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World-Class (wûrld’klăs’)… A Working Definition


The terms best-in-class and world-class are often used to describe the quality of a product or service.  Automakers refer to their vehicles as having best-in-class performance or gas mileage.  Cyclists are often referred to as being world-class athletes. Let us not forget the endless debates about who has the best-in-class pizza, Philly cheese steak, or burger.

Much like the differences between accountability and responsibility, most confuse the terms best-in-class and world-class.  These two terms are not the same.  They are not interchangeable.  Striving to build a best-in-class widget, team or process is good.  An even loftier goal is that of building world-class widgets, teams, or processes.

As a senior manager and IT consultant, I come across groups of people claiming to either provide world-class service or wanting to develop world-class products and services.  While I understand and appreciate their desire to build a world-class organization or product, when I ask them what that looks, they can not explain what world-class means or how it is measured.

How can you set a goal for yourself, or your organization, when you don’t know what that goal looks like?  How will you know when you have achieved it?  How can you develop a strategy to reach any goal that you can not define?

In order to define exactly what world-class is and is not we must take a look at the term best-in-class.

I have read many definitions for the term best-in-class and most seem to be in sync with each other.  BusinessDictionary.com defines best-in-class as “Highest current performance level in an industry, used as a standard or benchmark to be equaled or exceeded. Also called best of breed. See also best practice.” In terms of computer hardware or software another oft-cited definition is “A product considered to be superior within a certain category of hardware or software. It does not mean absolute best overall; for example, the best-of-class in a low-priced category may be seriously inferior to the best product on the market, which could sell for ten times as much. See best-of-breed.”

The later definition accurately states that being the best-in-class doesn’t necessarily mean best overall.  The class must be defined as well.  Being number one in a class when the class is the group of underachievers isn’t necessarily something to be proud of.

I’ve tried to find definitions of world-class and can’t.  No, really.  When researching the definition of world-class what you will find are examples which are twins to the definition of best-in-class.  This must be what leads to the confusion and misuse of the term.  For example, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines world-class as “Ranking among the foremost in the world; of an international standard of excellence; of the highest order: a world-class figure skater.”  Isn’t that our definition of best-in-class?  Just what is that standard to which they elude?  The Collins English Dictionary defines world-class as “of or denoting someone with a skill or attribute that puts him or her in the highest class in the world a world-class swimmer.”  Once again exactly what is the “highest class.”  Neither of these recursive definitions are helpful.

Exactly what is the definition of world-class?  What makes it different from best-in-class?  Is there really a difference?  Absolutely.

I have developed a definition, a benchmark if you will, that I use in developing world-class teams and processes.

world-class
adjective

A scalable, repeatable, defined process, or item, which others choose to emulate.

In order for something to be classified as world-class each of the four parts of the definition must be met.  If even one of these four is missing, the item can certainly be described as best-in-class but cannot be considered to be world-class.

Let’s break it down step by step.

  1. It must be scalable.  Any world-class item must be scalable either in size or quantity.  You mom may bake the best apple pie but unless she can scale production up from her one at a time kitchen method to a method which will be able to produce thousands a day, she doesn’t quite have a world-class apple pie recipe.  However, she still may have the best-in-class apple pie and I would argue in this case, best-in-class is probably tastier than world-class.  In this case, she has a best-in-class pie, the class be all home-baked pies.  Often when things are scaled for mass production they lose something in the translation.  Scalability does not presuppose superiority.  Bigger is not always better.
  2. It must be repeatable.  In order to be considered world-class the item must be able to be duplicated or, in the case of a process, repeated over and over.  This is what separates a world-class product from a one-hit wonder.  Each duplicated item must be exactly the same as the original.  The hand-built, 1104 BHP Zenvo ST1 is certainly a marvel but it’s not a world-class automobile.  It is simply a best-in-class wonder, that class being hand-built supercars.  On the other hand, the BMW 7 series can be considered a world-class automobile as it can be duplicated over and over again.
  3. It must be documented.  No item can be deemed world-class if it is not documented in some way.  This documentation often takes the shape of intellectual property.  Whether it’s Coca-Cola’s recipe for Coke, McDonald’s secret sauce, or the Colonel’s secret blend of eleven herbs and spices each of these recipes are well documented trade secrets.  Without the documentation there would be no way to comply with rule number 2.  In the case of a process, the documentation would be a well written run-book.  If we were looking at something like a world-class faucet the documentation would be the plans for the faucet.
  4. Others must choose to emulate it.  It is said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  Nothing could be more important in defining world-class.  In order to be considered world-class others, whether they are your competitors or your allies, must want to emulate your product or process.  If no one is trying to do what you are doing, it is certainly not world-class.  You may still have a best-in-class product but much like a tree falling in the woods, if no one is around to hear it fall, does anyone really care?

Now that we have our definition, let’s look at some real-world examples:

First off, McDonald’s.  World-Class?  Sure, most of the time but not all of the time.  Is the Big Mac® a world-class sandwich?  Absolutely.

  1. Is it scalable?  You bet, they serve millions a day
  2. Is it repeatable?  Of course.  That is the restaurant’s hallmark.  Every time you order one of those sandwiches it tastes exactly like the last time you had one.
  3. Is it documented.   Yes, indeed.  The exact portion, cooking process, recipes, etc. are all well documented.
  4. Do others choose to emulate it?  This is the tricky part.  In this case, yes.  There are many restaurants, both small and large, that try to duplicate the Big Mac sandwich.  In some cases, they might even make a tastier or more meaty version.  The important part is that the Big Mac® itself is so defined, so popular, so well selling that others try to emulate the sandwich.

If the Big Mac® meets the definition of world-class does that mean it is the best burger on the planet?  Certainly not.  Simply being world-class does not presuppose that item is also best-in-class.  Five Guys recently dethroned In-N-Out burger in the 2010 Zagat survey as best fast food burger.  As these two battle each other for the title of best-in-class neither is quite world-class.  No one is yet attempting to emulate their burgers.

Does this mean that all of McDonald’s foods are world-class?  No, not all of them.  Their french fries, of course.  Their fish sandwich?  No.  Can you honestly name anyone that is trying to duplicate that sandwich in their restaurant?

How about cars?

BMW, Toyota, Ford, and Pagani all manufacture automobiles yet only one, in my book, is a world-class auto manufacturer.

Each of these four product repeatable products from well documented blueprints but that is where the similarities end.

Pagani manufactures no more than ten vehicles a year, certainly not scalable.  However, the Zonda Roadster F is a 12 cylinder, 48 valve, 7.3l behemoth that outperforms anything from the other three stables.  It is a best-in-class super car but it is certainly not world-class.

Toyota and Ford both meet the scalability requirement but where they fail is the fourth criterion.  When is the last time you heard of any auto manufacturer clamoring to build a car that looked and performed exactly like a Camry or Taurus?  Sorry, guys, you just don’t produce world-class autos.

Finally, we have BMW.  Scalable?  Yes.  Repeatable?  Yes.  Documented?  Yes.  Most importantly, other manufacturers try to build cars which both resemble and/or perform like a BMW.

I challenge you to take the definition provided here and apply it to items, processes and companies you are familiar with and determine if they are indeed world-class.  Use it as a working definition when building out your teams or products.  When you have something that is scalable, repeatable, documented and mature enough that others wish to emulate it you have indeed created something worth of the moniker, world-class.

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~ by Marc Hedish on September 2, 2010.

3 Responses to “World-Class (wûrld’klăs’)… A Working Definition”

  1. Very interesting, well thought, extremely well described and well defined, with understandable examples.

    Well done!!!

  2. Exceptionally insightful.I thoroughly enjoyed reading the distinction.
    Dr.A.P.Jayaraman
    Dean, SICOMS,Kerala India

  3. […] has ceased to produce world-class products.  They’ve managed to saw off one of the four legs holding up their table… […]

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