October 20, 2009

Innovation Builds on Best Practice

In some instances there is good practice, in others it might be best practice while in yet others there might be no practice.

I was reading a blog entry entitled Just Tell Me What Works! It was interesting how it mentioned that on some days you just want to be told what to do and how to do it. There is clearly evidence of this in the huge number of cookery books that are sold each year but it is equally true of industry. If you think of industrial processes, in many instances the goal is consistency or standardisation. We don’t want people to innovate, we want them to produce the product or deliver the service in the standard way. If you have several plants, you want to raise the productivity or quality level across the board, having one plant that is 95% efficient while the vast majority are less than 85% efficient isn’t what most industrial managers are after, they want to raise all of the them to the same level.

A recognised way of doing this is to identify a good example of how to do it and replicate that in other locations. We used the term ‘good practice’ in the BP Operations Excellence programme. After we had identified several ‘good practices’, we developed from them, the ‘best practice’. It was only after the ‘best practice’ was identified (and agreed by the practitioners) that it was rolled out and all plants encouraged to implement that method. After all if there was an agreed ‘best practice’ to do an activity, why would you not want to use it? Learning was captured on an ongoing basis and the ‘best practice’ updated periodically.

Now I hear some mention the words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’. Perhaps you are thinking that the use of best practice will inhibit innovation and creativity. For me this is where context is vital.

In some situations, you don’t want innovation or creativity, you just want it done in a standard, consistant fashion.

If you are running a chemical plant, you don’t want the operator to innovate. If you are manufacturing microchips, you don’t want the technicians to innovate. If you are launching a new product into a target market, you perhaps don’t want innovation but standardisation. If you are decommissioning a nuclear power plant, perhaps you don’t want innovation during the work phase.

Innovation should be built on current best practice. One of the key lessons from the Knoco Bird Island exercise is that if you ask people to do something, they will frequently start based on their own experience. When you illustrate the current best practice that has been achieved by several hundred people before them, they are frequently overwhelmed as to how poor they achievement was compared to what has already been established.

Where appropriate give them the best practice and ask them to innovate from there. For example if by the introduction of AAR’s the time to change filters has been reduced from 240 hours per screen to 75 hours and a best practice created illustrating how this is achieved, innovate from the best practice figure of 75 hours, not the previous figure of 240 hours but only if it is safe to do so. In some instances innovation must be done in test area, ideas thought out, prototypes created and tested before the agreed modification is installed in the main plant.
Innovation is great but let’s lay out the challenge of doing it from what is the best practice level currently. If you haven’t achieved the best practice level of performance, perhaps the goal should be to achieve that level of performance before seeking to innovate.

I liked Shell’s innovative way of tapping into the collective knowledge of the global LinkedIn community to seek innovative ways of making stranded gas commercial. I liked how I was alerted to their request. Natural gas is said to be ‘stranded’ when it is too difficult or uneconomic to produce perhaps because it is located too far away from where it’s needed or because it requires expensive treatment to remove things in the gas. You are interested in reading more about stranded gas click here. Shell are currently seeking bright ideas on how to get stranded gas from where it is to where it is needed. A good example of attempting to unlock previously left behind resources. If you have want to make your mark, this could be a good way of doing it, both in terms of innovation and financial reward.

And finally for this posting;

I was doing some research and came across a web site entitled “40 Fantastic Time-Wasting Web Sites”. Now while I am sure you could easily list more than 40 time wasting web sites, you might be interested to try Stripgenerator that assists you to create your own comic strip. I am going to be on a train tomorrow that has wifi, so I might even try to create a ‘strip blog’ during the journey. Who knows I might be on the very verge of creating the knowledge management equivalent of Dilbert. Just remember that you read about it hear first.


  1. Thanks for the post Tom.

    Although I agree that not everybody at all times should be innovating, I do believe there are concerns with always starting from "best practices" to drive innovation.

    This is particularly the case if you are looking for breakthrough/disruptive/radical innovation


    From my experience, when challenged with a need to look for radical innovation, starting from best practices can create a barrier and bias the discussion often promoting incremental improvements.

    Don't get me wrong, a kaizen approach is great at moving things forward but if this is your sole practice you do risk being obsolete.

  2. Rex, The way that I tend to look at operational things is, ‘are all our plants operating as well as they could?’, if the answer is no, then let find out how we can improve that. Let’s find out how the best plants do things and transfer it to other plants (if appropriate).

    If however we are doing something well but we want to do it extra ordinarily well, then we get into the area of breakthrough thinking. During my time with BP, we were very careful to distinguish what we wanted eg did we want to bring up the overall performance of our plants or were we looking for a radically different way of doing something.

    For me it is about being clear on what you want. In some instances it is an overall increase in performance of everyone involved. In others it is a step change or industry changing way of doing things that you are looking for. For example you would use breakthrough thinking to create the first iPod but then use best practice and standardisation to ensure that every plant that manufactured iPod’s did it to the same standard.

    Great comment, thanks for posting.