A Framework for “Best Practice”

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NOT LONG AGO I WAS ASKED to prepare a “Best Practices” document for a retail solutions company. The task stimulated a round of research, investigation and deep thinking.

Best Practice is a term we invoke fairly often in the retail consumer products industry. Industry associations devote considerable resources to identifying them. Consulting firms convene their best subject matter experts to define and explain them. (Sometimes they invent them outright.) Sales organizations, especially, like to invoke them as evidence of the superiority of their solutions.



But is there consensus on the real meaning of best practice? Well I read up on what some of the experts had to say and added some original thinking of my own. Here’s what I came up with:

Best Practices are the reusable practices of the organization that have been shown to be successful in their respective functions. To make them repeatable and consistent, they are defined by the organization and institutionalized in various ways, often enabled by technology systems. Best Practices may deliver great value in driving customer experience, workflow efficiencies, speed, accuracy, reduced re-work, cost control, operational insights, business improvement and other benefits.

While specific Best Practices may vary across different organizations and industries, some tend to rise consistently to the top. Those worthy of the adjective “best” tend to reflect five key traits: They are Designed, Conscious, Realistic, Measurable, and Customer-Oriented.

Best Practices ChartBest Practice: Five Key Traits

Designed — The practice is deliberately engineered in order to foster desired business outcomes – not based solely on the tried and true. “We’ve done it successfully that way for years,” is not an acceptable rationale. Top organizations do their homework and create practices that address opportunities for business improvement. They don’t rest on their laurels, either. Any best practice must be subject to periodic review and evaluation. Practices that may be optimal now may soon prove to be insufficient as methods and markets evolve. Here’s a clue: If the practice can be found in a textbook, it’s most likely obsolete.

Conscious — Professionals in the organization are clearly aware of the practice, the reasoning behind it, and how it contributes to better performance outcomes. That means continuous education and training are essential elements of every best practice. “Institutional knowledge” is not good enough unless it is systematically shared across the team and embraced by its members. The enemy of best practice is inertia; consciousness is its friend.



Realistic — The practice is made achievable by clear objectives, systems and tools that enable repeatable success and transparency. Organizations must define a best practice in both functional terms and value terms that make it compelling to the individuals who do the work. The benefits must be worthwhile and the goals must be made achievable. If it is hard to do, then organizations must invest to make it easier to comply. Today that often means technology and policies that eliminate needless tedium while clearing away obstacles to individual and team success.

Measurable — Practice outcomes can be tracked, measured and evaluated using routine processes embedded within the business process itself. Performance is everything, and rapid response is crucial. Business activities happen in real time and our evaluation of those activities must also. The days of”post-mortem” reports on spreadsheets are over. Insights without an associated and timely mode of action are are little use. Reserving business intelligence for senior management is an outdated idea. At every level, associates need a continuous view into their individual performances and their impact on team and organizational results.

Customer-Oriented — The practice is designed and focused on a primary objective of delivering on the needs of the end customer. In retail, it’s the shopper. In other organizations, the immediate customer may be another business entity or even an internal client. The principle remains the same, regardless. A practice that is designed, consciously adopted, realistically applied and made measurable with the ultimate customer in mind will tend to rise to the top and deliver superior results.

Practice at Your Own Risk

These five key traits may not be a sufficient framework for business leaders in some industries. It doesn’t attempt to address the morality, legality, fairness or safety of the practice, but I take that as a given. It may be more retail/marketing-oriented than operational/manufacturing oriented, but that’s where I hail from, so interpret accordingly.



In the end, “best practice” will always be a subjective label applied to business processes that reflect the best know-how we have in this moment. Regular and objective evaluation of your best practices against the five key traits might be a best practice we can all adopt.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Good thinking about creating some criteria for this over-used phrase. I use it a lot, primarily to differentiate between common practice and something better.

    Studies that tout what’s most commonly practiced may be inadvertently perpetuating faulty group-think. It’s a world where the best marketers of a way of doing something rise to the top. Your criteria helps us think through other dimensions besides mass.

    We all know of companies that have won awards such as JD Power, yet we might beg to differ with the assertion that recipients of such awards are truly following best practices.

    They may be best in their industry, or best among whatever class — but there lies the danger: framing “best of” should logically be among something that is viewed as best by its stakeholders.

    Sometimes doing something completely different than the masses or traditional practice is what’s needed to breathe new life into ability to achieve intended results.

    In customer experience management, one could say that the best practices are what weaves profitable customer-focus into the DNA of the company.

  2. It is always helpful to have a solid framework for assessing the worth and relevance of any practice, especially those deemed “best,” and these traits seem particularly sound. My son got in trouble in grade school for copying another student’s work. His rebuttal was: “But, I only copied it because Joey always gets stars on his papers.” The adult version is, “Nordstrom gets stars for their customer service and if they have a grand piano playing in the middle of their stores, we should have one in the lobby of our bank, hospital or whatever.” My young son missed the point that it was about learning, not getting stars. Organizations too often look at best practices as a shortcut to getting stars totally missing the employee participation that engenders commitment, the “roll your own” challenge that develops capacity, and the tailoring that maintains competitive distinction. We can learn great lessons from the best practices of others. Yet, as these five key traits for selecting best practices are applied, it is important to remember that remarkable is most often the byproduct of thoughtful creation not thoughtless copying.

  3. Jamie – this is a great framework, and a very useful definition for best practices. I noticed that ‘optimized’ did not make it into the framework, which I fully understand. Including it would undermine the ‘best’ in ‘best practices.’

    Satisfying a customer need to comply with best practices might mean absorbing costs that diminish profitability. Therefore, executives need to understand that pursuit of best practices as an end in itself requires making trade-offs. So, what’s really best practice depends on context.

    Like the terms ‘social media expert,’ and ‘best in class,’ ‘best practices’ has largely lost its meaning, which is why it’s great that you’ve brought this down to earth with a sane and workable explanation. The topic of whether it makes sense for companies to focus resources on best practice compliance has been much debated in academia and elsewhere. The concern is that while best practice conformance is often ‘table stakes’ for being competitive in an industry, they don’t differentiate an organization, or its products and services. The challenge occurs in strategy development. Where should companies depart from best practices – which are largely known and relatively easy to duplicate – and develop proprietary advantage?

    What are your thoughts?

  4. Jamie, thanks for sharing a great way to really think about what is a “best” practice.

    I especially like the first one — “Designed” — engineered to foster desired business outcomes. Otherwise, why bother?

    I would take a step further and add “Differentiating” — will the practice, if implemented effectively, help create a competitive advantage? Or, will it just help you “keep up with the jones” — as a kind of hygiene factor.

    With so many supposedly “best” practices out there, business leaders need to make some choices about where to expend their energy. Getting a business outcome is good, getting a sustainable competitive edge is better.

  5. Jamie, super.
    I would endeavour while looking at best practices, actually creating next practices, so that in the future your company is followed for its practices.

  6. I’m grateful for all your comments – they are thoughtful and they extend my modest proposal in ways I had not thought of. As several of you suggest, the search for “best practice” can tend to lead organizations toward “standard practice.” This tends to happen far too often when industry groups embark on this quest. Individual organizations can and should seek to transcend the “tried and true” to find competitive advantage by doing things consistently better than the accepted norm. That’s “differentiating,” as Andrew and Bob suggest.

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