Flush those “best practices” …

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I’m convinced that ‘Best Practices’ are often used by people who are afraid, lazy, or simply lack original thought.” –Jim Walton, president & CEO, Brand Acceleration Inc.

I always enjoy reading Jim Walton’s (below, at right) commentary on a wide assortment of U.S. business issues in his blog, which is aptly entitled Rants from the Brand Coach.

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One recently caught my eye that has (in my humble opinion, at least) a lot of relevance for the trucking industry, and that’s the issue of “Best Practices.”

Walton noted that, according to Wikipedia, “’Best Practices’ are generally-accepted, informally-standardized techniques, methods or processes that have proven themselves over time to accomplish given tasks.”

That certainly sounds good, Walton said, but here’s the kicker: it almost, by definition, eliminates any effort to try something new and different. Furthermore, if everyone is adhering to “Best Practices,” basically everyone is trying to do the very same thing.

And if everyone is the same, what chance does your company have in terms of winning business from shippers? The only chance, it would then seem, would come from lowering rates, which only leads to ruin in the long run.

“It amazes me how many times I hear the term ‘Best Practices’ in the course of a week or month and it’s always touted as a way to reduce mistakes and assure success,” Walton said. “But I’ve grown so tired of the term that I’m trying to remove it from my own vocabulary. You see, in my business – marketing communications and public relations – the goal is always to discover different and unique ways to communicate a message; not to look and sound like everyone else.”

Walton is convinced that ‘Best Practices’ are often used by people who are, in his words, “afraid, lazy, or simply lacking in original thought. ‘We researched the best practices and followed what has become the accepted industry norm,’ is the answer given when challenged by the boss.”

He views that statement in an entirely different context. “Here’s another way to look at it: ‘We couldn’t come up with anything on our own and we were afraid to take risks that might draw attention, so we found out what everyone else was doing and we did the same thing.’ That’s a sure fire path to the executive suite … not.”

Walton asked rhetorically, what if our most celebrated inventors had followed this logic? “Thomas Edison might have gone into the candle-making business and Henry Ford might have become a buggy maker or a farrier,” he said. [FYI: a “farrier” is a specialist in horse hoof care.]

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Walton also noted that when Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, went looking for money to start his new venture, traditional lenders reportedly turned him away because they couldn’t grasp the potential of his business idea.

“The concept of delivering packages overnight using airplanes was far outside the ‘best practices’ of the day,” Walton said. “But Smith had a dream and the courage to be different. He saw something that others didn’t – or wouldn’t – and turned his college thesis into a huge package delivery empire. Yet if he had followed the accepted the ‘Best Practices’ of the day, who knows what he’d be doing now.”

And just because someone else is doing something successfully in a certain way does not mean it’s the best way for you, Walton stressed. “For example, companies have tried for years to copy the Japanese practices such as quality circles, Kaizen, and Kansei Engineering. Some, especially Japanese companies, have had some success but others have failed miserably or had limited success.”

Why? “Maybe it’s because of cultural differences,” Walton said. “In America, we are radicals. One thing that makes us great is the individualism that permeates every company, community, and family. We find it difficult to blend in and do things like everyone else. We strive to be different and do things our own way.”

That, by the way, is something Walton sees as an advantage in business and in life overall; not something to by stymied and squelched.

“It seems to me that when everyone begins following the best practices of everyone else, there is a much greater chance that key points of differentiation are lost,” he added. “Then, if every company and community looks, sounds, and acts just like the others, there is only one difference remaining: price. Not a great situation.”

It’s certainly food for thought as the trucking industry gears up to face a whole host of near and long term challenges, from how to get better fuel efficiency from its equipment to recruiting and retaining a new generation of drivers.

Any way you look at it, solving those and many other issues is going to take some new and original thinking; not necessarily relying on what’s been done over and over and over again in this industry’s past.

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