When it comes to playing games where the goal is to have fun “Best Effort” is often applauded and even celebrated. We often hear statements like, “you did your best and as long as you had fun that’s all that matters.” This may provide some consolation when stakes are low and dealing with a bruised ego. However, when the stakes are higher and the goal is to save lives, “Best Effort” may not be enough.
Knowing that you did your best when an incident occurs provides little comfort to those who have been injured or those who are responsible for their well being. A “Best Effort” approach is also rarely acceptable for high performing companies when it involves making production numbers or other business goals. However, it is surprisingly the approach often adopted for meeting compliance objectives.
In this blog we will look at why a “Best Effort” approach is not enough and how you can turn it into a “Best Outcome” strategy to advance compliance objectives and improve overall outcomes.
The Tale of Two Companies
Let’s consider two companies each operating processing facilities that produce natural gas for distribution by downstream operators. They are both focused on operational excellence, cost reduction, and have a safety culture in place.
Their safety records to date have not been stellar both having had numerous incidents as well as at least one fatality in the last decade. Both companies have come to realize that they need to improve their safety record and have decided to adopt a new safety initiative and introduce a new safety management system.
At this point, as far as one can tell, these companies look the same and are taking the same kind of actions to improve. However, their results may turn out differently.
One company has adopted a “Best Effort” approach, whereas, the other an approach based on “Best Outcome.”
Best Effort Approach
The best effort approach is more common than one would expect. Companies promise to achieve the desired outcomes (ex. zero incidents, zero defects, zero fatalities, and so on) but their focus is on “effort” rather than “results.”
Companies may implement standard practices and behaviours, management systems, safety culture, and even continuous improvement, however outcomes remain largely incidental and contingent (subject to chance) rather than planned and managed.
The “best effort” approach is characteristic of organizations in early stages of capability maturity as attention is given to:
Inspections and audits
Systems (safety, quality, environmental, etc.) are introduced to manage processes and industry standards help to ensure that the minimum processes are in place. The goal of all systems is to “execute processes as consistently as possible” or using the previous analogy “play the game the best you can.”
This approach has the greatest impact when essential processes, practices, or culture is missing or not meeting a minimum standard. Outcomes may improve although these are often not measured or used to drive continuous improvement.
Since the goal is to “execute processes as consistently as possible” resources are aligned to achieve that end, rather than on advancing outcomes. From a systems-theory perspective we know that when optimizing for a given outcome you will necessarily optimize away from other outcomes. In other words, you can only improve in the direction you are facing. When you are facing “consistency” you will necessarily move away from “effectiveness.”
Best Outcome Approach
A “Best Outcome” approach differs from “Best Effort” in that it optimizes for progress with respect to outcomes rather than effort or efficiency. This is more than just a subtle change in focus or a play on words, it defines a different strategy altogether.
Companies will still implement standard practices and behaviours, management systems, safety culture, and even continuous improvement. However, focus is on whether or not they have the “right” capabilities at the “right” level of performance to achieve the promised outcomes.
This is one of the roles that governance and associated programs (i.e. the permanent versions of steering committees) has which is to steer capabilities towards creating “Best Outcomes.”
This approach is “proactive” in that it doesn’t wait until an incident has occurred before making further improvements. Instead, it anticipates, plans, and acts to ensure that progress against outcomes is made. This requires that risk is managed, and improvement is made by continually steering towards defined goals, objectives, and intended results.
Adopting a “Best Outcome” Approach
When companies are in early stages of capability maturity a “Best Effort” approach can provide utility to introduce missing capabilities. For some companies this is a starting point but for all companies it is not the destination when it comes to advancing compliance outcomes.
Without a steering function a “Best Effort” approach will “continuously improve” towards greater consistency rather than effectiveness. Unfortunately, this tends to promote more inspections, audits, and corrective actions which is commonly referred to as the “audit-fix cycle.”
However, there is a way for companies that have adopted this approach or caught in the audit-fix cycle to become more effective.
Here are 5 steps towards that end:
Clearly define goals, objectives, and expected outcomes.
Determine the capabilities (people, processes, organization, technology, culture, etc) needed to achieve them.
Develop a risk plan to ensure progress is made.
Define how progress will be measured.
Establish a governance program to continuously improve compliance effectiveness.
Two Companies, Two Outcomes?
The outcomes of the two companies mentioned previously are still pending.
Which one do you think will reach zero incidents, the one that chose a “Best Effort” or “Best Outcome” approach?
Let me know what you think or which approach you would use.