Toilet Paper Up or Down? The Power of Comparative Data


I ran across an interesting statistic recently: 68% of Americans place their toilet paper in the holder with the roll coming over the top (rather than underneath).  Interesting.  I guess I’m “normal” (not that placing it the other way is necessarily abnormal).  But I guess it’s been a long debate – Wikipedia has 133 footnotes on the subject, and even Good Housekeeping claims that “you use less paper when you drape the end over the top of the roll…plus, if you place it under, you can’t do the fancy fold at the end of the paper.”  Best practices in toilet paper rolling, I guess.

But it got me thinking: there are really surveys for everything, and they can be useful in helping to determine “normal” or “average.”  For example, according to a UK study of 1000 adults, 41% of people sleep on their sides in a fetal position, while only 5% sleep on their back (but according to the survey, “back sleepers” are good listeners and tend to be helpful).  Good to know.

And according to Zagat’s third annual coffee survey, the average American drinks 2.1 cups of coffee a day (I guess I’m slightly “above average” on this one).  Of American women, 22% drink lattes, followed by 19% drinking regular coffee, and 12% cappuccinos.  For men, it’s 30% regular coffee followed by 14% espresso (just the hard stuff, I guess).  48% of Americans add sweeteners, which I guess means 52% drink it black – pretty much a 50/50 split, which is the case in my household by the way.

In a 2015 readers’ poll of over 2500 respondents, the average number of books people read in a year is 70.  Wow, I guess I’m below average on this metric (but I read a ton of magazines, blogs, and articles – do they count?).  Interestingly, 64% primarily read printed books, 28% e-books, and 8% audiobooks.  The average person spends over $400 a year on books.

Surveys tell us what is “normal” – I like my coffee black, thank you.  They provide us reference points – indications of what might be considered average, above average or best-in-class.  They indicate what is possible; they illustrate how you fit in.  And surveys can be helpful for both individuals and organizations.

For example, Fortune publishes an annual survey of the Fortune 500 CEOs to find out what they are thinking in terms of the business environment and the workplace.  The most recent survey was completed in June 2015, and the findings are interesting, if not helpful in giving today’s leaders a reference point.

In response to the question “what are your company’s biggest challenges,” CEO’s stated:

  1. The rapid pace of technological innovation (72%)
  2. Cyber security (66%)
  3. Increased regulation (61%)
  4. Shortage of skilled labor (34%)
  5. Management diversity (25%)
  6. Competition from a start-up (20%)
  7. Shareholder activism (20%)
  8. Competition from China, developing countries (4%)

I’m guessing many of you reading this can resonate with that list, probably regardless of your organization type (business, hospital, school, nonprofit), location, or size.  Just knowing the perspective of other leaders can be helpful in understanding your environment, in setting priorities, and in identifying potential blind spots (if you aren’t considering plans to mitigate cybersecurity, perhaps you should).

In terms of the general business and workforce environment, Fortune reports:

  • 94% of CEOs agree with the statement “My company will change more in the next five years than it has in the last five years.”
  • 67% say a public company has equal responsibility to customers, shareholders, employees, and the broader community.
  • 82% plan to employ more people two years from now.
  • 80% of CEOs say they directly answer all or most of their email.
  • The average CEO has between four and 12 direct reports.
  • More than 60% of respondents believe that optimal tenure atop a Fortune 500 company is five to 10 years.

Incidentally, CEOs responded that their favorite book is Good to Great by Jim Collins, followed closely by Malcolm Gladwells Outliers.  The most respected leader, according to the Fortune CEO study, is Ronald Reagan, followed by Winston Churchill and Warren Buffet.  Interesting information, but maybe only slightly more relevant than toilet paper and sleep habits.

In a similar study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and published just last week:

  • Only 27% of CEOs around the world think the global economy will improve in 2016.  This is down from 37% a year ago and a high water level of 44% in 2014.
  • 35% of all CEOs thought their own company would grow in the next 12 months, but that too was down from 46% a year ago.

Perhaps something to consider when setting 2016 goals and budgets.

In the PWC survey, CEOs believe the biggest risks facing their businesses – very similar to the Fortune survey – include:

  • Over-regulation (80%)
  • Higher taxes (69%)
  • Cybersecurity (61%)

These survey findings might confirm (or challenge) your own perspective.  Either way, they can be helpful to leaders in forming a world view.  Which really is the point I’m trying to make: leaders need a way to understand how their perspective compares to others in the broader community.  Confirming or validating your perspectives can be helpful for planning and decision making.  But sometimes it’s even more valuable to find contrarian perspectives, as those potentially help leaders identify blind spots or new areas to explore.  If the majority believes something is a certain way and that way is counter to your view, it either means you have discovered something novel – or you may need to rethink your position.

Similarly, leaders also need way to understand how their organization’s performance compares to others – to the average, the above average, or the best-in-class within their industry or market.  Without meaningful, relevant comparative data, organizations can have blinders on.  If you don’t know how your organization’s performance compares to industry average, to key competitors, or to the best in the market, then you run the risk of getting outperformed in the market and possibly losing market share (because, interestingly, customers usually can find the better performance).

The Baldrige Framework defines benchmarks as: “processes and results that represent the best practices and best performance for similar activities, inside or outside your organization’s industry.  Organizations engage in benchmarking to understand the current dimensions of world-class performance and to achieve discontinuous, non-incremental or ‘breakthrough’ improvement.”

As such, benchmarks are one form of comparative data.  Other forms, according to Baldrige, include “industry data collected by third parties (including those surveys I mentioned before), data on competitors’ performance, and comparisons with similar organizations that are in the same geographic area or that provide similar products and service in other geographic areas.”

Benchmarks and comparative data are key tools for leaders interested in continuous improvement:

  • They help leaders understand how their organizations’ performance compares to others.
  • They help in identifying and prioritizing improvement opportunities (for example, if your main competitor has customer satisfaction of 94% and your organization has 88%, you need to close the gap).
  • They help in setting goals (if the industry average for error rates is 6%, the top quartile is 3%, and your company is at 8%, you might set a one-year goal of 6% but a long-term goal of being in the top quartile).

In short, benchmarks and comparative data help leaders define relative “goodness” – without an external reference point, you really have no basis to determine what is good, what is bad, and what is average.

Benchmarks are sometimes difficult to find (unfortunately, most companies don’t publish their highly confidential, proprietary performance data for competitors and the world to consider!).  But here are some tips and ideas:

  • Look at published statistics – many industry/trade associations and governmental agencies research and publish industry trends and averages.
  • Search for previously conducted benchmarking research.  There are many industry (and cross-industry) studies available online or for purchase that will give you a sense of average and world-class performance in certain processes.
  • Commission third party benchmarking research to better understand how your organization’s performance compares to others.  While a little more expensive, this type of research has the advantage of customizing the data to exactly the parameters you wish.
  • Consider mystery shopping – using/consuming other organizations’ products or services allows you to measure their performance versus your own organization’s.

You don’t need comparative data on every measure your organization tracks, but you probably should try to collect benchmarking data on at least your key strategic indicators.  If you don’t, how will know if your customer satisfaction is good, bad, or just average?  If you don’t, how will know if the challenges you face – like the rapid pace of technological innovation and cybersecurity – are similar to that of other organizations?  If you don’t, how will know if your product or service performance – your error rate, your cycle time, your unit cost, your yield, your on-time delivery – are better or worse than the market average?  If you don’t, how will know if your toilet paper tendencies, your sleeping behavior, your reading productivity, or your coffee consumption is “normal”?

What comments do you have regarding the importance of collecting comparative data?  What tips do you have in finding benchmarking and comparative data?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!