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SaferPak: Food Packaging Safety, Food Safety, Business Improvement and Quality Management
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'Seeing the Light' Benchmarking and Best Practice - The Journey to Excellence
By Oliver Wight Partner Lawrie Rumens

Being overtaken by a Smart car on the motorway the other day was an experience taking me through a number of emotions. There was the sheer disbelief. I have only just upgraded my own car. One might expect the odd Jag or Beema to fly past but a small Smart car was not in my thinking. Then came the urge to do something, before I had thought whether this was really sensible. So I chased after him and overtook him back. My plan that I had set out with plenty of time and did not need to hurry was ignored. Having reacted, I then could not slow down again. I was on a course determined by events. I arrived 30 minutes early and, for my sins, waited in a lay-by with time enough to think how silly this all was.

I had my own view of the order of things. The comparisons I was making came from standards set within me. In our world we are used to advertisers using comparisons to spur us on. We believe that if it is possible to have whiter clothes on the line then we should. We target fresher food, and the latest technical bells and whistles, lower costs, and faster better service. These last two remind us of our industrial world for comparisons have a major impact for us too in building new visions of expectancy and aspiration at all levels of the organisation. They add to our own picture of what is possible and stimulate us to do better.

More importantly the reverse is also true. As much as our knowledge opens new horizons for us, we are fundamentally constrained by what we do not know. Few of us have the imagination and ability to come up with new ways of doing our business without some sort of stimulus. We do not aim for goals if we can’t visualise them or don’t believe them.

Sadly the stimulus is often the burning platform. It is a current crisis that gives the imperative to achieve quickly. We usually do achieve, uniting for a brief interlude the Directors (luring them from mahogany row), Managers (getting them to understand that this time there is no respite in defending their patch), and our People (who really understand who are the first to go when times are hard).

The burning platform may be the golden key to introduce rapid change, but it is a blob of putty in unlocking lasting gains and long-term improvement. When we achieve the goals to put out the fire we heave a sigh of relief and take the plaudits. But without greater vision performance flattens off and eventually tails off.

Conversely most journeys to business excellence borne of vision do sustain themselves and companies do continue to improve over long periods, getting and staying in front of the competition.
Comparison is at the heart of all this since if we don’t observe differences from our own situation, we won’t set out to understand why the differences exist. Without understanding how will we get to rational plans and actions to travel that excellence journey? For comparison substitute the word benchmarking in both figures and in practices. I do not know of a top performing company that does not use some form of benchmarking to understand their competitive position and continually build and develop their vision and strategy. They also use benchmarking to open to their people at all levels what is possible and to set goals and targets with them.

So where do we start in using benchmarking as a catalyst for your journey to excellence?

First comes the voyage of discovery. This is the opening of our minds and those around us to the world of the possible in the medium and long term. What did you want to be when you grew up? As children our environment and the expectations of those around us govern our aspirations. As immature companies in the pursuit of excellence, we have to actively seek out the possible. It will not come and seek us.
  For a start, try reading. Magazines such as the Manufacturer are full of stories and case studies. Add selected books and university papers and a different world starts to unfold.
  Then it helps to touch and feel. Look inside and outside your industry to those where the fiercest competition is forcing the pace of change and improvement. Be prepared to look outside manufacturing to understand what is the best. For instance the most advanced financial practices are in the financial industries simply because that is how they make money.
  Thirdly know your market place. Talk and listen to your customers and your suppliers. They will know what is happening in the sector and they will also know whether you are in front or behind your competitors and their plans to improve. Where are the customer’s priorities on their journey to excellence and who, do they see as their long-term partner?
Now through intelligent conversation agree what is possible in all that you have found and the opportunities this presents to your business. There is little sense in a new vision that drives actions that do not tangibly improve the business. Especially manage any people above you not involved in the discovery. Some years ago a very senior person in the glass industry would not accept a target for his operations of 12 stock turns on the grounds “tell me someone in the glass industry that has done it”. But there is no point in a vision that someone else has already achieved in your industry.
With the vision set, we have to sell it and plan the action. If your people do not understand where you are going they cannot contribute. We so constantly underestimate what our people at all levels can do if they understand our goals. You will need an active programme to get them involved in their own discovery. Get them on best practice visits (try the DTI Inside UK Enterprise service). Send them to conferences and user groups (the Oliver Wight Proven Path is one of the best and longest running of these) Confront them with figures from the many university databases (try Cranfield), and with excellence checklists (The Oliver Wight ABCD Checklist is the longest established self assessment tool). Set clear objectives before people go on a visit and debrief the real lessons afterwards.
Lastly from the vision set your own priorities from the maturity of your own company. Set in place the foundations on which all other improvements rely. Try these questions
  Do your people own what they do and its continual improvement in all parts of the business
  Do your people stick to the proper process working consistently whoever is doing the task
  Do your top team have one clear agenda, with one set of figures and one clear set of priorities
  Does your company plan work properly in all parts of the business and the uncompromisingly work the plan
  If these are issues for you then look for experiences showing practices such as 5S and TPM for ownership, ISO 9000 for consistency of work, and Integrated Business Management to get planning and integration right. Do not be bound by your factories. Excellence is the business of the whole Business and the Whole Supply Chain
Next look to see successes in step changing performance in your targeted areas. Do you know an excellent company that has not actioned Lean and process acceleration, driven quality to the highest levels, and targeted agility

These initiatives are all company wide and people oriented. The big gains we make in business come mainly from behaviour change yet it is in this area that we invest the least. Education is vital to improving understanding and without understanding there is no real action. At the working level ask whether your people are properly educated to do their jobs well. Can they tell you what is World Class for them in their role and how companies exploit this. Don’t get deflected by the cost of the best education, ask how much ignorance is costing you every day.

All of this is benchmarking. Benchmarking is finding out the possible, finding out how to do the possible and stimulating action to get in front and stay in front of the opposition. Benchmarking is not a once off exercise but a constant way of life that continuously extends knowledge, horizons and of course targets and goals.

Lawrie joined Oliver Wight in 1999 to support businesses in the definition of operating strategies, and action plans. Most recently with the Pilkington group, Lawrie was the Group Director for Manufacturing Excellence and was a Management Board member for its Worldwide Automotive Board and Worldwide Building Products Board as well as a number of regional and local boards.







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