Monday, 12 March 2012

Good Practices, Recommended Practices but never Best Practice

If you've read previous posts on this blog, or if you follow me on Twitter, you may be aware that one of my current bug bears is the wilful misuse of the term "Best Practice". I have no idea where this concept originated, but it can't have been anywhere that believed in Continuous Improvement (or in any improvement for that matter!).

My first hands-on experience of "Best Practice" was with the introduction of a new global Quality Management System being adopted by a multi-national IT Services company across its Applications Delivery group. All the corporate assets such as templates and guidelines were stored in a "Best Practice Repository" (BPR) and tailored versions of these could be uploaded by local delivery groups. As a relatively naïve practitioner I welcomed this approach initially. All staff had access to the local assets by default, and if no asset was locally available they were shown the corporate asset. Part of my job was to manage our local assets and their incorporation into the BPR. Various metrics were provided to understand how assets were used which I used to monitor and report on to my local senior management.

As a relatively mature organisation (compared to other delivery centres around the world) with a large number of tried and tested assets already in use in hundreds of projects, my team uploaded most of our templates into the BPR unless we felt that the corporate standard was an improvement on our own.

This was when the first warning bells started ringing as we became plagued with questions like "should we be using the corporate or local standard?". Notices of Instruction were duly posted with appropriate advice but the real question remained unanswered by the QMS owners - the question being "how can you have multiple Best Practices?". Either it's Best Practice or it isn't.

The second warning bell came when the European management team decided to compete with the rest of the world as to who could provide the most best practices, and all European organisations found that the number of assets uploaded and downloaded in the BPR became part of the balanced scorecard for process improvement teams. A frenzy of activity saw dozens and dozens of best practices appearing over the next few years and PMs and developers had free reign to download whatever took their fancy regardless of the quality of the materials. Many organisations simply edited the corporate standard, added their delivery centre name and logo, and renamed it to reflect their own identity. As is so often the case, the focus of improvement degenerated into wasteful template production rather than adoption of process into the mindset. What started in Europe soon filtered out across the world  and the BPR became an unmoderated morass of templates and guidelines.

After several global reorganisations a new version of the global applications QMS was developed and I was a member of the design team. Some lessons from the past were learnt, and although the BPR still existed we cleaned out 90% of the contents and put in strict controls on how assets could be added which involved several levels of review (local, regional and corporate). The B still stood for Best however.

This story isn't unique sadly. I've seen it repeated in organisations all over the world, in big companies and in small ones. As long as CMMI is interpreted as being about the production of templates and documentation the nonsense will continue. But until that happens, at least refer to your Process Asset Library as that, or if that's a bit too difficult to understand call it a Good Practice Repository.

Best implies that it can't be improved, and that there can only be one. Neither of these implications has a place in the world of continuous improvement.

Postscript - there's no prizes for seeing the other moral of this tale; that's right…the one about how a carelessly considered measurement can cause totally dysfunctional behaviour which could cost you dearly.

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