"Photocopying" best practices is easy…but don’t call it improvement

Looking at the best practices of others is relevant, writes contributor Terry Burton, but many organizations fail to recognize the deep cultural substance and operations underpinnings behind these best practices. Are you one of them?

The whole notion of change and continuous improvement is often discussed as if organizations are standing still. The reality is that executive perspectives of change and improvement have shifted more towards high velocity and real time.

In today’s challenging economic times, all organizations are constantly changing in a multitude of directions . . . some for the better, and some for the worse.

Are you leading the market or just trying to keep up to your competitors?

Most organizations have abandoned their commitment to structured and disciplined continuous improvement and are striving for the quick and easy improvements through firefighting, symptomatic problem solving, and searching for and replicating best practices.

Conducting benchmarking and best practices research has been a legitimate means of improvement in the past, especially the within-industry scans. Many of these prior efforts have been treated as one-time events vs. a continual journey for excellence. Other benchmarking efforts inadvertently replaced the original objective of improvement.

It is a fact that the organizations that gain the most benefits are those that continue to innovate and adapt best practices before their competitors. In other words, they are the inventors and leaders of best practices. The problem with searching for, and copying the best practices of others is that they are often dated, commoditized (already copied by others), misinterpreted, oversimplified, or obsolete by definition.

"Photocopying" Best Practices: Easy, but not improvement

A deeper dive into the organizations that conceive and implement best practices reveals a robust cultural standard of excellence. When industry leaders develop best practices, they do not just stop there. It is a continuous journey backed by unwavering commitment that strives for how good we can get.

Since they are great enough to innovate, they are also great enough to continuously improve how they improve their best practices to even higher levels of superior performance.

What conditions regarding improvement and best practices exist in the majority of organizations today?.

Unfortunately, most are riding the downside of an improvement birth-death lifecycle that has repeated itself for decades with other dozens of other improvement initiatives. The internal improvement resources in many organizations have the best of intentions, but they have also been shoved under the bus of organizational churn.

Hidden within this cloud of perceived progress in too many organizations is the growth of more waste, cost, and other non value-added activities than ever before – with no real change in operations, financial, or competitive performance. These detractors to performance grow like wild weeds when left unattended, adding to the discovery of recurring problems after the fact. Peeling back the onion of this cloud reveals millions of dollars of new improvement opportunities for most organizations.

The candid facts in all of this are as follows:

Fact #1: Copying best practices demonstrates a lack of internal commitment and talent to improve

Organizations attempt to copy best practices because they have not made the leadership commitment to become the best at what they do, and they usually do not have the array of core competences internally to conceive, execute, and sustain or grow best practices.

The business of best practices is a radical departure from business as usual – the new equivalent of doing nothing and falling behind. Continuous improvement looks simple, but it is not easy. Over 80% of organizations continuously fail at their expeditions to greatness.

Fact #2: If you copy, you'll never lead

If your organization is in the business of copying the best practices of your competitors, the net result is less than or equal to competitive performance (especially if they copied them from other organizations).

Organizations that blindly copy the best practices of the industry leaders that conceived and continue to innovate best practices are by definition, lagging behind these competitors. Best practice innovators are the best performing organizations. Followers are akin to lemmings running for the cliff; they never finish in first place.

Fact #3: Too many organizations try to copy the practice without understanding the importance of organizational culture

The sad reality in all of this is that it usually requires more time, resources, and efforts on researching and attempting to overlay the best practices of others than it does to knuckle down, innovate, and implement your own best practices.

Too many organizations waste valuable time and resources in "we already know how to" or "we’re already doing" mode while they accomplish nothing. The tougher critical success factors of continuous and sustainable improvement always fall on deaf ears. The larger problem with transposing best practices is that the benefits never become realized because all executives, organizations, processes, and cultures are not created equal.

Looking at the best practices of others is still relevant, but a pure superficial copy and paste job is not. Many organizations fail to recognize the deep cultural substance and operations underpinnings behind these best practices.

And yet another emerging challenge: the lifecycles of best practices are collapsing, and the benchmarks of best is a moving target that is always owned by the best practice innovators.

Trump – don’t copy best practices

Technology is the big enabler of this situation and the possibilities are evolving daily. In today’s economy, the best strategy is for organizations to innovate and develop their own best practices. Again, there is nothing wrong with spending a little time observing the best practices of others, particularly in organizations that are outside of your industry sector.

However, most of the effort must be spent on innovating and adapting best practices to your own business and operating environments. The objective is to trump, not copy the best practices of others.

For many organizations this will involve looking at, and recruiting new talent from outside of their industry. All organizations are competing in a new world of innovate and adapt, or fall victim to those who innovate and adapt the best. This is what the new notion of best practices and competitiveness is all about.

How to Invent Best Practices

First of all, executives and their organizations must acknowledge the reality of their own internal progress, capabilities, bandwidths to improve big enough and fast enough. Recognition of the need and the organization’s demonstrated limitations, followed by renewed vision and an unwavering commitment to endless success is the first step.

Looking in the mirror is often perceived to be a painful, negative, ego-bruising experience. Best performing organizations are always looking in the mirror at what they are doing, acknowledging their successes and shortfalls, expanding their base of new talent and knowledge, mentoring their people to keep winning, and making the right continuous operating adjustments to improve how they improve.

Today, even the simplest improvements require innovation and a mindset change because there is only so much "low hanging fruit." But most improvement practitioners do not associate traditional continuous improvement, Lean, Six Sigma, Supply Chain, Time-To-Market, etc. with innovation. They tend to view improvement more as a standard recipe and bag of tools.

Therein lay the problem.

Organizations cannot expect to innovate best practices with a total reliance on technology, a token plain vanilla Lean or Six Sigma program, a misguided organization loaded with multicolored belts.. . . or a shallow imitation of the Toyota Production System (TPS) with a fanatical focus on improvement tools, reciting the right Japanese terminology, a mechanical process of fancy signage, symbolic storyboards and charts, beautification exercises, and teams working on imaginary action items.

Best practices are typically conceived through the following approaches:

Radical Discovery

These are best practices that are discovered when organizations open their minds to new possibilities that enable them to redefine their traditional business models. Visioneering and mind mapping about how a hospital might operate like Amazon, FedEx, Boeing, or Toyota without any waiting rooms is sure to create a lively discussion of potential healthcare innovations with the right people in the room;


These are best practices that represent a departure from known customer and market needs by adapting an existing or new process to a new prospective but unproven/unknown market need. Many retailers are implementing adaptive best practices to get closer to customer and market opportunities;


Creating new processes and practices through evolving technology solutions + process rationalization that have not been previously feasible or possible. Many organizations are creating new best practice through the correct deployment of technology; or


Continuing to build upon an organization’s best practices, and continuously improve how we improve current processes to higher levels of achievement and benchmark performance. This is the most common approach to sustaining existing best practices in many organizations.

All organizations need, and can benefit significantly from all four approaches. However, it requires rethinking about how an organization creates additional value for customers and stakeholders through a bold strategy of known and unknown breakthrough improvement.

In simple terms this involves process reengineering, process innovation, and adaptive (vs. copied) improvement.

An obvious goal within this is creating an environment for success with change, continuous improvement, and innovation as the cultural standard, the expected code of conduct. In other words, improvement for real – with real, validated continuous improvements in performance and competitiveness. The largest opportunities for improvement in organizations are the ones that they do not know about yet. This requires innovation and adaptive improvement to break open these new opportunities and discover new levels of superior performance. Also, the powerful combination of improvement with mobility, the internet, big data, predictive and preventive business analytics, and many other technology innovations are becoming the major enablers of these new opportunities.

Best Practices Are Dynamic

To conclude, I’d like to refer to an old story I use a lot in speaking engagements that highlights the essence of innovation and best practice. Two guys are hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when they stumble upon a hungry black bear and her cubs that is clearly ready to attack them. One of the hikers drops his backpack and quickly slips into a pair of running shoes. The other hiker asks him, "What are you thinking? You can’t outrun the bear." The first hiker replies, "I know but I only need to outrun you."

The objective is discovering and remaining the industry leader so that your organization doesn’t fall prey to competition. Organizations cannot treat best practices as a quick Google search or a one-time knock-off of another organization’s supposed best practices. Best practices are always challenging and challenged.

Additionally, organizations cannot expect to discover and sustain best practices if everyone is running around with their hair on fire while playing the symptomatic, perpetual whack-a-mole game. Discovering and sustaining best practices is a continuous, formal, deliberate, and never-ending process of improvement.

The above story of the two hikers continues with bear approaching while trying to decide which hiker to attack. The second hiker - also fearing for his life - intentionally replies, "Go ahead if you think you’re fast enough."

The first hiker sprints off while the second hiker remains as still as a rock and applied his knowledge that bears have poor eyesight and chase moving prey. The first hiker gets eaten. The second hiker walks away unharmed because he understood the hunting habits of bears, made the right deliberate decisions for the situation, and was later able to reflect on the importance of choosing friends wisely.

The moral of this story is that, although organizations want to hurry up and finish their continuous improvement efforts, or wish and hope for market leadership through instant results, these approaches scatter resources in the wrong direction and actually have a negative impact on waste, cost, cash, quality, speed, and customer satisfaction. One more time: Discovering and sustaining best practices is a continuous, formal, deliberate, and never-ending process of improvement.