Can Strategic Benchmarking Turn America’s Economy Around?

Jan 24, 2019

When it comes to global competitiveness, there’s good news and bad news for America. The World Economic Forum's 2006–2007 Global Competitiveness Report ranked the U.S. among the top 10 most competitive economies in the world. However, among the other top ten economies on the list—a "who's who" that included Switzerland, Finland, Singapore, and Japan—the United States alone fell from first to sixth place in little more than two years.

What can American companies do to restore their competitive edge in the world? In his new book Strategic Benchmarking Reloaded with Six Sigma: Improving Your Company's Performance Using Global Best Practice (Wiley, 2007), a revised and updated version of his successful 1993 book, Strategic Benchmarking, Gregory H. Watson offers a possible answer: strategic benchmarking…with a new twist.

Watson believes his new system adds power to the process of benchmarking by enabling managers to better pinpoint significant opportunities for quality improvement. As Watson expresses it, "Identifying a benchmark practice separates a best practice from a managerial hallucination, wish, hope, or dream. I believe that the lessons learned from Six Sigma will help managers undertake a serious assessment of their business assumptions, technological aptitudes, operational capabilities, and organizational competencies in the context of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes of their people to drive increased performance through a sound use of the scientific method."

Managing a Benchmarking Study: 15 Steps to Success

1. Identify the Topic: The topic will be assigned by the operating committee based on an initial assessment of opportunities for organizational development or improvement.

2. Plan the Study: The study plan will be developed jointly by the benchmarking project sponsor and the benchmarking process owner. A formal study plan will be issued to the benchmarking project team that they assign to conduct the study. The director of quality will assign a benchmarking specialist to facilitate the study.

3. Define Performance Criteria: The performance criteria for the benchmarking study will be established during a preliminary process characterization study that uses the Six Sigma Define-Measure-Analyze (DMA) process to baseline the performance and establish the theoretical base case performance of the business focus area.

4. Establish a Baseline: The baseline performance of the study subject will be defined in the preliminary Six Sigma DMA study. The baseline will include the historical trend of data, process capability calculations, customer specification of tolerance in process variation, and operational definitions of key terms used to describe the measurements.

5. Solicit Study Participants: The benchmarking project sponsor will establish a study advisory team to define the criteria for soliciting study partners and approve the set of organizations that will be contacted for participation. This study advisory team will execute managerial oversight for the benchmarking project team.

6. Prepare Questionnaire for Survey: The benchmarking specialist will facilitate the benchmarking study team in developing a questionnaire for initial screening of the potential study partners. This questionnaire should be reviewed by a specialist to assure the questions are objective and are phrased so their meaning is not ambiguous.

7. Conduct Preliminary Interviews: The benchmarking specialist will conduct all of the preliminary interviews (via e-mail or telephone) and will prepare a summary report for the team. The team will identify those organizations that they wish to pursue for data analysis.

8. Collect Performance Data: The benchmarking specialist will coordinate all external data collection with partner organizations and will evaluate this information to assure it is feasible to make meaningful cross-comparisons among the partner organizations.

9. Analyze Performance Results: The benchmarking specialist will analyze submitted performance results and establish performance envelopes for each organization as well as perform appropriate statistical comparisons to assure that the results have been sustained over time.

10. Identify Benchmark Practice: The team will apply the company's decision criteria to the analysis of the performance results in order to determine which study partners are benchmark practices. Permission for a site visit will be requested from these partners.

11. Conduct Site Visits: The benchmarking specialist will lead a subgroup of the total benchmarking study team in conducting a site visit at the identified best practice for the purpose of developing an understanding of the practice in operational detail.

12. Document Benchmark Practice: At the completion of each site visit conducted, the team will document the benchmark practice as soon as possible to assure that they capture all the necessary lessons to be learned.

13. Adapt Benchmark Practice: The benchmarking study team will meet with the study advisory team to adapt learning from the study into a recommendation for internal change. This joint team recommendation will be presented to both the benchmarking project sponsor and the operating committee for final approval and implementation.

14. Prepare Final Recommendations and Report: The benchmarking study team will prepare two final reports—a comprehensive report for internal distribution and a final report for sharing with external partners.

15. Share Report with External Partners: The report that is shared with benchmarking partners should include the following items: the performance survey results with participant identity blinded, statistical analysis of best-practice performance, documentation of best practice (performance indexed value stream map), and operational definitions of the critical process enablers.

"Global benchmarking extends the boundaries of benchmarking geographically to encompass the best process that can be found in any location and in any analogous business," Watson writes. "We should all remember that like Sir Isaac Newton, benchmarking enables us to say, 'If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.' We see more clearly and make better decisions because we are not replicating the mistakes of the past, but using the analysis of the past to sharpen our focus on the future."