic or competitive enough to justify the gold solution, but a CoPr proposal might have been successful.
• Cash-strapped organisations. Many organisations know what they would like to be doing but don't have the resources to do it. Ill-conceived attempts to pursue best practice at this time could destroy the business rather than helping it.
• Small businesses seldom have time, money or people to achieve more than a minimum standard in anything they do, except in a few select critical areas core to the success of the business. Yet they are often made to feel guilty about all the other domains where they allow expediency to rule, as if they were in some way failing to be good managers.
• Start-ups have to get to market before the money runs out. Very few start-ups are so well funded that their systems can be anything more than the bare minimum needed to get off the ground. Once the business has got past the initial cashflow trough and revenue starts to stabilise, only then do they have the leisure of improving process. They run the risk of destabilising the business again unless they are careful to work on processes only in domains that will deliver a sufficient benefit to the business.

Core Practice does not mean shoddy practice, or avoidance of any design or planning. Core Practice is not the absence of formalised practice. It is a defined set of essential or minimum practices.

By consciously considering the options of Core Practice and Best Practice for a given discipline and choosing to adopt Core Practice for that discipline, an enterprise gains:
• Reduced costs (and hence increased competitive advantage) by not overspending on a non-critical area. A medical clinic needs best practice in diagnosis and records management, but not necessarily in HR or finance.
• Resources freed to concentrate on Best Practice in critical, competitive or strategic areas. A struggling manufacturer is better off focusing spending on best practice in supply chain management than in office automation.
• Faster implementation of systems which are simpler, cheaper and less demanding.
• Removed distraction of guilt or perceived risk through not having implemented Best Practice: shareholders (or taxpayers), partners and management can rest assured that it is a considered and acceptable option rather than just an omission or exposure, without staff having to continually justify the situation.

Core Practice should be the default: the most sensible option for most organisations in most situations. Best Practice is an option to be adopted where it gains a competitive advantage or efficiency sufficient to justify the investment in achieving it.

Examples of where Best Practice is usually more appropriate:
• Highly competitive industries that differentiate on quality. The classic example is of course the motor vehicle manufacturers, the origin of a lot of the theory of Best Practice.
• Complex processes that need improvement. Existing processes are as extensive as Best Practice ones, but sub-optimal in design. They may never have been designed but rather grew organically. Re-engineering them will bring efficiencies that pay for the effort.
• Service providers who deal in life and health: medicine makers, medical centres, rescue services, social welfare. Even in this instance, it is the core services that must be delivered to Best Practice. Many of these organisations are chronically under-resourced and so Core Practice should always be a considered option for ancillary and supporting processes.
• Providers to clients or partners who require compliance to a Best Practice standard.
• Dangerous or unpopular industries: aerospace, aircraft, nuclear power, chemical engineering, fuel storage, genetic engineering, explosives. Even in situations where human life is not endangered the public relations risk of an error is too high, and it is politically useful to be able to point to Best Practice compliance.

It should be acceptable for someone to say "we take a Core Practice approach to X", and do so without shame or embarrassment. It should be a respectable business decision to make and a viable option to select. What is needed is for groups that create Best Practice guidelines or methodologies to publish a defined set of Core Practices, or to define what subset of the best practices constitutes CoPr.

Such a set of practices needs to fulfil the following criteria:
• Provide a minimum functional operational capability
• Reduce risks to people to an acceptable level
• Reduce risks to the organisation to an acceptable level
• Meet regulatory requirements
• Create a foundation for best practice and standards compliance for those who adopt them later (i.e. create no incompatibilities, or at worst create only reversible and understood incompatibilities)

Until that great day, take a look at proposed practices in your organisation: look for a subset or an alternative approach that would be cheaper and simpler, yet just as effective in achieving the minimum required result. Clad your business in copper not gold and keep the business competitive.