By Scott R. Davis, Director of Operations, IntermixIT
How many times a day do you preach best practices procedures to your employees? What is a best practice and what does it actually mean? How are effective best practice developed, how often should they be reviewed, and how should you store them? Most importantly, how do you share and train your staff on your organization’s best practices. Service providers and resellers need to have answers for all these questions. Here are some of the answers we’ve come up with.
A best practice is often referred to as a Standard Operating Procedure or (SOP). But in reality, they are two different things. Merriam-Webster defines a best practice as “a procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.” Your SOPs are actually nothing more than a best practice in the development stage. A best practice is your tested and established method to complete a standard task correctly every time that issue comes up. Whether the issue concerns an internal process, or the resolution of a customer problem, best practices are the way your company has decided to address the issue.
When developing your best practices, most likely, not all will be considered industry-wide standards. You can find a vast amount of information on the internet, and if you search long enough, you will find contradicting information about anything. It can be valuable to use the pieces of knowledge you gain from blogs, forums, vendors, and Google in the development of your established best practices, but even if your best practices differ from other solutions or practices in the industry, don’t just not discard them yet. The process will help you determine if they work for you and your customers.
It can be helpful to look at the development of your best practices in the same methodical way you look at hiring employees. First, you identify the need for a new employee or standard procedure to complete a task. This is done by gathering data and involving others in the organization to verify the need and positive business impact the new hire or best practice will have. Next, you start reviewing candidates or, in the case of a standard, for the specifics steps, tasks, support and training that makes an effective, easy to follow practice. Once you realize the candidate is the right fit, you hire them. Once you see positive results from the procedure, you make it a standard practice.
When you introduce a new procedure, it doesn’t immediately become a best practice. It is important to put the procedure into a review practice. Depending on the criticality level you assign to the procedure, determines how often its effectiveness as a procedure is reviewed. Every best practice you have set should have at minimum an annual review; however you may want to review a “critical” procedure more frequently. During the best practice review you should ask yourself, is it working, is it being followed by staff, is there a better way, is it actually a best practice or just a SOP. Again, once your regular evaluation confirms the effectiveness of the procedure, you can make it an established best practice. Once a best practice, the frequency of your review may change, but should never be eliminated. If you find there is no benefit to maintaining best practices that just aren’t working or being used by your staff, stop using that practice or SOP.
Your ultimate goal in establishing your best practices is to have the fewest best practices that solve the largest number of issues. A best practice could surround the installation and monitoring of a client’s network server, however, if you have a procedure that only solves the issue on Microsoft Windows Server 2008, it should never become a best practice, it should remain an SOP for that specific issue. The fewer best practices you have the easier it will be to train your staff to understand the best practice and thought process behind why you define it a best practice.
Implementing a best practice is never easy. Employees can be set in their ways, the tools they use, and may even have their own definition of best practices. The hardest job is to show your technicians what the companies best practice are and the benefits for being on the same page. What you can’t afford is to have multiple technicians explain to clients a different standard for the same issue. This will quickly reduce your credibility and you customer’s confidence in your ability to help them.
One way we have overcome a new hire’s potential resistance to our best practices is during our new employee onboarding process. We will review each of our best practices with the new hire and ask them for feedback. This process ensures new employees understand our best practices and how to use them effectively to solve issues. The feedback on our best practices from new hires can be incorporated into our review process as appropriate.
Your best practices must be written down, or they are not best practices, just memories. Whatever documentation tool you use, ensure your best practices are maintained in a standalone repository and limit who can add and edit them. We use a pending SOP repository to review every resolution to an issue before it becomes a standard. We use this to provide feedback and guidance to our technicians, and from time to time even find that the resolution to a customer’s issue exists in an already created SOP or best practice.
Although it takes deliberate time and effort to develop your organization’s best practices and SOPs, they are essential to VARs and MSPs in running an effective and efficient operation. It provides your employees the tools to solve issues that they regularly face. They prevent mistakes and costs that have a negative effect on the bottom line and help ensure the success your customers.
Scott Davis has been working within the industry since 2005. Scott has served the role of a one-man I.T. department. He has worked within a team as an Infrastructure Engineer with The Patriot-News/Pennlive and today he works with small and medium sized businesses to reach their technology goals.