What Makes a “Practice” Best?
During the Civil War (as the story goes) a Union Soldier’s widow approached President Lincoln to complain about her husband’s death. Her complaint was that her husband died, not from a grievous battle wound, but an infection in his feet. It began with sores worn into his feet by the shoes he was issued. Letters to his wife always mentioned how these shoes fell apart when they got wet, never seemed to last long, and had to be constantly repaired with whatever materials he could find.
In those days war profiteers (many of whom were Union Officers or government employees) set up make-shift manufacturing operations and turned out sub-standard shoes by the thousands for the Union Army at great profit. After hearing of her plight the President asked Secretary of War Stanton to investigate. As a result, new procurement regulations were posted requiring competition, quality standards, and inspection upon receipt.
Today there are almost 1,900 pages in the Federal Acquisition Regulation’s two volumes. A complicated Gordian Knot of rules, exceptions, and various clauses that takes years to master. As time has passed, the needs of the government have grown while budgets were cut, the workforce has been reduced, and workers have aged. Many organizations are reaching out to determine how to best navigate the troubled waters of acquisition.
In the aftermath of yet another failed large procurement, a client recently tasked Management Concepts to collect “best practices in acquisition” for use in focusing their workforce on practices and approaches to the process of acquiring goods and services. We identified more than 150 citations that cited key issues, critical factors, success factors, preferred practices, essential practices, and other actions leading to more effective, efficient, and successful acquisitions in the Federal government.
Our research confirmed that “best practices” are a part of the organizational environment in which they operate. There are interrelated forces at work that require, encourage, mentor, and ensure that these practices are part of a successful organization’s decision and operational actions taken to achieve its goals and objectives. Federal government workers often navigate a complex web of rules, regulations, and laws in their operations. These forces take specific actions to support the successful implementation of a best practice. The best practices we examined all had eight components in common as outlined below:
- Policies are written by higher authority to establish the outcomes and constraints that guide Federal activities. Policies themselves are not specific enough to achieve the outcomes alone. They are the basis on which subordinate organizations determine how these outcomes will be achieved given the constraints that exist. Successive subordinate entities may issue supplemental policy guidance based on what is received from higher authority.
- Procedures are written that specify how the work is to be performed in order to comply with the policies, actions to take, processes to follow, roles and responsibilities, and authority. This component is the birthplace of a practice.
- Guides supplement procedures with specific details of the methodologies, key activities, decision points, workflows, artifacts, etc. that are to be used consistently across the enterprise to achieve the outcomes specified in the policy.
- Templates establish the format and content of artifacts created for use in the activities to make decisions, provide information, or collect and use data maintained in the organization’s systems.
- Job Aids can take many forms and support the tasks being performed. They could be checklists or written, audio or video instructions.
- Training provides team members at all levels with the necessary skills and knowledge to successfully complete all steps and activities in the practice. We placed this at the bottom of the pyramid because this training must be in accordance with the other components in the context of the organization’s expectations.
- Governance occurs from the top down throughout the organization by the executive, managerial, supervisory, and operational levels within the organization. Monitoring progress and performance is vital to ensuring accountability at all levels.
- Feedback occurs from the bottom up and ensures the organization is functioning well or identifies actions needed to restore the organizational balance. As with any system, feedback is a check and balance that helps to adjust and improve the practice.
We established that a “best practice” is more than a single well-prepared checklist or template; it’s the cumulative effect of an organization’s integrated efforts at the operational, managerial and executive levels. The components outlined above were common to the descriptions of the best practices we found. This affirmed that true best practices are the successful application of coordinated actions at all levels of an organization to achieve a strategic outcome.
Next in my series: Leadership – The Critical Element in Best Practices