Benchmarks are Bad — But Don’t Just Take My Word For It!

A decade ago, Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, wrote a book with Robert Sutton called Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (Kindle), in which they stated there were three inherent problems with benchmarking. Especially external benchmarking.

1. If your business strategy is simply to copy what others do, then the best you can hope for is to be a perfect imitation.

2. When you benchmark, all you see is the most visible and superficial aspects of the company you are benchmarking.

3. When you try to copy, you forget to ask “should I copy this? is it right for me”?

It’s not who’s spending the least on inventory with JiT (Just-in-Time) supply chains, or who has the lowest labour costs (with warehouses in Georgia and Wyoming), or who has the lowest transportation costs (through mega-volume contracts with a single carrier), etc. It’s not even who has the lowest cost supply chain (although that’s a great start, just look at Apple for inspiration). It’s who has the biggest profit and biggest brand reputation — and that is the organization who manages to extract the most value from every dollar spent.

You don’t get value from a benchmark — the most you can get from a benchmark is an idea of where value may lie. And while this is a great start, especially since, if properly defined, it allows the organization to see where it is doing well against it’s defined metrics and goals, it’s only the start.

Moreover, if the benchmark is ill-defined, it can often hide huge over-spend. The organization could easily be over-spending by 10% or more, operating quite inefficiently compared to it’s potential, or focussing its effort on low return activities — something it will never know unless it continually challenges the benchmark and looks for ways to redefine what the baselines should be. But benchmarks, when they turn green, often lull the organization into a false sense of security. Which is scary. Because …

The reality is that benchmarks are filled with traps and hidden dangers. And if you don’t want to step on a landmine, you should download The Dangers of Benchmarking (registration required) today and identify the six major hidden dangers of benchmarks, four of which are easily eliminated with the right application of a(n optimization-backed) sourcing platform.