What We Really Learn from Benchmarking

It’s typically one of the first steps taken when designing a new healthcare facility.  We look at data from facilities modeled similarly to what our client wishes to consider.  There may even be tours, surveys or interviews with staff from the comparative institutions.  This knowledge ostensibly helps our user groups to understand clearly the pros and cons of a given design model and sharpen their own vision for the project at hand.  But....benchmarking is relative.  Unless you presume to be in the prototype business and use post occupancy analysis and benchmarking to keep improving your model, nothing you look at with a client will be exactly like what you design for them. To avoid going astray with your efforts, observe the following benchmarking protocol:

Determine what "best" really means
The idea of benchmarking is rooted in comparison- ideally you find the best performer in the industry and look at ways to compare their results to your own.  Where you are lacking, you look to the means and methods applied by the benchmark and try to incorporate them into your model.  In the design world we have a small problem with that idea- who is really the best?  There are so many variables that might make a given hospital a good performer that may be unique to their circumstances. These same strategies may fail miserably if applied within your client’s market and culture.  Make sure that you spend time defining the needs and wants of your client and developing a discrete list of objectives. Place only institutions that dealt with these issues in design and operations on your benchmarking list.  Because you can learn from failure as much as success, it is important for your benchmarking to be based on a set of predefined criteria that has been addressed by every hospital you study. 

Understand your extrapolation
It’s unlikely that you will literally copy design features straight from another facility. You will be instead applying elements and concepts to your design problem.  Make sure that you understand what made something work for the benchmark facility- was it a combination of placement and protocol?  If you don’t understand the dynamic behind the result, you can copy design elements and not achieve the goal. Create a matrix that lists facilities across the top and then contains rows of your client's design objectives. In each cell, discuss specifically how a particular facility dealt with that client objective.  Leave room at the bottom to expand the objectives if a particular benchmark inspires the client to change or add a priority. 

Don’t exploit the process
Many times, we want so badly to sell our client on a given design solution. If they are not on board, benchmarking of similar institutions is used as a brainwashing technique.  Ethics aside, you may be very sorry later when the design you ramrodded down the client’s throat doesn’t perform well for them.  It’s equally as important to not allow administration or staff to become enamored by a facility and want to emulate it if it won’t provide similar benefits for their organization. Use facility tours to look at trends and filter out what will have lasting benefits vs. quickly becoming outdated. 

Benchmarking is a useful tool, but only after clear needs, goals and priorities are set by the client.  It is about setting standards for best practices, and that can be a highly subjective undertaking.  The Evidence Based Design process embraced by the Center for Health Design champions benchmarking as part of the initial research needed to define the problem.  I agree that benchmarking belongs firmly in the learning phase of the project, a source of information and a contributor to how the design problem at hand will be defined.  How have you successfully used benchmarking on a project and how did you work to remove bias from your facility selections and review of data?  Please join the discussion and share your thoughts.