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Benchmarking: A Tool for Continuous Improvement.

Each month a half-dozen review copies of books on managment theory and practice show up in my "In" basket. Although some look interesting, nearly all end up on the bookshelf, uponened. No doubt I could beneift from their advice, but there is not enough daylight, I tell myself. I know that I'm not alone; others tell me that they too feel swamped.

One title, however, has managed to remain on my desk. I've been browsing through it in those odd moments when the phone isn't ringing and the next meeting has yet to being. The book in Benchmarking: A Tool for Continuous Improvement by C.J. McNair and Kathleen H.J. Leibfried (Omneo/Oliver Wright, Essex Junction, Vt., 1994, 344 pp. $18). I am drawn to the authors' tough-minded approach, to their insistence that the goal of a business is not merely to survive but to excel.

During one of my browsings I came upon the following: "Negative attitudes are the result of many of the tarditional management philosophies--of autocratic command structures that never asked for advice from subordinates, just efdfort." This observation reminded me of a troubling news story It will be recounted here in the form of a fairy tale with fictionalized names and dialogue, in the hope of sparing the company further embarrassment while still pointing toward a lesson.

There once was a baker named Tim, who found work as a toaster-tester. Since he was a "permanently temporary" employee, Tim was paid 8 bucks an hour and received no benefits other than an occasional crust. One day a reporter from Toast Today called to ask which toaster Tim thought was tops.

"I test toasters for Fine Fryer," said Tim.

"But what do you think? Whose toaster sits on your kitchen counter?" the [T.sup.2] reporter prodded, as was his wont.

"I just bought a Melt Master; the new model is the Shangri-la of toasters," said Tim. and those words traveled straight from his lips into the pages of [T.sup.2]

You may have already guessed what happened next: Tim got the sack. But not for the reason you may have thought. A spokespeson for [F.sup.2] maintained that Tim's remarks to the press had nothing to do with his firing. Moreover, the spokesperson said, all [F.sup.2] employees know thaat they are free to comment publicly about the products of [F.sup.2] and other toaster-makers. (Remember, this is a fairy tale.)

According to the company, Tim was fired for refusing to work a seventh night per week. Tim alreay tested toasters from Monday through Saturday on the swing shift (4 P.M. to midnight), But [F.sup.2] claimed it needed him to work Sunday night as well. The company was engaged in heated testing to find out whether its toasters met emissions standards [F.sup.2] couldn't do without Tim on Sundays so they fired him for all seven shifts.

As our fairy tale winds to a close, some may say that Tim brought his troubles on himself, that he was unwise or even disloyal to voice his opinion. Others may try to blame the messager. To me, though, the alarming thing about this tale--the smell of burnikng toast as it were--is the possiblity that [E.sup.2] never bothered to ask Tim why, in his expert opinion, the Melt Master was a superior product.

To McNair and Leibfried, benchmarking requires "an external focus, a movement away from a concern with cost reduction and budgets to an understanding of what activities customers value and what level of performance they expect." Before it can do that, one company will have to scrape the charred surface off its public image.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Society of Mechanical Engineers
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:O'Leary, Jay
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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