The Benchmarking Map
Finding Opportunities for Improvement
How am I doing? At some point, you have to ask yourself that question. Maybe it’s to plot a strategic direction. Maybe it is part of a benefit-cost analysis. Maybe it is to validate the efforts of those who have participated in or supported your recycling program. But, whatever the reason, at some point you have to ask yourself how you are doing. And like any question, the answer often depends on your perspective.
How am I doing (and what could I be doing better)?
There is a children’s book called Me on the Map (© 1996 by Joan Sweeney, Crown Publishers) that tries to teach kids geography. It takes the perspective of a satellite view that keeps zooming closer and closer to a child. This is my country (on a map of the world). Then this is my state (on a map of the country). Then this is my town (on a map of the state). Then this is my street (on a map of the city). Then this is my house (on a close-up map of the street). This is my room (on a blueprint of the house). Then this is me.
I thought of that book a lot as I was trying to explain the value of recycling benchmarking to someone. Benchmarking becomes increasingly valuable the more you can zoom in. But, you often need a sequence of benchmarks to know where to focus. This is my country and how our resource use and waste generation compares to other countries. This is my state (or region) and how we compare to other areas of the country. This is my facility/store/campus/park and how my campus compares to other peers around the country or within the company. This is my area within the facility/store/campus/park and how we compare to other areas within the facility/store/campus/park (or how we compare to similar areas within our peers). If you can drill down far enough, you could even get to floor by floor, department by department, or room by room comparisons.
How do I compare?
Ultimately, benchmarking is the process of asking the question “how do I compare?” Data without context is nothing more than meaningless numbers on a page. My building recycled 20 lbs per person per year of something; is that good or bad? Without context you don’t know. If context shows that you recycled 10 lbs. last year and 20 lbs. this year, then something was working. Your next step should probably be to look at where things worked and see if you can replicate those successes. Conversely, if your building recycled 40 lbs per person last year, but only 20 this year, it may be a sign that something is wrong. Your next step would be to look for specific reasons why. If you recycled 20 lbs per person and another building next door recycled 30 lbs per person, then there might be something you can learn from them and your next step would be to figure out what they are doing that you could replicate or improve. Context gives your data meaning and gives you the tools to know where to zoom in next to find problems and/or discover opportunities.
What could I be doing better?
What could I be doing better? The more effectively you can answer that question, the more valuable your benchmarking will be and the more it can affect change. In my opinion, metrics and benchmarking are too frequently misused and abused. Often times benchmarking is aligned with compliance toward a specific arbitrary numerical goal or used as a competition. To me, that has never been the value of benchmarking. Benchmarking is not about judging people. Benchmarking is about continuous improvement. The value of benchmarking is to see where you are, get a sense of whether you could be doing something better, and figure out where to zoom in to find the next opportunity to improve. There is a fundamental law of physics that tells us that no process is 100% efficient. That means there is always room for improvement no matter where you are, whether you are 20% efficient or 99% efficient. There is always something to be learned by comparing yourself over time and/or comparing yourself to others.
Finding the right scale?
When you use benchmarking data to try to affect change, it is important to find the right scale. You need to find a comparison that is relevant and resonates with your audience. Typically, the larger the scale (e.g. this is my country), the greater the number of people for whom your data is relevant, but often, the more obtuse the data in terms of its accuracy and the less people have a personal connection to the data. Conversely, the smaller the scale (e.g. this is the floor of my dorm) the fewer the number of people are impacted by your data but the more personal of a connection that someone typically has to the data. The key is to find the right point in between where you maximize the impact of your data.
How are you doing? Where is your next opportunity to improve? Do you know? If not, I recommend that you take steps to begin benchmarking your recycling efforts.