Beat the Benchmarking Blues

November 1, 1995
Although benchmarking is a powerful tool for achieving organizational change, it's not always as simple or straightforward as it seems. In fact, many organizations find themselves getting tripped up over several common problems. Here are some things to keep an eye on:

Ignoring Internal Processes.
Finding best-in-class companies is a key part of benchmarking. But all the information in the world about how world-class companies operate won't do a bit of good if there's nothing to compare it to. Internal benchmarking offers a starting point and is crucial to the overall process.

Missing the Real Issues.
Some companies focus too closely on details and completely miss The Big Picture. Others conduct too broad of a search—looking for the best employee orientation program in the United States, for example—and wind up chasing rainbows.

Emphasizing Numbers Rather Than Processes.
Quantitative data has its place and can prove highly useful. But benchmarking isn't just a science, it's somewhat of an art too. Qualitative issues shouldn't be ignored.

Lack of Commitment from Management.
If management isn't willing to backup a project and provide the necessary support and funding, the process is doomed from the start.

Becoming Too Industry-centric or Company-fixated.
Just because a company is in a different industry doesn't mean it can't provide useful information. Many processes and practices transcend industry lines. Also, a lot of great benchmarking information comes from other-than-famous or award-winning firms.

Superficial Research.
Benchmarking works when a company finds other organizations that are truly outstanding. A lack of effort in identifying best practices can easily translate into a study of mediocre practices. Moreover, it's essential to assemble a list of appropriate questions that can provide solid information.

It's easy for those involved in benchmarking to become overly defensive and sabotage the program or become overly ambitious about ramming change down everyone's throats. Benchmarking requires a delicate balance and functions best in an environment in which people don't feel threatened.

Failing To Follow Through and Implement Change.
Many a benchmarking project has been derailed because of the time and energy required to make changes. There's certainly no shortage of obstacles along the way. A benchmarking team must be willing to work through problems and stay on track over a period of months or years.

Personnel Journal, November 1995, Vol. 74, No. 11, p. 68.