Greg Mathers

Is sourcing best practices good for your company?

When you were in school, copying another person's work was considered cheating, and doing so could land you in a lot of trouble. Why is the practice of plagiarism so frowned upon? 

The big reason in education is that you are taking credit for work that you never did. Beyond the obvious damage getting caught for stealing someone else's work does to your reputation, the bigger problem is that the person you are really cheating is yourself. 

This is highlighted in the story of Arthur Barry, a very famous jewel thief from 1920s America. He stole quite successfully from the elite of society but was eventually caught and spent 17 years in prison. When questioned about the most he ever stole from someone, he replied “The man from whom I stole the most was Arthur Barry".

But how does the business practice of copying "best practices" compare to cheating in school or to the work of a jewel thief? Let's start with a positive view of benchmarking best practices that come from Jack Welch.

Jack Welch was a firm believer in scouring the corporate world for best practices and incorporating them. He actually glorified the practice of corporate plagiarism in a conversation about Six Sigma, "I'm very proud of the fact we didn't invent it. Motorola invented it. Allied followed with it. And we've taken it. That's a badge of honor. That's not something bad. That's a great thing to do".(1)

So why not? Here you have one of the most celebrated CEOs in history lauding the practice. While it is considered legitimate business practice, several things strike me as potentially detrimental about the practice of copying best practices:

  • You are assuming that the information you have about the benefits of a best practice from another company is accurate
  • You are also assuming that there is a best way to do something rather than working to find a better way. This doesn't lead to continuous improvement.
  • The best practice you are copying is another company's solution to a particular problem at a particular point in time. Because of change and the uniqueness of your situation the applicability to your company and the resulting benefits are often limited.
  • When you copy a solution to a problem, you don't develop your people's ability to solve problems. This is similar to having your parents do your schoolwork for you. How much real learning takes place?
  • Simply taking solutions and implementing them, puts you in an implementation mentality. The important skill to develop beyond implementation is problem-solving. This is the core of innovation and continuous improvement.
  • Focusing on finding best practices takes your focus off of what your customers need and, therefore, probably limits your value-added innovation.
  • Focusing on finding and implementing best practices does not make your company more adaptive.
  • Applying a best practice solution to a particular problem within your work system leads to neglecting the system as a whole.

Of course, we should be aware of what our competitors and others are doing to help their customers and build efficiency. But simply copying what others are doing is too simplistic and puts you in the role of playing catch-up. Much more important is to build a strong management process by which your people can continually do three things:

  1. See and agree on what is currently happening in their environment 
  2. Agree on where they are headed and the obstacles that appear in their path, and 
  3. Continually and collaboratively develop and implement smart solutions that move them past the obstacles and step-by-step along the path

If you want your company to be sustainable for a long time, then learning how to deal with constant change, both internal and external to your organization, is vital. Leadership has to build the capability of the company and its people to continuously improve and adapt as conditions will always change. You don't build this capability by copying the work of others.

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