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CRITERIA FOR SELECTING PARTNERS Finding maintenance practices that lead to better performance is an important objective of customer-driven benchmarking. The criteria that you use to select partners should be consistent with this objective. Initial Agreement on What to Benchmark As explained earlier, customer-driven benchmarking requires that a maintenance agency define its purpose and function in terms of a set of products and services that it provides to its customers (e.g., a smooth ride); the important attributes of each product or service (e.g., a smooth pavement surface); and customer-driven outcome measures (e.g., the International Roughness Index, Customer Satisfaction Rating) related to each attribute. There are many demanding steps to go through, and it is likely that neither you nor most of your partners have been through this process. In the absence of a mutually agreeable set of products and services, each agency can agree to the general area that they want to benchmark, perhaps focusing upon the types of maintenance assets of mutual interest. The benchmarking partnership should not admit organizations that cannot agree on the same general focus as the other partners. Suppose that the organizations of a benchmarking partnership are primarily interested in providing higher quality and more effective signage to customers. An agency that is only interested in benchmarking its performance in delivering a comfortable ride to customers would not be a good candidate for the partnership. Cooperation and Willingness to Share Information Partners need to demonstrate cooperation and a willingness to share information. The lead benchmarking organization needs to be assured that each participant will use agreed-upon measures, collect accurate data for each benchmarking unit, share the data with the partners, document existing practices, and share information on best practices with all the benchmarking partners. The more open and forthcoming potential partners are in 31
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Chapter 2: Selecting Benchmarking Partners preliminary discussions about their degree of commitment and the quality of existing performance information, the more likely it is that they will cooperate and share information. Willingness to Create Common Measures A community of organizations that uses or has adopted common customer-driven performance measures represents a major target of opportunity to develop a set of benchmarking partners. However, in the early 2000s, it is unlikely that you will find organizations external to yours that use precisely the same measures that you use or would like to use. Customer-driven benchmarking requires common types of data to create common measures of performance. For example, if one agency measures sign quality through rigorous retro-reflectivity measurements and customer surveys and a second agency measures sign quality through "windshield surveys," you cannot compare performance. An essential criteria for selecting a partner is its willingness to work with others to define common measures of performance and to develop data collection procedures that will be used by everyone. Some agencies have defined their own performance measures, data requirements, and data collection procedures and are not willing to consider changes that will be necessary for a particular benchmarking partnership. These agencies are not suitable members of the partnership. Commitment to Data and Measurement Quality Benchmarking does not require "audit quality data," but it will fail without continually paying adequate attention to data and measurement quality. Each benchmarking partner needs to be willing to submit to a benchmarking process that instills faith in all partners that measurements are accurate and reliable enough to serve as the basis for identifying best practices and improvement opportunities. If you think a partner's commitment to measurement quality is weak, you should seek partners elsewhere. 32
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Commitment of Time, Effort, and Resources Successful benchmarking requires a strong commitment of time, effort, and resources among all participants. Potential partners that signal a willingness to make this commitment should be among your top preferences. Keep looking for partners if discussions with a potential partner suggest it may have a problem making a serious commitment to benchmarking. Be alert to any unwillingness of potential partners to devote staff, equipment, materials, data collection, databases, or other resources that are essential to successful benchmarking. Operating Environment You may want to find a group of benchmarking partners that have benchmarking units that operate in similar environments (e.g., weather, terrain, population density). By doing so, you do not have to control for different environmental factors when taking measurements, and it is more likely that it is feasible to implement a best practice discovered by one of the benchmarking units. Suppose that benchmarking partners are going to benchmark the service "roadways clear of snow." Assume further that the benchmarking units of those partners operate at totally different elevation levels (elevations above 5,000 feet and elevations of less than 600 feet above sea level). These benchmarking units are less likely to have practices relevant to one another than if they all operated at the same elevations. More typically, you will benchmark with partners that function in a variety of operating conditions, including conditions that are very different from yours. Benchmarking units in different operating environments will have adapted to different factors (hardships) that affect their maintenance operations. Sometimes the practices that have evolved in sharply different settings are a source of new ideas that can help your agency improve its performance. 33
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Chapter 2: Selecting Benchmarking Partners Public Sector or Private Sector If you are a public agency, you may desire to limit your partners to those in the public sector. One reason to do so is to build a group of benchmarking partners through government and quasi- governmental associations such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the National Association of County Engineers, the National League of Cities, the Conference of Mayors, the American Public Works Association, and the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association. Public-sector partners are more likely to have similar cultures and outlook, which may make it easier to communicate and work together. On the other hand, public agencies contract out various types of maintenance operations to private companies. Sometimes public agencies even contract out all types of maintenance activities along a route (i.e., an Interstate highway) or even within a certain jurisdiction. Although there is no strict rule that the private sector is more effective or efficient in serving customers, in many cases the private sector can be more responsive to customer demands. There is a great deal to learn from the business practices of the private sector because the revenue, profitability, and survival of private firms depend on their being attuned to customers and remaining competitive. You may also want to consider benchmarking with private firms that are not in road maintenance--for example, firms that do landscaping for campuses, buildings, and parks might be a source of innovative ideas and best practices that you would not discover without their involvement. As another example, many firms specializing in facilities maintenance might provide insight about how to improve the management of rest areas owned and operated by public agencies. National or International A number of states, including Minnesota and Michigan, have cultivated close relationships with other countries in order to learn from them. These states clearly perceive the benefits of learning what organizations in other parts of the world are doing. 34