The challenge of using someone else’s Best Practices

July 13, 2010

In my posting Lessons Learned and Lessons Not Learned from History I said that there were two major points I drew from “Command or Control?” by Martin Samuels. That entry had to do with the challenge of facing your own past decisions in order to effectively recognize and promote learning throughout an organization. This posting will cover the second; the challenge of trying to assimilate a competitor’s best practices into your own system.

As I said earlier, while the topic of Samuels’ book is the strategy, tactics, training and fundamental command philosophy of the British and German armies in World War I, I believe that the lessons are also applicable to us today. For example, at least until recently, Toyota has been the company that everyone would like to be like. Or, at least, they’d like to have Toyota’s business results.

Despite this, as Jim Womack said in his 11/21/06 newsletter,

“In the past 15 years, we all learned about a lot of lean tools. We also learned how to apply them and we had some modest success. But we are yet to come close to creating a second Toyota, much less a third, fourth or fifth!”

Many people study Toyota and many more try to copy them, but few, if any, of these efforts have duplicated Toyota’s results. All of this attention on Toyota is an example of how difficult it is to see what someone else is doing, label it a best practice, copy it, and have it work as well for you. Samuels provides another example.

Aside from the initial German attacks at the war’s beginning, England and France had primarily been on the offense along the Western Front throughout much of the war. That changed in late 1917 when both Romania and Russia dropped out of the war. This freed up large numbers of German troops that could be used to reinforce the Western Front. The British senior commanders realized that there would almost certainly be a German offensive in the spring of 1918. They also realized that they had little in the way of reference material or documented processes they could use to train their army in how to resist such an attack. They set up two special committees of senior officers to adopt the German defensive doctrine. Essentially this was an acknowledgment that for the previous 3 years the German defensive system had successfully resisted every British attempt to penetrate it.

The committees were made up of senior officers who had years of military experience as well as access to a large quantity of captured and translated German documents. But, despite these advantages, they were not able to effectively turn information about the German approach into operationally effective results. In fact, when the spring offensive came (Operation Michael in March of 1918), defenses that had been intended to hold up for 48 hours lasted barely 90 minutes.

In their 1999 Harvard Business Review article, “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” Steven Spear and H. Kent Bowen say,

“So why has it been so difficult to decode the Toyota Production System? The answer, we believe, is that observers confuse the tools and practices they see on their plant visits with the system itself.”

Similarly, the British decision to copy the German defensive strategy relied on using a few key captured documents and then adapting them to British usage. The primary documents they used were, “General Principles of the Construction of Field Positions” and “The Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare.” Their comment on the first document was that it “summed up the enemy’s experiences after nearly three years’ defensive warfare on the Western Front.” However, it was actually nothing more than a field engineer’s book on building field fortifications; that is, a book of standard tools and processes, with no indication of when you’d use which type of fortification.

The first committee, the Jeudwine Committee, created a system that was a diluted version of the German approach. The General Head Quarters (GHQ) rejected it, “preferring to adopt the German system undiluted.”

Almost from the start of these efforts the committees misinterpreted or completely missed the context and intent of many of the German processes. For instance, the German system emphasized keeping the number of soldiers in a defensive position low. They did that by emphasizing training and increasing the skill of the soldiers both individually and as units. The British also emphasized keeping the numbers low, but their approach was to increase the quality of the defensive fortifications. That is, the British put their efforts into better tools, the Germans into better people.

In hindsight, however, probably the greatest error in the British attempt to adopt German best practices was simply not laying the foundation for the effort, what today we’d call the team’s charter. In a sense, they worked the wrong problem. The captured German documents were, after all, a means by which the German army, with its culture, people, skills, training, equipment, etc. could effectively resist attacks by the British and French armies, with their cultures, people, skills, training, equipment, etc. (Or, to paraphrase Spear and Bowen the “observers confuse the tools and practices they see with the system itself .”) The very first step should have been an evaluation starting with the question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” Because this was not done (or at least not well), the solution that they arrived at didn’t solve the real problem either, even though it did copy many of the aspects of the highly successful German system. (And, yes, this point is made today with perfect 20/20 hindsight!)

The outcome was that the Spring 1918 German offensive was highly successful tactically and many believe came perilously close to winning the war. The offensive eventually ground to a halt not because of British, French or American defensive ability so much, but because the German troops outran their supply chain. And it’s worth noting that their After Action Review of the battle resulted in a greater emphasis on motorized transport and supply. The eventual result of this learning was the Blitzkrieg as applied in World War II. The British, French and Americans, on the other hand, being the winners in the battle and the war were not as successful at improving their systems. That is the essence of my earlier posting on Samuels’ assessment of learning or not learning from your past.

Whether we’re talking Toyota or World War I, it’s clear that successfully implementing best practices developed somewhere else is a challenging undertaking with no guarantee of success.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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