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Director’s blog: Using practice sharing to catalyse innovation

May 12th, 2016

the director's blog on innovation - logo with text

 

Catalysing innovation by showing a better way

One effective approach to triggering innovation is seeing ‘a better way’ – that is a superior way of working (aka business practice) that is relevant to your business. Benchmarking has been a long-established approach for doing this by comparing your business against another in a structured way. Indeed, as part of Codexx – and previously when I worked at IBM – I have led multiple benchmarking-type assessments in business areas such as production, R&D, supply chain and innovation. These benchmarking assessments were effective approaches to comparing business areas based on models of best practice and performance and thus identifying practice shortfalls – thus driving focused improvements.

However, benchmarking comparisons cannot be so easily applied to more focused business areas as there may not be a relevant best practice model in place or a database to compare against. In this case a more tailored approach is required, that I will refer to as ‘practice sharing’. This approach is less focused on numeric performance comparison – and more on key practices. However unlike an unstructured visit to view another company – ‘industrial tourism’ – this is a structured approach.

 Benchmarking continuum

Introducing practice sharing

I recently led a practice sharing programme between two major industrial businesses – one based in Denmark, the other in Germany, focusing on the development of specialist production equipment. This was by definition a niche area that was key to both businesses’ competitiveness. This programme had its beginnings in 2009 as part of a re-engineering programme that Codexx was supporting for the Danish company’s production maintenance organisation covering eight factories. To help in overcoming resistance to change and to ‘open the eyes’ of the maintenance managers to the opportunities for improvement we included a ‘benchmarking’ element as part of the re-engineering programme. Because maintenance benchmarking tools in the market were overly focused in specific areas (such as cost or lean) and did not provide the wide enough view that was needed, we developed a best practices framework based on the ISO 8 Management Principles.

We used this to perform assessment visits to the maintenance organisations in aerospace, automotive, plastics and white goods manufacturers across Europe. These visits provided benefits for both our client and the companies being visited who received a comparative report and the opportunity to visit our client. Importantly the assessment team comprised the maintenance managers who used the framework to perform the assessment, supported by Codexx. This structured approach ensured that key relevant practices were reviewed and compared and the comparative practice scoring was used to define an improvement path and monitor progress using a number of subsequent self-assessments. The programme achieved its objectives of catalysing the maintenance managers to seek opportunities for applying new practices as part of the re-engineering programme.

 

Developing the approach

This success led to the Danish company deciding to utilise a similar approach, with the support of Codexx, to review their development of production systems, working with a major German company in 2013, with whom they has an existing commercial relationship – but who were not a competitor. We called this approach ‘practice sharing’, rather than ‘benchmarking’ to make the approach less formal and more in the spirit of learning rather than an audit – which helped in gaining the support and involvement of the German company. Codexx developed a practice sharing framework, again based around the ISO Management principles, using a similar structure and assessment approach to the maintenance programme.

This framework was tested with the China-based operations of both companies and then finalised. We then performed a practice sharing assessment in 2014. This was considered valuable by both parties and a subsequent practice sharing programme focusing on another area of production systems was performed with the same Germany company in 2015-16. The approach in these practice sharing programmes was similar:

1. A business area of interest to both parties was identified and a commitment to perform a practice sharing assessment was made.

2. A practice sharing framework was developed.

3. Each partner self-assessed itself against the practice sharing framework.

4. A 1-day practice sharing visit was made to each company, facilitated by Codexx. This included presentations on the development of the company, a tour of its operations and then a review of the self-assessment. The agenda was allowed to flex substantially to take account of interest areas that emerged.

5. A report of the practice sharing findings and outcomes was produced by Codexx and shared with both parties.

6. Each company took forward specific follow-up internal actions and agreed collaborations.

What are the benefits from practice sharing?

Based on my experience of working with this approach since 2009, I have seen the following benefits:

  • The approach provides a structure missing from an ad hoc visit that helps align and focus the discussion on relevant practice areas.
  • The self-assessment provides a clear and objective picture of current practices including areas for improvement which helps in focusing the discussion.
  • The programme provides a catalyst for improvement for each party.
  • It’s a time-effective and cost-effective process.
  • It’s not complex and is transparent to the participants and other users.

What’s needed for effective practice sharing?

  • Win – Win: Unlike benchmarking where your company is being compared to a model of best practice, with the comparison performed by an external assessor, practice-sharing requires a partner. To engage the partner, there needs to be the potential for benefits for both parties: the practice area to be examined needs to be relevant and each party needs to consider that they can learn something from the other.
  • A structure: A practice sharing framework is needed to provide a structured comparison and independent facilitation to ‘run the process’ with the goal of maximising and capturing the outcomes from the practice sharing. Both companies also need to agree to respect confidential information that might be shared in the programme.
  • Flexibility: The assessment visits need to be flexible and adapt to the interests of the participants. As a facilitator, I had to strike a balance between directing the discussion back to relevant areas whilst allowing deviations from the agenda that were clearly creating value. This is key, as the framework is in effect a ‘working hypothesis’ of what are the important practices. The reality will undoubtedly be somewhat different and thus the session has to seek to accommodate potentially valuable emergent discussions.
  • The right people: Both parties need to assemble a team of specialists in the area of interest that can participate effectively both technically, inter-personally and language-wise (for international comparisons, it is likely that English will be the common language).
  • The right attitude: Both parties need to be open and ready to ‘tell it as it is’, covering both strengths and weaknesses in their own practices. This is not a competition – it’s a collaboration.

I’d be interested in readers’ own experiences in this area – contact me here.

Alastair Ross

Director
Codexx Associates Ltd

 

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