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The Power of Benchmarking

By Ailsa Carson, Partner

Benchmarking is defined as the act or practice of measuring something against a standard, or of testing in order to develop such a standard[i]. Most organizations that are invested in best practice or continuous improvement will use benchmarking either formally or informally to support their journey. It can take place within the organisation, between departments, within local supply chains or business networks (such as the Lean Forum) or more formally through organized visit programs.

When you undertake intentional benchmarking activities either formally or informally you are assessing your organization or an aspect of it such as a process, with the one you are visiting.  You could be looking at a specific process, a problem or a system.

It’s not about whether one is better than the other, its about seeing different approaches to common challenges. It’s about seeing how different processes, systems and people interact with their work. It is a mechanism for continuous improvement.  Seeing how others have developed their systems and processes can be powerful and help drive rapid improvement.  For example, seeing how an organization has developed and deployed effective tiered meetings and how they communicate strategy can drive you to improve your own systems in this area.

Yes every product and company is different in how they operate, but many of the problems they face are common – employee engagement; waste; right first time; health and safety are common to all.

What we see through Onsite Insights[ii] which has been running since the 1980’s is that the benefit is not only for the visitor but also for the host site. Why? Because every person, will look at a process with a different lens. It could be a process or systems lens, a people lens, a health and safety lens, for example.  Visitors will therefore provide input that you may not receive from your own employees as they will be looking at things from a different perspective.

It is also clear that the benchmarking activity itself is not the only thing that provokes idea generation and solutions – its’ the act of immersing yourself in another environment for a period of time that can stimulate fresh ideas and thoughts and enable you to approach problems and challenges with fresh eyes.  Having met thousands of people on visits over the last 20 years, it is common to hear the phrase – it’s just being outside of the day-to-day that helps me think of solutions to challenges.

According to Allen Braun, “walking gives your mind a break. You get to take a pause from being analytical, which allows you to tap into your creativity and problem-solving skills”.[iii]  So benchmarking visits serve in two ways – to release us from our day-to-day to think more creatively and they provide a means to observe how others manage their processes, systems and people.

One site we have visited, Ipsen Pharmaceutical, who were awarded a Bronze Medallion by the Shingo Institute, undertake a program of benchmarking between departments. This has a myriad of benefits. It helps with inter-company communication, the sharing of best practice between departments and employee engagement.  Host sites have often remarked that one of the benefits they get from hosting benchmarking visits is the impact on the team. The visits allow the host company to reflect on how far they have come, what they have achieved in their continuous improvement journey and share with pride the results.  Employees that may not naturally have external networks get to share what they have achieved with like-minded people from different sectors.

Can the tools seen on site visits be taught in a classroom or read in a book – sure! But a real understanding of how they have been applied, what has worked and why as well as what hasn’t work can’t be taught this way.  Seeing process improvements first hand in the environment they were developed for is a powerful tool in seeing how simple changes can generate huge productivity and performance improvements.  It is the essence and power of both Gemba and Jishuken – tools that underpin lean manufacturing and support the pursuit of excellence.

Many organizations with long-service teams, may also find that sending these people on visits stimulates fresh thinking.  It allows people to see different environments and create networks that they can then discuss challenges and problems with.

One of my colleagues says that benchmarking ensures you “Don’t swallow your own bullshit!” I love this even if it is a bit harsh. What it does is provides external (or internal) validation of how well you are doing compared to other organisations either within your own sector or outside of it. I have assessed hundreds of sites globally and it is generally those that feel they still have a long way to go are performing better than those that feel they are at the top of their game.  Not wanting to use another phrase but after all – complacency can breed contempt!

I had a great debate with a colleague once on whether benchmarking leads to complacency. His belief was that if we compare ourselves against others and only seek to achieve what they have we will all only every achieve mediocre results.  I don’t agree, but I do feel, that alongside benchmarking organizations need to be clear and ambitious about their long term vision and direction of travel to ensure they don’t fall into the trap of just performing as well as the next company.

Whilst we would love to see you all on the visit program – Onsite Insights, we also want to encourage everyone to invest in benchmarking in whatever form it takes – set up an internal benchmarking framework (we can help with this!) or visit within your supply chain or customer network.  You can also join more informal networking groups like the LEAN FORUM to gain inspiration from your desk!

Please do contact me for further information or for support and recommendations on potential visits.


For information on the visit programme please do contact me or visit our website



[ii] Onsite Insights is an international visit programme owned and operated by S A Partners LLP. Established in 2003 the program supports organisations improve through a series of one day visits to best practice sites.

[iii] Allen Braun, WRAIR,

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