Benchmarking or Industrial Tourism?

Over the years, some of my greatest learning has come from benchmarking successful organizations. While visiting FEDEX we learned about their Leadership Index; at Google and Pixar we learned about creating work space to fuel collaboration and creativity; from Disney we learned about the power of vision and values; from a visit to Starbucks, I saw first hand: aligned communication starts at the top. My list of learnings could fill an entire post. Here's my point: benchmarking is powerful - when done well.
Unfortunately, benchmarking is rarely executed well.  Here are a few tips to make your next benchmarking trip worth the investment.
Decide what it is you are trying to learn (before your visit). On my visit to Google I was trying to learn about the role space plays in creativity and collaboration. If I hadn't decided that in advance, I would have probably missed it. To decide in advance an area you want to explore allows you to do your homework and prepare a set of good questions for your host. If you plan to visit more than one organization, asking the same core questions to multiple organizations can yield interesting comparisons.
Don't make assumptions regarding who you should benchmark. The names I mentioned are household names. But that doesn't mean they necessarily excel at the area I'm interested in learning about. As an example, if you want to learn about outstanding maintenance practices, you might be surprised to learn, Disney would rank among the best in the world. Here's the point - you may not know who is the best in a particular discipline. Don't assume an organization is good based on brand alone. Nor, should you rule someone out because of your bias or lack of knowledge.
Visit the best whenever possible. Yes, we can all learn from bad examples. However, I believe you can learn far more from those who excel in any field than those who struggle. If you want to benchmark organizations who don't do a particular activity well, you shouldn't have to travel far. If the best is not an option, at least find someone who is better than you are, or the trip will be a total bust. There's no value in comparing ourselves to underachievers.
Don't limit your benchmarking to your industry. This may go without saying. If you are trying to learn from the best, why look only in your industry? Regardless of what you want to learn, the chances are good, the best is probably not in your industry. Set your sights high. Study the best, regardless of their industry. Don't waste your time studying mediocrity. Who would have thought a visit to Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal would be helpful to someone in the chicken business? It was!
Apply something from your visit. If you want your benchmarking to add value, you have to do something with what you learn. It was after my visit to the Stanford D. School that I gave up my office in favor of my current "space." On that visit, I was convinced our organization needed more 'we' space and less 'me' space. My former office became a conference room. Set a goal to do something tangible and concrete after every benchmarking visit.
If you and your organization haven't discovered the power of benchmarking, 2015 would be a good year to start. What do you need to do better in the new year? Who could you learn from?[GLS_Shield]


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