Benchmarking To Improve Your Career

Learning by example. That's the basic element behind one of the biggest quality movements of the day - benchmarking. More specifically, benchmarking is the study of the practices of another organization or organizations, known as partners, in order to improve the quality of processes and increase competitiveness.

Benchmarking has proved its value as a way to maintain the competitive edge. It's a real eye opener. One of the things you must do if you're going to be a successful is have a very open mind about everything you do. When you open up your mind and really start to look at something, you find you consistently want to improve. And the fastest way we know how to do that is by benchmarking.

Benchmarking can also take place between departments and between teams. But you can also use benchmarking to “learn from the best” on a personal level. One such way is by taking on a mentor in your department or company. A mentor is a knowledgeable, often influential individual who takes an interest in and advises another person concerning that person's career.

Mentors are integral to successful career advancement. Through your mentor you can compare your decisions and choices against the best.

To learn more about benchmarking, read on.

Small Firms Can Be Big Benchmarkers

You own a small manufacturing company with a growing product line. You'd like to become even better through benchmarking. However, some of your team members think that only big, industrial organizations can perform the process properly.

Small and growing, big and booming - the size of a company doesn't matter when it comes to benchmarking.

The objectives are the same for both large and small companies. They're constantly striving to improve, and one way to do that is to learn from others. The essence of benchmarking is simply finding and implementing the best practices to get improved results.

Because so many large corporations have drastically reduced their supplier rosters, small firms that buy from numerous sources actually have a much wider range of potential partners. And, if the vendors are local, the company can conduct your studies without the travel expenses that big benchmarkers often incur. Also, if some members of the organization belong to a service club, like Kiwanis or Rotary, the contacts they make in their clubs may turn up leads on local benchmarking “targets.” The key is to find an operation whose processes are compatible with the firm's.

You must identify partners from a process point of view.

Here are three benchmarking basics to get a small firm started:

1. Decide what should be benchmarked. You can't ask a partner firm to outline its entire technological process. Select one phase, learn it, and then cover another procedure.

2. Look for companies outside your own industry. They'll be more cooperative and may have processes that can be integrated into your business.

3. Be prepared. Gather as much information as you can from public sources before you visit your partner Benchmarking is a quality tool. It's one more way to help you improve. Large or small, if you don't learn from others, how are you going to grow?

A Good Start Encourages Benchmark Success

The success of a benchmarking team's efforts will depend largely on how well members handle the early planning stages. Here are suggestions regarding benchmarking:

1. Document everything you do. That way, you'll never have to go back and try to remember exactly what you did. Your documentation should begin with details of the process you've selected to study; why you chose that process; the scope and objectives of the project; critical measurements used in your process; and potential payoffs of the study.

2. Research potential benchmarking partners. This is an extensive process that initially involves compiling a list of potential partners - perhaps as many as 20. Then, through investigating your own process and those of potential partners, you'll be narrowing your list down to three or four who have the best practices in the process you're benchmarking.

Once you have developed a core list, here are some tips:

1. Use the library. Annual reports, position papers, business directories, and industry and business periodicals can all educate you about potential partners. If you find a particularly interesting article, call the author to see if you can find more information or get a contact name within the featured company.

2. Cross-check data. Don't select a potential partner on the basis of one piece of information. If you read about a company that's doing very well with the process you want to benchmark, go one step further. Call someone in the company to verify that its process is similar enough to your own to make a benchmarking partnership fruitful.

3. Design a questionnaire for potential partners. Their responses will help you narrow your initial “potentials” list considerably. Base your questions closely on your own process, specifically what you want to find out that the others do differently. The questionnaire should help identify potential partners whose processes have enough similarities to yours that their best practices could be incorporated into your own process.

4. Call ahead to make initial contacts. Let them know what you're doing: “We're launching a benchmarking study of our warehousing cycle-time process. We'd like to send you a questionnaire to see if we might share some information with you based on our process.”

5. Plan well for site visits. You don't want to waste either their time or your own. Your visiting team should include a spokesperson to act as the team voice; a recorder to document everything said or done during the visit; and an observer to act as an extra set of eyes and ears.

6. Set up an appointment for a visit well in advance.

7. Prepare questions and forward them before your visit to give the other team a chance to prepare responses.

8. Forward all relevant details regarding how you handle your own process. Provide any information about your process that you are expecting other companies to give you about theirs.

9. After examining all collected data, select your partner or partners. Ask yourself: “What is it about their process that makes it a best practice?” Be cautioned that a best practice may work only for a particular process in a specific company. Choose benchmarking partners whose best practices will be most applicable to your own process.

Benchmark Ethics

Your team is taking part in a benchmarking program to compare your organization's quality guidelines to those of other organizations in your industry. But what kind of information is acceptable to ask for - and how to go about asking for it?

These are among the ethical questions every organization should ask itself before launching a benchmarking effort. A golden rule of benchmarking activities: “Never request information you would not give.” Here are additional guidelines to follow.

1. Put all agreements in writing. Draw up a general benchmarking agreement and then tailor it to each individual partner; if necessary. Include a nondisclosure clause stating what information is not accessible to benchmarkers.

2. Treat all benchmarking data as confidential. Never discuss information gathered from one benchmarking partner with another; unless you have permission in writing. You'll lose one partner's trust and could run into legal problems.

3. Disclose your intentions. Unless the information you are gathering is available to the general public - in annual reports, for example - benchmarkers must identify their organizations and the purpose of their requests for data. This also applies to plant tours not normally given to the general public.

4. Be careful when exchanging price or market-share information. You probably don't need to worry about this aspect when you're looking for quality-related data. However, it's still important to know that benchmarking price or market-share data with competitors may result in a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which attempts to prevent price-fixing among the market’s major competitors.

5. Respect personal relationships. Don't take advantage of relationships you may have developed with individuals at organizations you are benchmarking. Never ask them to reveal information as a personal favor, or under the pretext that it will be “just between you and me.” You must show respect for their principles.


Every organization involved in benchmarking should have a code of ethics to govern the practices of employees gathering data. Such a code shows your benchmarking partners that you're serious about establishing a professional and fair relationship with them.

Benchmark Other Departments

To gain a good understanding of your team's or your department's quality objectives, you may not have to look outside your own group. You'll get a much clearer view by visiting other departments. Most first-line people aren't aware of what others are doing.

If your team is isolated from other operations, schedule tours of departments that are involved in different types of work. Begin by visiting the sector that is most closely allied to yours. Then, move on to other parts of your workplace. Eventually you'll understand how each operation is linked to the next one. This is particularly important if there have been recent changes in your systems or product line. If a reorganization is under way, it's critical that you keep up-to-date. How much time you spend visiting other departments largely depends on the size of your company. In most plants, such a 'round-robin' tour could be conducted in a day or two.

Ideal tour groups would be comprised of members of unrelated teams. “Show-and-tell” instruction should be conducted by a quality engineer For example, say you're a member of a machinist team. Have you ever wondered what happens to the results of your work after it leaves your production area? A “go-with-the-flow” tour would give you new insights into the whole process.

Finally, seek guided tours of such departments as purchasing, personnel, finance, shipping, engineering, and design. Soon, everything will emerge as a mosaic of interconnected pieces. What you'll end up with is an understanding of the “big picture” of your company's quality operations.

Need New Ideas? Look Outside Your Industry

As creative as your team may be, outside thinking is invaluable. Looking beyond your own company and industry for processes that can be adapted to your uses is the basis for successful benchmarking.

Insiders think about improving what already exists, but outsiders bring fresh possibilities. Here are some examples:

1. While Swiss watchmakers continually improved the quality of their mechanical timepieces, outsiders discovered that watches would run better through the use of microprocessors.

2. The electronic calculator was developed outside the slide-rule industry.

3. Copper telephone wires now are being replaced by optical fibers, microwave dishes, and satellites. None of these were created by research-and-development staffs within the telephone industry.

Out of 58 major inventions that came from Europe and America - they included photography, computers, and ball-point pens - among these innovations, at least 46 originated from individuals or organizations other than the key companies in the mainstream industries.

10 Questions

Suppose you're preparing to benchmark another company to learn its best processes. What procedure might you follow? Here is a list of 10 questions you can ask to employees in a benchmarking program. You might want to use these as a starting point as you model your own questions:

1. What factor is most critical to our company's success?

2. What factors are causing the most trouble?

3. What products or services are provided?

4. What factors account for customer satisfaction?

5. What specific operational problems have been identified in the organization?

6. Where are our competitive pressures felt most strongly?

7. What operations account for our biggest expenses?

8. Which operations represent the highest percentage of our costs?

9. Which functions most need to be improved?

10. Which products or services have the greatest potential to separate us from our competitors?

As you seek answers, remember the most vital areas: cost and problem reduction; customer satisfaction; continuous improvement; and market superiority.


Career Booster: Benchmark Your Own Company

One of the ways personal benchmarking can benefit you most is by utilizing it right there in your own company. Every company is different, not only in the products or services it provides, but in subtle ways as well. At one company, a quiet professional manner is rewarded; at another, those who succeed most are those with a “go grab the world” attitude.

Understanding the subtle differences and adjusting your behavior to fit can be a key to getting ahead at your company and to move forward in your career. Using your best benchmarking skills, you can gain an objective view of your organization and put what you've learned to work for you.

Knowing what makes your organization tick is important in your career marketing goals. Realistically assessing your company's policies and procedures and the underlying rationale for them will enable you to know how to get ahead in the atmosphere that prevails.

Here are some ways to benchmark your organization's practices:

1. Watch walls and bulletin boards. Many companies hang awards on the walls. Normally, you might walk right past them. But during your benchmarking investigation, slow down and look more closely. If your company has been awarded plaques or awards from outside organizations, you can learn which companies, community groups, or organizations are important to the image of the company. On the other hand, if the awards are from your company to its own employees, they will tell you, the characteristics and skills valued by the company.

Bulletin boards, too, reveal a lot about your company. Suggestion boxes indicate that your company values input from its workers. A bulletin board with notices from management - but no opportunity for employee input - tells a different story.

2. Check out the reception areas. Look for magazines on the coffee tables. If there is a mix of travel magazines, it's a good indication your company takes a global approach to business.

3. Read the policy manual. In addition to the mundane procedural matters it covers, the manual may include discussion of company goals, responsibilities of different positions, and promotion polices - all valuable information for helping you get ahead.

4. Survey the lunch room. Use lunches as an opportunity to meet and get to know other people in your organization, especially those in divisions that complement yours or to which you might someday be interested in transferring.

5. Notice organizational communication patterns. Is there an open atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to make a contribution?

6. Take part in training programs. Each and every time you attend a training session, you are increasing your overall market value. What you learn in those sessions may well support your existing or future goals. As you can see, a little benchmarking of your own company can uncover some interesting and useful information.

Personal Benchmarking With A Mentor

Mentors can be a key to success in your current job and in your career. Whether or not your career aspirations include executive management, having a mentor can help you succeed. This is because mentors:

  • Guide. They map out the politics and political climate of the company for you.
  • Advise. They support you during difficult times.
  • Counsel. They act as a sounding board and recommend action items to solve problems.
  • Coach. They encourage, advise, and build confidence.
  • Serve as role models. They set an example of how to behave in various situations.

Linking up with a mentor is an excellent way to benchmark on a personal level. Your personal quality will be strengthened as you compare your own best practices with those of a seasoned pro.

Here is a quick question and answer guide to finding a mentor:

1. Can a boss be a mentor? Your boss is often not the best choice for a mentor. A mentor and protégé have a special relationship. A boss-subordinate mentoring relationship may be perceived as “playing favorites.” A better choice: Someone in another part of the organization who is familiar with your work.

2. Can I have more than one mentor? Different people may help you in different ways.

3. How often will I see my mentor? You might meet only when you need to. But some people talk to their mentors every other month, and others more often.

4. Do I need to take the mentor's advice? You don't have to follow advice, but you should tell your mentor what you decide to do and why. Also, listen when your mentor sounds very concerned or even alarmed about a situation. His or her experience will probably send up a red flag to a problem before you know it.

5. Can the opposite sex be a good mentor? Absolutely. But both the mentor and the protégé must remember to have meetings in a very straightforward manner and tell spouses, secretaries, and fellow workers what is going on to ward off rumors. Females are hard-pressed to find female mentors, thus having a male mentor is more likely.

6. Will I outgrow my mentor? Protégés often outgrow their mentors. A good mentor recognizes this and celebrates the graduation to independence. Some mentors have enough self confidence to recommend a next-step mentor.

A final piece of advice: Don't be afraid to ask someone you admire to be your mentor. If the person agrees, you will grow personally as well as professionally.

Know The Language

As with most quality team initiatives, benchmarking has developed a vocabulary all its own. And the first rule of getting along in a foreign land is learning how to speak the language.


Here are benchmarking phrases and their definitions:

  • Best-in-class: Outstanding process performance within an industry
  • Best practice: Outstanding process performance within an activity regardless of industry
  • Core competency: Strategic business capabilities that provide an organization with a marketplace advantage
  • Key business process: Critical practices that influence customers' perception of your business
  • Re-engineering: Radical redesign of business processes

Understanding Quality: ISO 9000 Vs. TQM

If you think of TQM and ISO 9000 as programs, you are bound to be confused and frustrated. They aren't programs. And they don't conflict with each other. Understanding the differences will help you and your team better understand your roles in achieving quality and in meeting your quality goals.

The connection between TQM and ISO 9000 becomes clearer when you consider the evolution of the following four stages of quality thinking:

1. Inspection. Quality management focuses on the product. Inspectors who sort out defects are responsible for quality.

2. Quality control. The focus remains on the product and production process, but statistical techniques to reduce variability are introduced. Manufacturing and engineering become responsible for quality.

3. Quality assurance. At this stage, the entire production chain (from design to delivery) becomes responsible for quality. Prevention, rather than detection, is the prevalent notion.

4. Strategic quality or TQM. The focus shifts from the product and production process to the market and customers. Senior management assumes responsibility for quality.

Each stage represents a philosophy that drives your company's quality system. And every organization has a quality system, which is the philosophy and procedures by which an organization conducts itself to satisfy customers and to comply with all other operational requirements.

How does ISO 9000 fit in? ISO 9000 is a series of international standards for assessing quality management systems used by manufacturing companies. It does not focus on quality results achieved.

TQM and ISO 9000 address similar aspects of quality management, but emphasize different things. TQM focuses more on human resources issues. ISO 9000 emphasizes quality process issues. ISO 9000 ensures that the road to achieving quality is paved with proven systems.

A comprehensive quality process that is recognized and accepted by manufacturers around the world requires both TQM and ISO 9000. An organization can be ISO-registered and effectively produce and deliver the wrong products or services. TQM is essential to assure that the “right” products and services are effectively delivered to the customer.

Find A Quality 'Recipe' That Works For You

“Recipe” is a good word to use to describe the process of creating a quality program. If they don't have the right ingredients right from the very start, even the best chefs in the world won't be able to create anything palatable. baking analogy is used to describe how most companies approach implementing quality programs: Find an expert and ask what ingredient is key to a good cake. Get that ingredient and bake it. Throw it out. Find another expert and ask what ingredient he believes is most critical. Get that ingredient and bake it. Throw out the mess. Repeat.

This parallels companies' experiences with quality programs in that when the program does not achieve the desired outcome, it is replaced by that of another guru, and so forth. To avoid this cycle include these ingredients in your quality recipe:

1. Training, first and foremost. Before new systems and technologies can be introduced, the people who will be using them - the frontiers - require training. Otherwise, you have a great new quality system in place and no one capable of operating it.

2. Change driving change. Technical change should drive social change and vice-versa. Unless there are alterations in the corporate culture, progress will be stalled, and people will become frustrated with the program.

3. Basic beginnings. The definition of quality should related to everyone's job. It should be simple and practical. If no one can explain quality in their own words, they missed the basics.

4. Internal experts. Don't let the quality theorists make all your decisions. Learn from them, but be guided by your own organizational needs.

5. Broader vision. Look beyond your workplace and industry. Broaden your scope by studying how others handle such matters as quality training, hiring, promotion, and customer satisfaction.

6. “Value-drive” approach. Don't get so caught up in Specifications, modifications, and measurements that you forget what quality is all about. Above all, quality is an ethic - a value more Important than financial return.

A partial understanding of quality produces either partial success or total failure. To get a complete picture, reshuffle the ingredients of your recipe to find the mix that works best for you.


1. Do it the best way you know how. Efficiency is doing your work the best way you know how, rather than in a way that's better for someone else. Although benchmarking your peers can give you good ideas, don't stick with them if they don't work for you. A good work process is a personal issue.

2. Look ahead. How valuable are weekly or monthly reports that tell only what your team has accomplished? Make the reports more helpful to the leadership by adding what the team expects to accomplish within the next 30 to 60 days. The next report can cite results based on those goals.

3. Benchmark locally. Another good place to begin your benchmarking efforts is with another team within your organization. If there is another group doing what your team does, only better, benchmark to learn from their successes as well as from your team's failures.

4. Avoid pessimists. Pessimists often target newcomers to gripe to about the organization. Why? Because often new coworkers are too polite to ignore them. This can kill morale and lead to higher turnover. Head off pessimists by presenting a positive impression to new peers. Although you can't stop pessimists from spreading the gloom, you can offer a brighter perspective.

5. Avoid excuses. When another group is benchmarking your team, avoid using the word “because” when explaining something it did. Listeners assume that excuses and assumptions will follow. Better: “We did this, which resulted in…”

6. Try the Swiss cheese approach. When your team can't reach a consensus in solving a problem, Approach the problem as you would a slice of Swiss cheese, taking several bites at a time. Break the problem into issues and solve it one issue at a time. By taking several bites, and putting a few holes in the slice, the problem will not seem so oppressive.

7. Prepare to bench. If you're involved in a benchmarking relationship with another organization, find out everything you can about them before your first meeting. In addition, fax your contact information about your company. You'll save previous meeting time by having already covered the basics in advance.


Benchmarking To Improve Your Career

Role models come in all shapes and sizes. And they can be found anywhere in the world by anyone willing to conduct a systematic search. One way to do it is by benchmarking - a process for measuring an organization, a department, or an individual's current status by comparing it either to past performance or to the accomplishments of others. Small companies as well as large organizations can benefit from benchmarking. An organization can look from within its own industry or to an outside industry for a benchmarking partner. The key is to find comparable areas to benchmark. Another way organizations measure quality is through awards or certifications such as ISO 9000 registration.

What You Can Do

Benchmarking can help you do your current job better and point you in the right direction as you make long-term decisions about your career.

  • Find a mentoring partner at work. A mentor can serve as a role model and guide as you chart your career path.
  • Benchmark others in your organization on an informal basis. Watch the leaders in your organization and learn what skills and traits helped them move ahead in the organization.
  • Learn from the best in your profession. Read profiles in business publications. Study the successes of winners. Glean all you can from their experiences.
  • Benchmark your own company. Observe your organization the way you would analyze an outside company you were benchmarking. Learn about such matters as your company's values and the importance it places on communication. What does it take to succeed in your organization? Adjusting your behavior to fit your organization's needs is the key to getting ahead at your company.

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