There Is No Magic Pill

Many companies spend a lot of time comparing themselves to other companies. And for good reason. Why reinvent the wheel when you know somebody out there who designed a Ferrari, and you can borrow the plans?

While we don’t have anything against benchmarking for best practices, some people seem to think that this process is the Magic Pill, the answer to all the mysteries in the universe. If only you could meet with a company, learn how they do things successfully – then implement what they do. That’s the ticket.

There are a lot of good things to be learned by investigating how others do things. You can learn what vendors they use for their outage management system. Or how they compensate employees during extended storm assignments and second roles. Or how they manage their storm assignment process. You might even learn that you are better off than you realized and that others may want to benchmark you.

If nothing else, you will definitely benefit from the relationships that you will build during this process.

But here’s the thing: storm restoration – like Search Engine Optimization or getting fitted for a new set of golf clubs – is part art, part science. You can’t learn how to be an Incident Commander (or Storm Boss) by benchmarking alone. You might learn what makes someone a good leader, but it’s hard to turn that into a formula that you can then apply at your organization.

Contestant: “Alex, I’ll take ‘Famous Misadventures in Benchmarking’ for a Thousand.”

Trebek: “The answer is: Walruses and the Gulf of Mexico”

Contestant: “What animals were listed as endangered wildlife because an Arctic drilling plan was benchmarked by BP?”

Trebek: “Correct!”

So why is it that benchmarking fails to achieve the desired results (AKA the Magic Pill)? There are several key reasons:

  1. Your corporate culture is not the same as the companies you are comparing yourselves to. No two corporate cultures are the same. Your company may be process oriented, while another is very hierarchical. Maybe your organization uses a matrix approach. What is the management style like? Does your organization prize innovation and risk-taking? Or do you have to gain approval for even the smallest thing?
  2. What technologies do you have in place? Yes it’s true that many companies use an outage management system for monitoring outage information, but even those companies that use the same package do things in a unique manner?
  3. While utilities are all tasked with doing roughly the same thing – providing a vital service 24/7/365 – each is unique. California’s weather, topography, news media and customer mix does not compare well with Iowa’s. Finding suitably comparative processes for restoring major cities could pose a challenge that could cross international borders, and a lot could be lost in translation. Parlez-vous Chinois?

At the end of the day, even after learning so much about how other companies do the things that you’d like to learn about, you still have to make it work in your organization. So the best use of benchmarks is to provide a foundation on which you can build your own plans.

You’ll still need to examine your current processes, identify those areas that need to improve, develop a detailed work plan, identify who needs to be involved from your organization, assign tasks, track progress, and on, and on. It’s hard work and there is no Magic Pill, but it can be made a little easier and perhaps a bit less uncertain by checking out best practices first.

So, as you benchmark, just remember what a really smart guy once said:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

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