4th Sigma: Napoleon’s Rabbits & Identifying Best Practices


Don’t you hate it when an overblown public debate is started by the questionable use of a single phrase or word (probably half of the debates in Washington these days)? However, there are times when just one-word  matters. In, “The Book Of General Ignorance,” by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, amusingly challenges what we think we know. The answer to the question, “What’s the word for Napoleon’s most humiliating defeat?,” is not Waterloo but is instead rabbits. Why? Well, after Napoleon defeated Russia and signed a peace treaty in Tilsit, he wanted to celebrate with a (rabbit) hunting party. Since the French consumed the last wild rabbits long ago, new rabbits were released in the woods. Unfortunately, these were domesticated rabbits (another one-word  mistake!) and didn’t
know how to feed in the wild. When Napoleon’s party arrived, these starving rabbits all had the same thought, “The little guy with the big hat must be here to feed us! Charged by thousands of rabbits, Napoleon fought a brave retreat to his carriage and locked himself inside until he was rescued. Not surprisingly, this story is rarely mentioned in official history books.

Sometimes a single phrase does matter. If I were to pick the most misused phrase corporate managers deal with, it would be… best practices. Every manager is told that they should follow best practices. Who signs up to follow “worst practices”? But then you’re told that peers are doing something that you’re not, so you must not be following the best practices. Well, if everyone else is doing it, it may be a standard practice, but it’s not a
best practice. Then again, if everyone else in your industry is following a practice, who are you to say that they’re not right? I thought we would clear this up by going over the four rules of best practices:

  1. Standard is never best: If everyone is doing exactly the same thing, then no one has any advantage. Then, by definition this can’t be a best practice. There’s always a better way to do just about everything. New technologies and techniques are constantly being developed, giving rise to new best practices every day. Of course, today’s standard may have once been a best practice, but probably not anymore. Why?  Because…
  2. It takes time to become a standard: Let’s take corks, they became the universal standard for closing a wine bottle. It took centuries for adoption, but by the 20th century 99% of wine bottles used a cork. Corks were an improvement on the devices they replaced, but corks have a high failure rate when compared to any other beverage. Yet, the assumption that corks were the “best” practice held
    back the adoption of much better solutions. By the time the next-best  solution is universally adopted, something better will probably be available because….
  3. The best practice hasn’t been adopted yet: Something better is always on the horizon. Finding that something new is every project manager’s goal. Looking at our cork issue, the screw top cap is a better solution, but some might say it’s unaesthetic or broadcasts “low quality.” Synthetic corks that never dry out came a bit later. Today, glass corks are beginning to show up. Whichever one winds the only thing that we can be sure of is that by the time one of these best practices becomes the standard, the next-best practice will be waiting to be discovered.
  4. Different… even better…  isn’t always better: Just because you’ve broken from the pack with a different practice, doesn’t mean that you’ve found a best practice. If there is an industry standard, develop a benchmark so that you know if the new practice is measurably better. Are there any other competing or emerging practices? For example, in our competition of new corks, does one device clearly dominate in terms of cost, aesthetics and reliability? Is there a tightly contested field of multiple better practices, or does any one solution stand out and the best?

Best practices are more than a question of semantics. Whatever the industry has standardized as a practice is probably an obsolete best practice. If you adopt a best practice used by a significant minority of your peers, it may still be a best practice, but it’s value is already fading. The most effective best practice is the one that has just been discovered, but it is also going to be the most controversial. If you think you have a best
practice, understand how well competing practices work, and clearly measure the advantages of your new practice. Even if your new practice has a clear benefit, do competing practices provide more than just one type of benefit?  Make sure that you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your practice.

Remember, when you put something new in place it’s perfectly natural for others to challenge you to explain why you chose to be different. Being able to explain and measure the benefits that make your practice the best practice will allow you drive change, and improvement, more quickly. So, if it’s choosing the best cork or feeding the rabbits, never stop pursuing your best practice! And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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This entry was posted in 4th Sigma, Best Practices, Decision Making, Improvement, Continuous or Not and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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