Jeff Immelt, GE's still relatively new CEO, is, according to Business Week, trying to increase GE's sales and profits by helping GE customers be more successful. One way GE is doing this is by sharing its best practices – at no apparent charge – with its customers. The story opens with a description of how GE sent teams of black-belt Six Sigma specialists (GE's term for people who are schooled in applying rigorous techniques to reduce defects and improve quality) to help Southwest Airlines address numerous operational problems, none related to GE products or services Southwest buys. Immelt says that up to 40% of customers are interested in such help. After describing some other ways GE helps customers, much of the article discusses whether this initiative will work and some problems GE faces in implementing it.
I have posted frequently on the potential value to law firms – both for purposes of production (that is, doing the work) and marketing – of identifying and adopting best practices. Beyond affirming some of my prior arguments, the fact that not only is GE “doing best practices,” but now is even promoting them to its customers raises two interesting questions….
1 .What if GE came knocking on the door of some of its large outside counsel with the same proposition? How many large law firms would be comfortable allowing GE productivity and quality improvement specialists inside their doors to examine, comment on, and offer suggestions for how to improve law firm working practices? At most firms, I suspect GE experts would not find that best practices were in use; nor would they find uniform application of technology to support production processes. While the goal of the GE initiative is to help its customers, it would not be hard to imagine applying the same principles to GE suppliers, only with a stick rather than a carrot.
2. How many law firms that do work for GE would be comfortable making a similar offer to the GE law department? Granted, the GE law department is as big and sophisticated as many large law firms. So teaching the GE law department a trick or two might be quite hard. My sense, however, is that most large law firms would not even consider such a gesture. First, it is just not in the mindset to do so. And second, were they to consider it, they would probably be quite fearful of what the outcome might be.
GE has been a leader in management techniques for decades. Forward thinking law firms should at least undertake the thought experiments implied by the two questions above. Of course, the CIO and CKO should be part of the discussion as technology is integral to any best practices program. [Strategic Legal Technology]