Is Benchmarking in Your Future?
Over the years, I have observed that we in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), like most other organizations, are reluctant to adopt new terminology, especially when it's part of some new management process. That's quite normal and understandable given the fuzziness of some terms.
The quality movement has its share of specialized lingo, but there is one term that we seem to have found to our liking. It's "benchmarking." Maybe we like it because benchmark is a term used comfortably by the engineers among us to mean "something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured." Perhaps. But I like to think that what we really like about it is the way it points us toward improvement, toward excellence, toward the "benchmarks."
What, exactly, is benchmarking? According to the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), "Benchmarking is the process of identifying, understanding, and adapting outstanding practices from organizations anywhere in the world to help your organization improve its performance." Or, as the chair of APQC puts it, "Benchmarking is the practice of being humble enough to try and learn how to match and even surpass them at it." The aim is to be the best. Benchmarking is distinguished from other kinds of improvement activities by its effort to find breakthrough improvements that accelerate progress.
Why is benchmarking important to FHWA? It is because we want to be the best at what we do — whether it is working with the state departments of transportation, finding a solution to a problem, or providing a service. We want to know that we are doing things the best way. This means we must be willing to learn from others and we must be open to discovering entirely new ways of working.
How do we use benchmarking to become better at what we do? There are three basic parts to the benchmarking process, which leads to better performance.
The first part is to decide which part of our business we want to improve through benchmarking and to make sure that we have a good understanding of how — and how well — we currently perform this task. What is the work process, the key outputs (products and/or services), and quality level? Only after this introspection can we determine what we need to learn and who is doing this work very, very well.
Finding a benchmarking partner can be difficult, especially if we are apparently the only one doing this job or task. We have to think creatively and focus on the process — not the line of business. For example, Southwest Airlines wanted faster, better maintenance; so, they benchmarked with a NASCAR racing pit crew. A firearms manufacturer wanted to improve their bullet casings; so, they benchmarked with Revlon lipstick holders. Another example is the mining company in Australia that wanted to improve the way they move dirt; so, they benchmarked with Disney World's hydraulics systems.
There are research services that can help you find — for a fee — potential benchmark partners. Of course, a wealth of information is available from informal contacts with associations and through other networks. Ask around; folks know who the best performers are. And then, make some calls to those organizations about their willingness to share what they know.
The second basic part is to find out how others do their work (or processes) and then to describe to them how we do it. This information exchange will reveal similarities and differences in the way the business is performed. Understanding the differences may be the key to success. Find out why the company is doing things the way they are. What was the impetus for change? Perhaps they were losing money on a product or losing customers to their competition. During the discussion, document the information and capture the measurements so that you can review your notes later.
It is worth emphasizing that this is an exchange of information with your benchmarking partner. They are not in business to help you. If they do not expect to learn from you as well, they will have no incentive to participate in the benchmarking process with you. Again, this reinforces the importance of having sound information about your own process before you begin.
The third part is to apply what would work well in one's organization. The right term here is to adapt — not necessarily to adopt. It is rare to find a process — or even a measure of quality — that you can simply transfer to your own work. You must assimilate the good ideas, molding them to your environment and circumstances, testing them to make sure the idea works in your setting, and then making the changes to your process.
The actual set of steps and techniques that constitute benchmarking can be learned from many sources. In its fullest and most sophisticated application, the benchmarking process requires a significant investment of staff time and financial resources. Like any other quality improvement approach, it also requires a long-term organizational commitment to using and improving the way we use benchmarking. It is an area about which we in FHWA need to learn more — and quickly. We also need to do the preparatory work to ensure we understand our own processes.
There are many books and workshops on the topic. One good book is The Benchmarking Book by Michael J. Spendolini. Another basic guide is Robert C. Camp's Benchmarking, The Search for Industry Best Practices That Lead to Superior Performance. And of course, the Internet is the fastest growing source of information. A good place on the Internet to start is the site of the APQC/International Benchmarking Clearinghouse (www.apqc.org).
Another way to find out more about benchmarking is to talk to your FHWA colleagues who are doing it. Several offices in administration have begun to apply benchmarking concepts, and Jeff Thomas, their quality coordinator, can point you toward them. In the Office of Information and Management Services, Bob Curran, a very knowledgeable management analyst, has assembled some helpful resources on the subject. Paula Ewen in the Office of Research, Development, and Technology is participating on a team with other Department of Transportation research centers to benchmark with private and public organizations who are using the Baldrige criteria to assess their organizations. The team benchmarked with companies such as Corning, Eaton, Honeywell, Johnson and Johnson, and Xerox and with research laboratories at NASA's Goddard Center, NASA's Langley Center, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
At the departmental level, FHWA is cooperating with other modes in establishing a ONE DOT Benchmarking Council to help one another learn how to apply this powerful technique.
Yes, benchmarking can help us. Grab the opportunity if it presents itself, and then share what you learn with your colleagues. That's a kind of benchmarking itself, isn't it? You might find out that you are the best at what you do; then again, you may find some room for improvement. You won't know until you try!
If you have a benchmarking success story, please share it. Send your article to: Fred Jones, FHWA National Quality Coordinator, Federal Highway Administration, 400 Seventh Street, SW, Room 4210, Washington, DC 20590
Fred Jones is the FHWA national quality coordinator