Transferring and Teaching Best Practices

Addressing logistical, structural, and cultural hurdles

In addition to designing an effective process, organizations must address the logistical, structural, and cultural hurdles that impede transfer. For example, the organizational structure may promote silo thinking in which locations or divisions focus on maximizing their own accomplishments and rewards, instead of supporting the success of the overall organization.

Similarly, managers may not allocate time for employees to learn from and help one another or they may not sufficiently reward them for doing so. Other barriers are even harder to break down, such as employees’ reluctance to change the way they work based on advice from colleagues they don’t know and may never meet.

The most important factor in overcoming these barriers is the support and involvement of senior leaders. Securing employee buy-in is easier when management is committed and enthusiastic.

Other factors that support change include:

  • The allocation of full-time resources to support the transfer process;
  • Clear, accessible documentation to explain transfer and what is expected of participants;
  • Extensive “face time” and workshops to help participants assimilate the need for change and the alternative practices they might adopt;
  • Robust communications and visible success stories;
  • Compliance scorecards and visible reporting of adoption; and
  • The inclusion of best practice transfer in employee performance expectations.

Below is a description of aluminum refiner Alcoa World Alumina’s transfer program, which is a version of the second type of transfer, the community-based model. In addition to creating an effective transfer process, Alcoa has taken significant steps to transform its culture and encourage employee participation.

How Alcoa transfers its best practices

With more than 17 locations in six countries, Alcoa views standardization and improvement as vital concerns. Over the years, refining locations had introduced variation into their activities, with both positive and negative effects. The organization wanted a way to eliminate the ineffective or negative variations while allowing improvements to be disseminated and implemented across locations.

In 2004, Alcoa established a network of virtual, discipline-based communities to discover, refine, and implement improvements to the mining and refining processes and then distribute these best practices to other locations across the organization. The communities have identified more than 150 best practices to date and have been instrumental in bringing all the refining and mining processes to a standard level of high performance.

In addition to communities, two other initiatives also support the goal of best practice transfer: focus plant initiatives and global virtual teams. Focus plant initiatives are events where experts gather in one location to plan large-scale improvements and identify collections of best practices that can be used to address systemic problems.

Global virtual teams are similar in that they develop best practices in response to specific challenges, but they work virtually instead of face-to-face. Alcoa refers to communities, focus plant initiatives, and global virtual teams collectively as “three strategies, one goal” because all three support the organization’s pursuit of standardized, global best practices.

Alcoa tries to ensure that participation in its transfer program is inherently valuable for employees. For example, community members can leverage the information, best practices, and expertise in their communities to help solve issues that arise at their locations. To further promote participation, the organization incorporates goals for best practice transfer in employees’ performance objectives. It also altered certain job descriptions to explicitly outline activities such as best practice transfer and community membership.

Design the process that works for you

There are many different ways to transfer best practices between teams or locations. This is true even inside a single organization, as evidenced by Alcoa’s “three strategies, one goal” approach. The most important thing is to keep your strategic drivers and objectives in mind and design a process that fits your organization’s existing structure and culture.

A program that supports the objectives of senior leadership and allows employees to exchange best practices in the course of their normal work is most likely to achieve widespread adoption and popularity.

Lauren Trees is a knowledge specialist at APQC, which is a member-based nonprofit and one of the leading proponents of benchmarking and best practice business research. Working with more than 500 organizations worldwide in all industries, APQC focuses on providing organizations with the information they need to work smarter, faster, and with confidence. Every day we uncover the processes and practices that push organizations from good to great.