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Review Process

I was given the task of unraveling this mystery, and identifying the issues and charting a way forward. Because this was my first brush with benchmarking, my first step was to understand the benchmarking process as a totality. I needed to understand how it worked, and what both the terminology and the definitions meant. The second step was to scrutinize the input process which we had used.

The benchmarking input document took the form of an extremely detailed and structured questionnaire which was sent to a number of refineries in the area. Each completed the questionnaire for their own facility. There was some degree of validation built into these questionnaires, but anyone completing them properly needed a good understanding of the benchmarking firm's terminology and definitions. Teasing out the required information from many sources in a refinery was not easy. It was made more difficult because the inhouse information was presented in many different formats and with many inconsistent definitions often slanted to the needs of particular users of this information. For example, we found about four different definitions of overtime, with different variants focusing on hours worked and hours paid and added complexities being introduced if the work was done by shift workers on national holidays.

Handling this data gathering process effectively was not easy; it required a good understanding not only of a number of underlying management and financial measurement concepts, but also the concepts and assumptions behind the benchmarking firm's definitions. In retrospect, and knowing the importance of correct inputs, a person of high competence with a good overview of the business should have been allocated to the job. However, completion of this sort of questionnaire is not the most glamorous of jobs and it certainly wasn't seen as career enhancing. So, unsurprisingly, we found that the task had been given to a fairly inexperienced individual.

Once an awareness of all of the above had been gained (understanding would only come later), the next step was to confirm that the input data was accurate, or at least reasonably so. This is where things started to become even more difficult. Although the location was reasonably sophisticated in the use of computer systems, the data sought did not seem to be retrievable in any sort of straightforward way. There were no consistent definitions between any of the computer systems or the various manual systems used in the location. Indeed, definitions were often totally absent; many individuals had concocted definitions as required in an ad-hoc way.

Certainly it was not easy to get the input information required. The sort of information being sought included details of plant utilization, availability, reliability, reasons for downtime or failure, overtime, and costs. It became clear that inspired (and some not-very-inspired) guesses had been made to feed the questionnaire. Indeed, there had been a large number of errors in answering the questionnaire; the data input contained significant inaccuracies. But it was impossible without a lot more effort to make more than guesses as to whether the inputs painted a black or a charitable picture of our performance.

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