Benchmarking for Sustainability

July 2, 2012
The challenges faced by the facility manager may sometimes seem insurmountable. We are constantly asked to provide excellent service with diminishing resources. In addition, we must adopt sustainable practices in an effort to protect our environment. Prior to the early 1980’s the cost of electricity and fuel was very manageable. Facility managers did not use terms like “benchmarking”, or “sustainability”.

The challenges faced by the facility manager may sometimes seem insurmountable. We are constantly asked to provide excellent service with diminishing resources. In addition, we must adopt sustainable practices in an effort to protect our environment. Prior to the early 1980’s the cost of electricity and fuel was very manageable. Facility managers did not use terms like “benchmarking”, or “sustainability”.  As the 1980’s progressed and into the 1990’s, awareness grew from atmospheric research that we may be putting the balance of our ecology in jeopardy.


In the late 1980’s, I was introduced to the term “Benchmarking” through my participation in the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Awards program.  The organizations that participated in the Baldridge Awards program shared their experiences in the improvement of quality products and services to the benefit of all of the participants.

It is said that the origination of benchmarking came from an effort in 1982 by the Xerox Corporation to improve their market share in the copy machine business by visiting a mail order catalog company known to have developed an efficient order-filling process. Xerox sent a group to visit the company’s warehouse to study its processes, with the goal of learning and adopting the best of the company’s practices. Xerox executives credited the technique of benchmarking with helping to save the company from being crushed by Japanese competitors in the early 1980’s.

Benchmarking can be defined as a continual and systematic process to search for, in a cooperative way, the best practices of organizations, measuring business activities in key areas leading to sustainable world class outcomes.


As we entered the new millennium, facility managers engaged in discussions where the term sustainability was used in relation to energy conservation. This was largely due to the soaring cost of natural gas and electricity. As time progressed, further understanding was gained through attendance at facility management conferences and University continuing education classes.

By common definition, sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability manages the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of the present and future.

For facility managers, sustainability means providing an environment to support our customer’s mission in an efficient, reliable manner while utilizing all available resources including renewable products, materials, and energy.

Developing Sustainable Practices

We know we must focus on what we take from the environment and what we put back in to it. The main focus in becoming sustainable appears to be:

·         Carbon Footprint Reduction

·         Waste Stream Reduction

Ideally, we must eliminate CO2 emissions while eliminating our reliance on natural gas and fossil fuel produced electricity. Unfortunately, technology has not advanced yet to fully realize this goal . In California, Senate Bill AB32 has challenged us to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Reducing the consumption of energy is the most practical way to accomplish this, along with solar and wind power production. There are many grassroots efforts to reduce energy consumption which do contribute to a growing reduction of pollutants and carbon emissions. The development of highly efficient batteries will make electric vehicles more desirable and will have a significant reduction of CO2 emissions.

Waste stream reduction is focused on making new products from discarded used products. We are all learning that recycling is a beneficial and valuable process. Recycling programs include water, plastic, metals, and many other materials.

But what about the details involved in these efforts? What are the best ways to accomplish these tasks? Setting off on our own may lead to escalation of cost with little or no return on investment. How do we measure and document our progress and how do we deal with the political impacts of our efforts? This is exactly where benchmarking becomes a valuable tool.

There are several membership organizations, as well as state and federal organizations, that have developed extensive benchmarking formats and reports to provide valuable information. The benchmarking efforts focus on operations that share similar missions and services. There are colleges and universities, hospitals, research centers, K -12 school districts, manufacturing facilities, and commercial properties, to name some of the major players.

All of these benchmarking programs require data that must be implemented through metric standards. The first steps in developing the necessary metrics require the establishment of a baseline:

1.   Go back two to five years and look at your use of energy, water, and waste.

2.   Identify changes that effect consumption. (Facility size, employee count, program changes…etc.)

3.   Measure and track the past against present performance.

4.   Challenge employees to contribute to the benchmarking effort.

Membership organizations encourage and support educational opportunities for facility managers. The courses available in the Facilities Management Certificate Program at University of California, Irvine Extension collaborate with these organizations and support their programs and certification curricula.

The UCI Extension Facilities Management Certificate Program is an online program that allows the understanding of this diverse field with an innovative series of courses focusing on design and management of facilities, from concept to installation, to long-term efficient use. Specific forums in select courses provide participants with the opportunity to learn from industry experiences. With participants from varying levels of work experience, the certificate program is a perfect opportunity for sharing successful experiences and techniques in a learning environment.  

Paul Howland, M.B.A., CEM, is the director, Maintenance and Operations, Facilities Management Department at CSU Long Beach.

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