I just returned from a 2 week vacation in Switzerland and Germany. While traveling back, I reflected on three “technology experiences” in Europe: (1) I rented a cell phone that worked in both countries, as well as at Heathrow, where I changed planes; (2) no surprise – it was easy to find Internet cafes everywhere to check e-mail; (3) I found it was very easy to use pay phones to call long distance. (It turns out that it is MUCH cheaper to use a phone card than to pay the minute rate on a rental cell phone.)

The common thread here is standards. A single cell phone standard means one phone works throughout the continent. A single standard for the Internet and computers allows easy web access anywhere. And a fairly standard approach to pre-paid phone cards makes calling from a pay phone easy.

Contrast this to where standards do not prevail. Most US cell phone users cannot use their cell phones outside the USA. Although the Internet is standardized, keyboards are not. German is not that different than English, but just the transposing of the Z and Y key on German keyboards illustrates what happens when a standard you are used to is not followed. (For those of us who are touch typists, this means lots of typos.) And in the US, the idea of using a pay phone to make a long distance call induces anxiety. Who knows how much it will cost or whether/how it accepts credit cards. That’s because we have no standard approach to how pay phones work.

The moral is that standards are a good thing. As I have written on several occasions (most recently on August 7th in How Would You Rather Fly? How Do You Like Your ICU Stay? Checklists or Not?), law firms and their clients could benefit if firms were to adopt standard approaches to how they do their work.

Perhaps I belabor the point, but seeing the power of standards – how they allow individuals easily to operate in foreign environments – further illustrates the power of standard approaches and best practices.