While benchmarking might feel like copying from others, used correctly it's the simple, logical act of learning from others, says Ray Wilkinson
Since I took my first exam at school, I have had it drummed into me that copying from others so you can get a better mark was a bad thing. But is it wrong in business to learn from others in order to improve your organisation's performance? The answer has to be: it depends. If you're doing it by benchmarking, using a proper code of conduct such as the European one developed by the Benchmarking Institute, then it is definitely OK to learn from others.
Sometimes people criticize benchmarking for being a 'me too' strategy that, if adopted, will always mean they are playing catch up with the competitors they're benchmarking against. That viewpoint doesn't take into account the breadth of partners with whom you can benchmark (notice I use the word "with" rather than "against") and the ways to ensure the practice you implement is going to work effectively in your organization. Here are my top tips for getting the best out of benchmarking:
1. Do it for the right reasons
If you're doing it merely to justify your position, don't bother. Knowing where you sit in the pecking order might be important, but it is not just about that. You probably already know you want to improve; actually, you want to know which processes to focus on, how to improve them and what you need to do to be the best.
2. Know yourself
Take a tip from Sun Tzu and take the time to "know yourself" thoroughly before you start benchmarking externally. When you've identified best practice you're going to have to adapt it to suit you before you can implement it successfully. So train your benchmarking team and get them to follow a robust process — as my Nan used to be fond of reminding me as a child when I wanted to cut corners with my homework: "If something's worth doing, it's worth doing well".
3. Keep an open mind
You can learn from anyone. There are plenty of examples of imaginative benchmarking: hotel chains learning about occupancy from hospitals and logistics companies learning about supply chain management and delivery from undertakers. Don't limit your horizons to looking only at your competitors and those in your sector.
4. Reflect and improve
Review what you've done and the way you have done it so you can do it better next time. Think about reducing the time you spend beating yourself up about the things you've done wrong and try and spend more time focusing on the things you've done well so you can build on them.
Ray Wilkinson is Director of The Best Practice Club, which provides benchmarking and learning opportunities for large organisations through personalised service support and a self-administered knowledge management portal. Visit bpclub.com.
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