By A. Sandy Munro

Benchmarking has a checkered reputation. Many engineers see it as a waste of time. They’re either pressed to get a project out the door as quickly as possible or looking to create something new and exciting, unencumbered by any previous designs.

Going out of business could be described as exciting, too.

I personally like to benchmark competitive products before I dive into the new and terrifying. Don’t get me wrong, I am into innovation. But I have found that taking note of the competition’s successes and failures keeps me from dropping into nasty pitfalls.

It’s nothing new. About 3,000 years ago, a brilliant Chinese General, Sun Tzu, wrote “The Art of War,” a book that discussed benchmarking your adversary: “Know yourself, know your enemy, and fear not the result of a hundred battles.” The U. S. military still references his philosophies and tactics today.

In business, benchmarking tells you what strengths to play to and what weaknesses to correct. By understanding the competition, you’ll see what you’re up against and what is required to improve. You’ll also get a good sense of how much extra profit will result from adopting best-in-class practices. Here are five basic elements of good benchmarking:

1. Know yourself. Identify honestly what you do and how well you do it.
2. Know your enemy. Whatever it is you do, identify who does it best and analyze their products or services.
3. To paraphrase Isaac Newton: “No numbers … no knowledge.” Understand the differences and analytically determine the gaps between the world-class performers and your company. You need data, not gut feelings.
4. When you dissect a competitor’s product, learn where they excel. Then, quickly adopt and implement the new-found best practices.
5. Strive to become the industry leader — but don’t rest on your laurels. Without continuous improvement you will be overtaken. Remember the Sony Walkman? Who would have thought they could lose the market overnight?

Here are some tips on getting the most out of benchmarking:
• Focus on meeting end-user/customer requirements by concentrating on the newfound best practices, including proven technology.
• Respect your competitor’s product. Focusing on the negatives or discussing it in derogatory terms may cause you to miss something important. Additionally, if their product can’t pass your test criteria, maybe you need to revisit your specs.
• Remember you are looking at something that may have been designed five years ago. You need to think ahead, not just copy.
• Define a long-term endpoint and develop a migration strategy to get there. Sprinkle the strategy with new innovation along the way.
• Don’t forget business simplification when reviewing the design. The streamlining of processes and business practices go hand-in-hand.
• Get help. Seeking outside counsel adds a fresh, unbiased perspective and keeps your evaluations honest.

Concentrating on the basic elements of benchmarking and focusing on the end results will produce both immediate benefits and long-term success. MD

Munro and Associates provides benchmarking, value studies, strategic consulting, and other services to OEMs.

Edited by Kenneth J. Korane

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.