Friday, 6 March 2015

How to use benchmarking to support KM

How do you know what knowledge you need, if you don't know what knowledge you lack?  How do you know what you need to learn about, if you don't know what you need to improve? And how can you know what you need to improve, if you don't know where you are lagging behind?
A typical USCGSS Benchmark 

One of the biggest barriers to overcome in Knowledge Management is a lack of desire to learn from others, and therefore a lack of demand for knowledge re-use. You can create the best communities of practice, the best knowledge bases, you can publish all sorts of ideas and knowledge, but if it is not getting re-used all your effort is for nothing.

Behind the reluctance to re-use is the "Not Invented Here" syndrome, and behind "Not Invented Here" are two things
1. People are comfortable and familiar with their own performance, and with the way they currently do things
2. Change involves risk and effort. "If my way works" they think, "why risk changing it? Why change horses in midstream? Why ditch a perfectly good approach, for something unfamiliar?"
The way to break this cycle is to help people realise that "my way" could work a lot better, and that the improvement they would get outweighs the effort and change. And the best way to help people realise this, is to show that others are already doing better.

Benchmark data helps people out of their comfort zone

We see this very very clearly in our Bird Island exercise, where people were comfortable building an 80cm tower, and think they might be able to stretch it to 120cm. Then we show them benchmark data where the record is over 3m, the mean is 285cm, and even a bunch of American lawyers achieved 250cm. And we show them a picture of the record tower, so they can see this is not a joke.

What happens, is that the people are shaken out of their comfort zone, They realise their own performance was pretty poor. They become very open to learning. And they DO learn, and in teh next round of tower building they also turn in a top quartile performance.

I also have a story from the Peruvian asparagus trade, which tells how publishing data about aircraft loading procedures among Peruvian asparagus producers motivated the poor performers to learn from the good performers, for the benefit of all. The authors of the study I quoted claimed

Objective proof of superior performance helps overcome a principal barrier to
convincing experienced professionals to adopt new practices - that is, the
belief that they are already doing the right thing and that their current
results are the best that anyone can expect

The great thing about good performance data, and good benchmark data, is that people then often come to realise that their approach is not "perfectly good", that their way may "work", but it works pretty badly. They become uncomfortable with their own performance, and become open to learning. "Not Invented here" disappears, because they realise that "Invented Here" is not actually very good!

The driving forces here are two-fold - embarrassment at current poor performance, and competition - to get up there with the leaders. The old motivation, to be safe and secure with a known approach, is replaced by a new motivation. The new motivation is "To do a decent job". (And they often feel that if they are being soundly beaten by a group of US Lawyers, or if they are loading Asparagus in 10 hours when others do it in 4, they aren't doing a decent job!)

When you think about it, most people are professionals. They have pride in their work. They don't like to put in a poor performance.  So the existence of benchmarking data or performance data makes people aware if their performance is bad, they become dissatisfied with their approach, and are open to learning something better, hence creating a market for knowledge, and an incentive for re-use.

Benchmarking without KM can backfire

The key here is to combine benchmarking with two other things; Knowledge Management and collective target setting.

If you just say to people "other teams are doing this twice as well as you - I want you to be able to match this performance", this could be met by demotivation. People think "we are working our butts off - how can we do this twice as fast? Those other teams must have better managers, or newer equipment, or we working in an easier market".

Instead you need to say "other teams may have some secrets we can apply here which would allow us to catch up with the winners. Let's learn from them, and let's see how well we think we would perform if we used the best of the best ideas"

Benchmarking and KM are mutually supportive. As the classic book "Benchmarking: A tool for continuous improvement" says;
"If you want to maintain the status quo, then don't benchmark. If you want to remain where you are, secure in the knowledge that you are doing the best that you can, don't benchmark. If reality checks are not your cup of tea, don't benchmark. Benchmarking will open an organization to change, and to humility. Benchmarking provides the stones for building a path toward competitive excellence and long run success."(McNair and Leibfried, 1992).
Pair this drive to change (benchmarking) with the ability to learn (KM) and you have the recipe for long term success.

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