Just a hater,
Copy that

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Benchmarking. A term I’ve heard a thousand times if even once. I’ve even used it myself. I’ve always understood it, I mean I get the context in which it’s used—especially in business, but I recently received a response from somebody who used it as an excuse to be juuuussst good enough referenced how industry competitors do things in order to justify why x, y, and z was sufficient, which left me feeling unsatisfied, dare I even say…angry with the crutch concept.

You know what I mean: “Our competitors are (or aren’t) doing it that way” or “we never did it that way before” or “they don’t do (or do) it that way.”

Truthfully, I had never challenged the notion of benchmarking—it’s what successful organizations do, right?

For you NASCAR fans, it’s akin to drafting off the car in front of you…it helps you catch up but you remain behind until you blaze your own trail.

But I finally felt compelled to dig a little deeper into the idea of benchmarking. It’s my take that when something becomes so blindly accepted as some sort of unquestioned standard that it’s exactly when it needs to be questioned. Where did it come from, what’s it really mean, and what are its pros and cons?

More importantly, is benchmarking helping us excel or, in reality, holding us back from our own potential?

Take the popular crowd sourced graphic design contest site, 99designs.com. There’s a reason why businesses hold what are called “blind” contests, where designers can’t see what other designers have submitted for review. This helps avoid the “herd mentality” and forces designers to be original with their concepts.

 

99designs

 

Origins

There are a few theories laying claim to where it originated, but the most common account is (bear with me for a moment) that it’s surveyor’s jargon for creating a mark to establish the altitude or height of land being measured—typically a long tract of level elevated land along a shoreline or a sloping hill where the benchmark is a reference point to determine one’s current position.

I know, I know, that’s obviously something I perjured from the Internet verbose and dry. Admittedly, I stole it from a Google search.

Others believe it hails from a technique used in the sale of fabrics, while in certain circles it’s known in fishing contests where fresh catches are measured by making a mark in a bench with a knife.

Why do I tell you this?

Partly just to prove I actually did look into it, but also to reveal a theme. Regardless of which derivation you go with, they all boil down to one idea: setting a reference point by which to compare other measurements.

Duh! No shit Batman. But, I think we already agreed on that much though, right? Sounds harmless enough. But let’s delve a little deeper.

Xerox

If you’ve ever heard of NIH, or not invented here, you know it’s like thumbing your nose at everyone else, because how could anyone else do it better than us? That lack of placing enough value, or any for that matter, on others’ ways of doing things was damn near Xerox’s Achilles’ heel.

Once you step out of your comfort zone and realize how others are doing things, it can be a total eye-opening experience that hits you like a ton of bricks, as they say.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Xerox implemented what they coined the “benchmarking process” after their market share had dwindled from essentially total market domination to just 35% of the market as competitors found ways to sell copier machines at the same price it cost Xerox just to make them—a serious problem that would have sunk most organizations.

They had to react or face being eliminated. The results of their benchmarking efforts were nothing less than eye-popping.

  • Streamlined supply chain by eliminating 94% of suppliers
  • Increased common parts throughout the company from 20% to 70%
  • Reduced quality control issues by nearly 70%
  • Reduced cost of manufacturing by 50%
  • Slashed development time by 2/3’s
  • Trimmed direct labor by 50% (corporate staff cut by 35%) while increasing volume

False Positives

The numbers seem to speak for themselves, but as they say, numbers lie.

The problem with benchmarking is that you open yourself up to allowing someone else to dictate your own standards.

Let me repeat that. You open yourself up to allowing others to license what you strive for, and without a clear vision and direction, you become a follower of someone else who had different constraints, different circumstance, and different goals than you.

Be careful of your benchmarking data; view it eyes wide open understanding that your situation and goals are unique to you. A confident organization sets their own expectations rather than looking to a competitor’s standard as a gauge where to set their own bar.

That’s dangerous territory that positions you to be a market follower rather than a market leader.

In the 1960’s, only 2% of market leaders fell out of the top 3 of their respective industries. By 2008 that number jumped to 14%.

 

benchmark-words

 

To step back for a moment, benchmarking forces you to take a broader, external perspective of yourself or organization. Once you step out of your comfort zone and realize how others are doing things, it can be a total eye-opening experience that hits you like a ton of bricks, as they say.

But how far does that really take you?

For you NASCAR fans, it’s akin to drafting off the car in front of you…it helps you catch up but you remain behind until you blaze your own trail.

More importantly, is benchmarking helping us excel or, in reality, holding us back from our own potential?

On one hand, benchmarking can reveal where you have gaps or lag behind others, and can be used as an agent of change to help persuade stakeholders or key players in your organization to provide needed funding or focus, but it should absolutely not be used to define your end game.

If it does, then it will be end game, period, because you’ve given up on differentiating yourself.

Your goal should never be to be ‘just as good as [insert competitor].

Benchmarking puts you at risk of doing the minimum required to be as good as whomever you’re comparing yourself to.

In some cases it could drive you to be better, but while carelessly creating the false confidence that you’ve reached the top echelon of your capabilities, luring you into a sense of complacency and ignorance. How many times have I, you, we patted ourselves on the back after a little success, then taken that metaphorical mental “vacation” from what got us to that point.

Becoming the leader doesn’t preclude the possibility that there is still room for more improvement.

Use benchmarking to identify shortcomings, but consciously avoid using it as your viewfinder.

Have thoughts or experience with benchmarking, good or bad? Do share.