A major focus of my job is to champion the spread of best practice. If every NHS organisation adopted the practice of the best, thousands of patients' lives could be saved, experiences transformed and billions of pounds reallocated. Yet findings from a global study into high performance factors, entitled Cooperative Advantage Research, challenge the notion that best practice means world-class performance. Best practice is important but, on its own, insufficient.
What the researchers observed consistently in high-performing organisations, above and beyond best practices, were what they label 'signature processes'. These are processes that are part of the fabric of an organisation, reflecting its history and culture. Using signature processes, leaders espouse their values and aspirations within an organisation, as a result unleashing tremendous energy for innovation and change.
Signature processes can create energy and bring meaning in a way that best practices do not. Because they are highly context-specific, they are difficult to replicate in other organisations. A classic example of a set of signature processes is the influential Toyota lean philosophy and strategy. Over the years, researchers have set out many, often conflicting, theories about the special essence of Toyota. Numerous companies have attempted to emulate the system but none has had the success of Toyota.
Another example is BP, with its signature 'peer assist' and 'peer based bonus' processes. Leaders of BP attribute a significant part of corporate success to these processes and their impact on co-operation and the exchange of knowledge within the company. Yet no other organisation has been able to achieve the same outcomes from similar processes.
There are some great examples of signature processes making a big impact in the NHS. They include Southampton City primary care trust's Learning Organisation strategy to accelerate value-driven change; Birmingham East and North PCT's engagement processes to capture the voice of the whole community and all staff in strategic decision-making, and Bolton Hospitals trust's Bolton Improving Care System to transform hospital care for the local population.
Best practice is limited by its very nature. It comes from a common pool of knowledge, which means it can be copied by others, who may be able to catch up and overtake you.
In comparison, signature processes are so much part of an organisation's history and values that it is hard for others to copy them. One of the factors that differentiates the highest performing organisations is the capacity of leaders to create an igniting purpose that turns latent energy into high performance. Signature processes are a key mechanism for achieving that. It is an organisation's unique set of signature processes, combined with external best practices, that create the conditions where world-class performance can emerge.
So the rules have changed. The old rule for world-class performance was to seek out the practice of the very best and adopt it. The new rule is to move beyond best practice to signature processes. Are you ready?