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The Art of Best Practice Transfer

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Change programs designed to improve overall performance by promoting the highest standards in every unit of the organization can seem simple on paper but often fall apart once they hit the plant or office. Companies often have difficulty identifying good ideas and making them stick. As a recent front-page article in the Wall Street Journal said, “On factory floors, top workers hide secrets to success.” The key is to design a change program that overcomes workers’ natural resistance to committing three unnatural acts — sharing, collaborating, and using.

Workers resist sharing because they fear that efforts to make their company more efficient will mean fewer jobs, more work, and/or less overtime pay. They have difficulty collaborating to meet the challenge of documenting practices and determining which ones to implement across the company. And they often fight the use of best practices, succumbing to people’s natural tendency to take a “not invented here” attitude toward adopting the ideas of others.

These challenges can be overcome. We have worked with a number of clients that have realized dramatic results through a structured approach that is inclusive, but does not encourage “letting a thousand flowers bloom.” The challenge is to extract the maximum value from the minimum number of change initiatives with speed, precision, and certainty. Here’s how:

1. Prioritize, locate, and analyze. It is management’s job to choose the areas with the highest potential, identify the high performers within them, and document their potential best practices. Ideas must come from the workforce, but many workers lack the skills, initiative, or knowledge to both record their processes and compare them with similar ones from their peers. Data collection and analysis must be done rigorously.

2. Seed and manage debate. Engage a cross section of skilled workers in a structured process to determine which practices should be put into place across the organization. Challenge these “experts” to apply their cumulative knowledge and choose solutions that will provide the maximum value.

3. Create and communicate incentives for change. Tell employees from the start what’s in it for them. Often, nonmonetary benefits are the most compelling to workers; schedule changes, investments in labor-enhancing technology, and recognition from management can be much more powerful than a $100 quarterly bonus. Tie compensation to participation and impose sanctions for noncompliance.

4. Appoint influential field leaders. People whose opinions and actions carry the most weight should be involved early on to facilitate a smooth implementation of the change agenda. Clearly define roles for these local leaders, make them accountable for results, and rely on them in the best practice transfer stage. Transfer is almost always more labor-intensive than people believe; a network of people on the ground who understand the program is essential.

5. Back the program.  Show that the company is willing to invest in promising ideas and provide the necessary physical resources and human capital to support knowledge transfer. Workers know when a corporate initiative has power, or when they can wait for it to blow over. Employees who take the risk of sharing their expertise need to be taken seriously. Those who are on the fence, or are resistant, must understand that change is coming, and that they need to either get on board or get out of the way!

6. Look for quick wins.  Combine best practice initiatives that require longer-term process changes with quick hits that can be rapidly implemented and standardized. With quick hits, management and workers can test the change process, build trust, get immediate results, and celebrate success.

Knowledge transfer is tricky because it requires clear documentation, hands-on training and direction, a mechanism for ongoing tracking and performance measurement, and sustained support. Management must know what is negotiable and nonnegotiable before it kicks off a program, and be willing to stick to its guns. It may take months of conference calls and repeat visits, but if you declare success too early, desired changes will never be institutionalized.

Companies that effectively share best practices have boosted their bottom lines by as much as 20 percent. In a world where the competition is ever increasing, an effective best practice program can prove to be a powerful tool for driving world-class performance.

Paul F. Kocourek, is a senior vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton in New York. He focuses on strategic transformation of companies facing changes in the competitive landscape or the regulatory environment.
Walter J. Mancini, is a senior associate in Booz Allen Hamilton's New York office. He focuses on strategic transformation of companies facing changes in the competitive landscape.
Matthew Calderone,, is an associate in Booz Allen Hamilton's New York office.
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