In Sherlock Holmes stories, “it’s elementary” came to express how the great sleuth would discern the key facts of a case from the background noise, solving what baffled others. The resolution of Holmes’ mysteries always hinged on a few causal facts. The same is true in business. To establish a basic understanding of any workplace problem—and to have any chance of finding its solution—we must begin by sorting out what are causal and what are secondary events occurring in a process, and which are important and which are not.

Do any of these questions sound familiar?: What will improve the application through-put time for our auto new business? What will improve our closure rate on commercial quotes? How do we improve our persistency rate? These operational problems are so common that they are predictable social-hour conversation topics at industry functions. Clients ask me these types of questions all the time, but usually in this form: “What are the best practices for getting (fill in the blank) result?”

Sure, there are some clear best practices and good benchmarks to follow, from financial ratios to ASA (average speed of answer). But seeking and using best practices or “the best way to get it done” can be a fool’s errand.

When I am asked for best practices, I urge clients to focus first on what their business is and how the process in question supports the business. It is the place to start because every company is meaningfully and profoundly unique—each has its own culture, processing systems, customer mix, and value-added equation. That uniqueness is important to why and how processes occur.

In problem-solving, failure to examine what makes a business unique can result in the wrong “facts” being found. Take call centers, for example. In an attempt to improve performance, more than one company has zeroed in on the length of agents’ calls. Call length, after all, is an easy metric to gather and would seem to be a driver of efficiency. However, a focus on call length can backfire, leading to “dropped” calls, loss of business, and more call-backs. Our hero Sherlock Holmes would recognize that call length is not a cause, but the result of a number of factors (training, call nature, system support, and skill match among them).

It is also possible to look at the wrong benchmark or best practice. If you value low cost, for example, then salary to premium appears to be a logical place to focus. But some carriers have tried to increase new claims per rep or the number of cases transferred to loss control only to see both employee turnover increase and functional results deteriorate. What are the real drivers that will enable you to handle more premiums with fewer salary dollars? Some carriers are significantly outperforming others in this area.

Yes, process problem-solving can be elementary, but it is not always easy to sort out the true facts from the incidental results. The most meaningful facts will come from within your organization. Refocus on what you are offering and how your processes support it, then use the facts to find appropriate solutions that will improve your performance. Use the best practices of others to frame a discussion, not to define your future.