Transferring and Teaching Best Practices

by Lauren Trees, APQC knowledge specialist

For most organizations, the ability to pinpoint and replicate superior practices is a vital competitive advantage. No matter the industry, reusing successfully demonstrated practices can lead to shorter cycle times, faster ramp-ups, higher customer satisfaction, better decisions, and lower costs — all of which can mean the difference between success and failure in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Best practices and instructional knowledge go hand in hand

Best practices are a particularly powerful form of institutional knowledge in that they take information and data and put it in the context of real people and experiences. By learning what works best in other parts of the organization, employees get theory, evidence, and expertise all wrapped into one.

Best practices also help cut through employees’ natural resistance to change; it’s harder to ignore or dispute a new idea when it already is being used elsewhere to achieve superior results.

But despite these advantages, many organizations fail to recognize and duplicate the processes and methods that consistently get the best results. Why? As you might imagine, the internal transfer of best practices is not as simple as picking up a wiring diagram or process flow chart and faxing it to another location. It takes a formal strategy, a clear business focus, and an understanding of the variables that encourage and impede transfer.

Formalizing best practices transfer

The reasons why organizations formalize the transfer of best practices vary, but common drivers include the need to standardize after a merger or acquisition, efforts to minimize year-over-year costs while maintaining quality, and initiatives to upgrade IT and reporting systems. Business models that emphasize cost control or that require a standardized approach in multiple markets are particularly good candidates for transfer programs.

An effective transfer process must include steps to:

  1. Identify outstanding practices;
  2. Capture or document knowledge related to the practices and what makes them effective;
  3. Review, evaluate, or validate the practices;
  4. Communicate and share the practices, possibly by enabling exchanges between the source and potential recipients; and
  5. Support recipients over time as they adopt and adapt the practices.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for best practices transfer, APQC has observed three distinct models that work.

The first involves the direct transfer of a centrally identified practice to multiple recipient locations. Often implemented as part of a Six Sigma or process improvement project, this model begins when a process improvement team identifies or creates a new best practice. Once experts review and validate the practice, it is pushed to relevant teams and locations, which usually are required to adopt it.

In the second model, transfer is facilitated through discipline-based communities or networks. Unlike in the first model, no centrally identified group is responsible for the creation of practices. Instead, teams identify their own candidate practices and bring them to the relevant communities, where they are evaluated and shared. The communities advocate the use of best practices and provide support, but adoption tends to be voluntary.

The third model involves a self-assessment process in which teams invite assessors to evaluate their current opportunities against pre-established criteria. The teams then design improvement plans to address the gaps revealed by the assessments and, once implementation is complete, document and share their new leading practices. While the assessments are voluntary, management pressure for continuous improvement creates a pull to participate.

Regardless of the model used, teams implementing best practices are often tempted to start by adapting practices to their own operations. However, according to our research, firms experience the best results when they require that best practices be adopted “as is” (at least as much as possible). Then, once a team sees the practice in action, it can tweak it to suit the particular situation. If a team adapts a practice before implementing it, it may unwittingly eliminate the very elements that make the practice “best,” thus defeating the purpose of the transfer.