Nearly three decades after benchmarking came on the scene, companies still claim it to be an integral part of their internal performance improvement processes. But few would argue that its value to the business is now well below where it once was. And sometimes, it actually gets in the way of identifying improvements and driving change.
There is not a client I work with who doesn’t have their shelves lined with volumes of benchmarking studies and reports. Nearly every industry group produces some kind of comparative metrics report for its members. And every industry has those companies that we might consider to be “benchmarking addicts” — those who participate in nearly every study they can in the spirit of demonstrating their performance improvement “commitment” and “prowess” around driving change. Ironically though, it is rarely these companies that define the top tier of their respective industries in terms of real performance.
Here are some inherent flaws with benchmarking today:
- Benchmarking is largely “point-in-time” driven and retrospective in nature. While this can be useful in “stress testing” targets and defining high-level gaps (“low-hanging fruit” or “quick wins”), it largely ignores the trends or shifts in metrics that are far more critical to identifying and driving course corrections.
- Comparative studies almost always focus on lagging versus leading indicators. This often leads to a culture of “managing through the rear-view mirror”. It also fixates the organization on measuring things for the sake of comparisons, when some of those metrics may have have become irrelevant or even obsolete.
- Benchmarking focuses on “common metrics” versus those that may be critical to you, but perhaps not everyone. It’s okay to have a few metrics you routinely measure for the sake of comparison, but when these metrics begin to define your scorecard, it’s time to recognize when the “tail is actually wagging the dog”.
- Comparisons are done for many reasons, not all of which are performance driven. More often than not, benchmarks are used to identify strengths for the sake of communicating to shareholders, regulators, or sometimes even internal Executives. They’re sometimes even a vehicle for rationalizing and justifying poor performance, often confusing the organization and sending all the wrong messages.
- Benchmarking often leads to “group think”. We look for commonalities and like to follow the “herd”. Let’s face it — It lowers our risk to say, “if company x is doing such and such, then we should be doing it too.” But it’s sometimes the anomalies in the data that can show us where real innovation is happening. And in the benchmarking world, anomalies are often dismissed as outliers and suggestive of data problems rather than solutions.
These are just a few of the many ways that benchmarking “gets in the way” of real change, and there are many more where these came from.
As with anything we do long enough, it’s easy to get into a corporate habit of doing something and forget WHY we are doing it in the first place. So if you want benchmarking to be a value-adding component of your performance management process, here are a few things you can do:
- Realize that benchmarking is about you, and not about others. It’s fine to use comparisons to help you better understand yourself and your performance weaknesses and perhaps “stress test” your targets, but when you start using benchmarks to rationalize and justify existing performance and actions, it’s time to refocus your thinking on you and your company’s improvement goals and the learning benchmarking can provide.
- Determine where benchmarking fits into your overall performance management process, and use it that way. In cases where benchmarking is done for some other reason, like communicating to stakeholders or regulators, call it what it is and keep it at arms length from the game of real performance improvement.
- Focus your benchmarking on the measures that matter to YOU rather than a consultant’s peer group or client base. More often than not, it may be better to do a small internal project to gather that competitive intelligence, than it would to consume resources to force-fit yourself into a large peer group.
- Orient your benchmarking around learning and innovation, rather than simply “following the herd.” This will sometimes cause you to look at different metrics, and look at them differently. Anomalies will become a source of new innovation rather than simply a data problem to discount.
Benchmarking can be a great tool for defining, catalyzing and inspiring change in your organization. Take a hard look at how your organization uses these comparisons today and be honest with yourself about where this supports or hinders your performance management process. Make benchmarking part of your performance management process rather than an end in and of itself.