Benchmarks As A Performance Improvement Method

The Case for Benchmarks

Benchmarks can be a valid comparison tool to apply to your performance transformation for a couple of reasons. First, it offers initiative leadership the moral authority to urge comparable results. That is to say, given an equivalent process, if some other organization can do better with the same resources, or do as well with fewer resources, then their approach should become an entitlement to the astute observer. Second, it indicates that you might be too far from the best to even bother trying. Have you ever thought that maybe we just shouldn’t even try to manage the best motor pool? That’s right, maybe you should simply outsource your motor pool to a best-in-class resource.

One Little Hitch

So, while it’s true that benchmarks can provide authority and clarity, consider the flip side. It’s been observed more than once that few things are more wasteful than optimizing a process that doesn’t need to exist. So, if you learn that your process doesn’t really need to exist, will you really fold up shop? Often not. This frequently occurs in public sector settings. Standing back, we may surely agree that government needs to embrace Lean practices and improve processes. Yet, if Agency A learns of Agency B’s prowess doing exactly what they do, will “A” fire everyone, bolt the doors and outsource to “B”? You already know the answer. There’s this little matter of constitutional authority and jurisdiction. So, “A” needs to think instead of client (taxpayer) needs, baseline the as-is, identify the waste, make a fact-based plan to improve, and move out. Extensive benchmarking merely squanders already slim resources.

Benchmark Envy

Obtaining relevant, timely and directly comparable benchmarks is as much art as science. While fascinating revelations unfold, pursuing benchmark perfection consumes a lot of resources that could be better invested in just beginning your improvement journey. That’s particularly true (and wasteful) if you sense you’re quite far from ideal. For example, let’s say that in a 20 Keys® category you are at a 1, the best known is a 3, and you’re trying to understand how to incrementally become a 5. Instead of all that angst, we’d say why not get started on your transformation journey by just going for level 2 to start? You’ll be far more competitive right away, and it’s probably quite easy to stretch one level up where things will seem (and really are) a lot better. Moreover, taking this path means that your organization learns a lot about what it takes to become world-class. That alone is priceless and can prove to be a lasting gain.

Trust Your Team

There’s another risk in relying exclusively upon external benchmarks to upgrade your performance envelope. It could just be that the world-class benchmark identified for your performance challenge is itself challenged. In fact, it could be so distant or implausible that it doesn’t even deserve your off-hand consideration. What you need to do instead may require a real innovation, a step change, a revolutionary new way — period. And, the insights for that breakthrough may only exist in the soul of your team when passionately led in a new direction.

No More Fire in the Belly

Lastly, arriving to a “benchmark destination” can install a false sense of security that you’ve become the segment leader. It sends the message that “if we’re the best, why should we continue to improve?” So, while relevant benchmarks are important to understand and apply, I’ll leave you with this simple notion — let cool heads (yours) prevail in your pursuit of unimpeachable benchmarks. A little benchmark knowledge can go a long way. And sometimes, just sometimes, there can be great value in understanding your own execution before gauging performance with someone else’s tape measure.

For additional perspective, download Kaufman Global’s White Paper: Defining World-Class Practices.