The Dangers of Benchmarking Lean Exemplars

By Ron Pereira Updated on October 6th, 2017

A common practice for folks getting started with lean is to benchmark lean exemplars in order to see what “good” looks like.  In fact, there are benchmarking tours to Japan where you can visit companies like Toyota.  I actually attended one of these trips many years ago and it was definitely eye opening and a good experience.  I’m glad I went.

And for folks that can’t actually visit other companies due to time or budget constraints our Gemba Academy Live series of videos allows folks to virtually tour many outstanding lean thinking organizations.

So, obviously, we believe there’s value in seeing how other, more experienced, lean thinking companies go about things.  But, we also believe caution must be taken before, during, and after these benchmarking visits.

First, it’s absolutely critical to understand the purpose of the trip.  If you want to simply go and look at all the “lean artifacts” so you can copy them you’re missing the point.  These artifacts, or the things we see (think tape on the floor, kanban cards, etc.) aren’t what we should be focused on.  Instead, we should be focused on the thinking behind these artifacts.

In other words, instead of asking for the electronic template used for the kanban cards (the artifact) it would be better to understand how this company transitioned from push production to pull production (the thinking).  And instead of asking where you can get the same yellow tape (the artifact) you’d be better off understanding why things are taped off the way they are (the thinking).

Second, the most important benchmarking study you, and your colleagues, can do is of your own company.  In other words, what is your long term goal, vision, or “challenge” using Toyota Kata speak.  What is your actual condition now?  Where would you like to be in 2 to 4 weeks?  What obstacles are keeping you from this 2 to 4 week target condition?  And which of these obstacle do you want to attack first?

Once you gain a deeper understanding into your own situation through internal benchmarking you’re going to be much further along than you will be by seeing how awesome some other lean company is.

Finally, I’ve always said that the primary purpose, or “why” of our Gemba Academy Live series of videos is to offer inspiration and to provide hope that lean success is possible.

And I believe the same thing goes for any in person benchmarking tour.  Allow others to inspire you.  Allow others to give you hope that lean can work when you persevere and never, ever, give up.  Just don’t secretly snap photos of all the lean artifacts you see and believe you can simply copy them and be on your way.  Sadly, it doesn’t work this way.

  1. Mark Smeets

    October 6, 2017 - 3:51 pm

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned, no 2 companies are the same – we’re all different, you can’t clone because it will (almost) never be the same and any tool won’t work the same way – kind of the same how companies try to copy each others culture, it’s always a different experience.

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