I just read a comment from a manufacturer who pooh-poohed the notion of benchmarking. It is not the first time I’ve come across this perspective, and I’m confident that it won’t be the last. But it puzzles me every time.
For purposes of this discussion, I am using the definition of benchmarking that IndustryWeek includes in its manufacturing glossary. That definition describes benchmarking as formal programs that compare a plant’s practices and performance results against “best-in-class” competitors or against similar operations.
Returning to the manufacturer’s comment, his dispute with benchmarking is this: Setting the benchmark as your goal constrains your improvement reach. You aim for that goal, while the best-in-class competitor is aiming for further gains. Ultimately, you are always playing catch-up.
Rather than benchmark, he advised, simply focus on improving your own operations.
I certainly agree with the “focus on improving your own operations” advice—just not to the exclusion of seeking wisdom elsewhere. I think it is short-sighted to suggest that a learning organization, which a continuous improvement operation is, would see a benchmark as the end game.
Let me explain. As the director of the IndustryWeek Best Plants Awards competition—IW’s annual salute to manufacturing excellence in North America—it has been my privilege to speak both to the winning plants and about the winning plants. A comment I repeatedly make about these facilities is that the people, the team, responsible for their operation’s success never rest on their laurels. They know they can and must be better tomorrow.
Similarly, manufacturers that have truly embraced continuous improvement recognize that benchmark performance results are not etched in stone. What’s world-class today may not be world-class tomorrow.
That said, benchmarking opens a world to the possible. The practices undertaken by best-in-class manufacturers to achieve their top performances may be worth emulating. And even if they are not—and they may not be for a host of reasons—those practices still can fire an idea for an improvement in your own facility, one that never would have seen the light of day if you hadn’t been engaged in benchmarking.
I also encourage the idea of benchmarking outside of your industry. I don’t hear about that happening often enough, which is unfortunate because it can deliver value.
For example, I visited a forum that brought together two organizations that had an interest in lean. One organization provides services; the other is a manufacturer. What they discovered is that one branch of the U.S. government is a significant customer for both. While the service organization had developed a well-honed system for addressing the mountains of paperwork (or electronic demands) that accompany working with the government, the manufacturer had not. In fact, it was struggling.
So, what happened next? The service organization shared its practices. The manufacturer adapted the process and improved. Both organizations, strong believers in continuous improvement, believed significant gains were still to be had in both of their processes, and they continued to work toward that end. It’s a positive, ongoing relationship.
Benchmarking is a learning opportunity. I’ve heard some proponents suggest that a best practice in benchmarking is to narrow the focus of any individual effort. Too big a focus can be overwhelming. This seems like sound advice.
But get out there. See what top performers are doing, and learn from them.
I conclude with a request. Please send me ([email protected]) your improvement ideas that were prompted by benchmarking trips to facilities from both inside and outside of your enterprise, and from outside of your industry altogether.
Be advised that I will share them with the wider IndustryWeek audience. Let’s learn from each other.