Tag Archives: Michael Porter

Michael Porter: Competitive Strategy

Of all the strategic thinkers we have covered (like Igor Ansoff, Kenichi Ohmae, and Porter’s student, Kathryyn Rudi Harrigan), Michael Porter deserves a special place. His 1980 book, Competitive Strategy, transformed thinking, moving us from the pre-Porter world of strategic thinking dominated by Ansoff, to the post-Porter world that he still dominates.

Porter is an intellectual and an influencer who does not covet the easy quotability of some of his contemporaries. But the rigour of his analysis has made him all the more sought-after. His books have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and his speaking fees are legendary.

Michael Porter

Michael Porter

Short Biography

Michael Porter was born in 1947, in Michigan, and went to Princeton to study for a BSE in Aeronautical Engineering in 1969. He graduated top of his class and was inducted into the two most prestigious honor houses. He then shifted his focus to business, and went to Harvard Business School, where he received an MBA in 1971 and a PhD in Economics in 1973. From there he joined the faculty.

He remains at Harvard today, as a University Professor, and also Founding Director of Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, which he founded in 2001 to further his work and research.

Porter’s breakthrough came with the 1980 publication of Competitive Strategy. Other significant yet accessible books are The Competitive Advantage of Nations (1990) and the 1998 article and essay collection, On Competition. But these are among 15 other successful books and article collections.

But what you are interested in are Porter’s big ideas…

Michael Porter’s Big Ideas

Before Porter, Igor Ansoff dominated thinking on corporate strategy. His approach boiled down to choosing your market, matching your resources to meet the market’s demand, and then improving your competitiveness to increase your market share.

Michael Porter did not reject these ideas. Rather, he opened them out, approaching strategy from the perspective of the whole industry and then, later, as a national endeavour. He considered that earlier strategic thinking had become confused with simple (ahem) operational effectiveness. He argued that improving operational processes merely levelled out competitors, rather than giving them a differentiation that led to competitive advantage.

Let’s survey five big ideas that Michael Porter has given us. All remain core parts of any business education.

Primary and Secondary Activities, and the Importance of the Value Chain

Porter divided corporate activities into Primary Activities and Secondary Activities.

Primary Activities are the value chain from inbound materials to production operations, to outbound goods and their distribution, to the ‘far end of the value chain‘, marketing and sales, to customer care and after sales services. Here, Porter argued, lay the ground for competitive advantage. The key task is to integrate these into one value chain.

Secondary Activities are the business support functions, like IT, HR, Procurement, Facilities Management, and Finance. These cannot create competitive advantage They can merely enable efficiency, or act as a drag on the business.

Porter’s Five Forces

Corporations sit in a competitive environment, which creates five forces.

Michael Porter's Five Forces

Michael Porter’s Five Forces

Porter’s current view is that a company must aim to use these forces to re-cast the rules of its industry, in its own favour.

Sources of Competitive Advantage, and the Three Competitive Strategies

Porter argued that there are two sources of competitive advantage:

  1. Cost – being able to sell the same products or services at a lower price than your competitors, whilst maintaining profit margins
  2. Differentiation – being able to offer products and services which your customers want, but that your competitors cannot (yet) offer

This leads him to his three competitive strategies:

  1. Cost leadership – build the capability to produce at a lower cost than anyone else
  2. Differentiation – find a new product or service, or enhance what you offer to make it different
  3. Niche focus – find a profitable niche, and dominate it

Recently, we see competitors dominating their market with a fourth strategy, based on a third source of competitive advantage: deep loyalty. How does Apple dominate? Not by offering cheaper products, certainly. Although their supply chain efficiencies mean that their margins are exceptional.

And, some would argue, not by differentiation. Whilst they often lead for a short time here, their rivals also innovate, and certainly catch up quickly. Is there much a Mac can do that a PC cannot? Is there much an iPhone can do that a Samsung cannot?

And a company with as many and varied customers as Apple cannot truly be said to serve a niche.

No, I believe the source of Apple’s current dominance is largely the loyalty of its customer base, built on historic innovation, differentiation in multiple niches, and a reputation for excellence.

Diversification

Like Ansoff before him, Porter sees diversification as a shrewd strategy that spreads a corporation’s risk. This maybe through product development, or business acquisition.

In deciding how to diversify, Porter proposes three tests:

  1. Does the new industry, product set, or niche offer attractive returns on investment? Is there the opportunity to build differentiation or cost leadership?
  2. Is the cost of entry proportionate to the likely returns? If not, the risks are too high.
  3. Does the acquisition or the new venture leave the parties better-off? This is basically Ansoff’s concept of synergy.

The National Competitive Environment

In The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Porter fully articulated a line of thinking that placed national conditions at the heart of corporate success. A strong home base with good infrastructure and healthy competition grows successful global companies. Porter’s Diamond Model sets out four factors that affect a nation’s industries.

Michael Porter's Diamond Model

Michael Porter’s Diamond Model

Michael Porter on Competitive Strategy

An old, but excellent video of Porter describing some of his main ideas.

You might enjoy the Strategy Pocketbook

… and the following earlier Pocketblogs:

 

Business Strategy Tools

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Over the years, Pocketblog has covered some important business strategy thinkers, so we will start by reviewing what we have.

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

This is the name of Richard Rumelt’s book and it neatly frames any discussion of business strategy by defining what your outcome needs to look like. Take a look at ‘What makes good business strategy?

The Balanced Scorecard

In one of the all-time classic Harvard Business Review articles, Robert Kaplan and David Norton set out to ensure that our business strategies are balanced across a range of different areas of the business. The tool they introduced is nearly ubiquitous in the upper reaches of the management world, and no manager can get away without at least a passing familiarity with the Balanced Scorecard. Take a look at ’Balance is Everything’.

The McKinsey 7S Model

One of my own favourite tools is also about balance, but this time about ensuring all the elements of your business strategy and planning are all aligned. It was developed by consultants at top US firm, McKinsey: Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. The seven S model reminds us that shared values, style, skills, staff, structure, systems, and strategy must all be consistent with one another. Take a look at ‘On Competition: Internal Forces and the 7-S Model’.

The Awesome Michael Porter

Over the years, three blogs have featured the thinking of business strategy specialist, Michael Porter.

‘On Competition: Five Forces’ briefly introduced two of his principal ideas: the five forces model and his three generic business strategies that flow from them.

‘On Competition, again: Porter’s Five Forces’ took a deeper look at the five forces model.

‘On Competition – The Far End of the Value Chain’ focused on the three generic business strategies and his concept of the value chain. Here, I speculated that some businesses have found a fourth, very successful business strategy.

By the way, a recent entry in the Pocket Correspondence course returned to the idea of the value chain. Take a look at ‘The Value Chain’.

The Boston Consulting Group Matrix

Having finished reviewing the archives, let’s take a look at one business strategy tool. This is designed to help us answer a very simple question:

‘We have a number of products (or services) but limited resources to invest in their development and marketing. Which products (or services) should we focus our investment on?’

The folk at Boston Consulting Group who developed the tool suggested that two considerations are paramount in making our judgements:

  1. What is our market share?
    Do we have a dominant market position with this product/service, or a modest share. This dictates the base from which investment can grow or maintain our position.
  2. What is the growth potential of the market?
    Is this product in a growing, static or declining market? Clearly static and declining markets offer far less opportunity to recoup investments.

The result was a simple matrix that plots these two conditions against one-another and identifies four generic strategies. You can click on the image to enlarge it.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Business Strategy Matrix

The Matrix gives us four strategies, three compelling labels for our products/services and one label that is, frankly, honest but lame.

Stars

Place your biggest investment bets on the products which dominate markets with high growth potential. If you are Samsung, you will be investing highly in mobile telephone products because the market continues to expand and you already have a dominant position.

Dogs

Do not invest – arguably, disinvest – in products which have a small share of a static or declining market. There is not much to win and you are not placed to take much of it.

Cash Cows

What do you do if you are a dominant player in a static or declining market? BCG suggested it is like having invested in a cow: you should look after it and milk it while it is healthy. This is how I read the men’s razor market. If you are one of the big players in your region (Gillette, Wilkinson Sword, Bic, for example, here in the UK), then you have a lot of investment in products and marketing, and a strong, valuable revenue stream. Over investment can gain little, as the market will never expand until men grow two heads or we need to shave more of ourselves. But if you don’t invest, you will lose the benefit of your position to your rivals. So, what do we see? Incremental investment in new – but hardly innovative – products. When I started shaving, two blades was new. Now we are up to five. By the time I no longer need to shave (about thirty years or so, I guess) I predict an eight bladed razor will be common.

Question Marks

What to call these pesky products… Does the label attach to the products or the challenge BCG found in labelling them with a cute title? Set aside that curious linguistic conundrum and we face the most difficult challenge of all. Your market is growing, so there is a big prize for the skilled/lucky investor. But your market position is weak, so you have a low chance of success against bigger rival products. Like many good tools, the BCG matrix does not give you all the answers. But it does bring your choices into stark relief.

Further Reading 

From the Management Pocketbooks series:

  1. The Strategy Pocketbook
  2. Business Planning Pocketbook

Lean Thinking

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Imagine that you were an Egyptian overseer, responsible for building a great pyramid for your Pharaoh. How would you want to organise things?

  • Would you want to start by knowing exactly what your Pharaoh wants?
  • Would you want to fully understand every part of the process?
  • Would you want to understand how stone moves from being part of the wall of a quarry to a perfectly fitting part of your Pharaoh’s pyramid?
  • Would you want to ensure that the giant blocks of stone arrived fast enough so the men on the ramp always had a stone ready to move up?
  • Would you want to make sure stones got up to the top of the ramp fast enough to make sure that they were there as soon as the last stone was placed on the pyramid?
  • Would you want to avoid stones arriving too fast and causing a bottleneck?
  • Would you want to make sure every stone was perfect to avoid having to stop and find a replacement or re-dress the stone on site?

If your answer is yes to all of those questions, then congratulations: you are instinctively an ancient Lean Manager.

Lean thinking is not new: the ideas have been around for a very long time and accumulated in industry over the years. But there are a few names that are strongly associated with its emergence as a driving force in organisational effectiveness in the last years of the twentieth and early years of the twenty first century.

The thinking was done by the founder of Toyota, Sakichi Toyoda, his son, Kiichiro Toyoda, and their postWW2 production chief, Taiichi Ohno. The Toyodas set out how a production line could work best, avoiding the problems of Henry Ford’s original ‘don’t stop the flow of the line if anything goes wrong – sort it out at the end’ approach. When they could not make it work due to the flaws in their supply chain, it was Ohno who then solved the practical problems.

The message came out in a landmark study by researchers from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This was published in the 1991 book ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ which introduced the world to the term ‘Lean’. Two of its authors: James Womack and Daniel Jones, went on to write a series of influential books, spelling out how to apply the lean principles they had researched at Toyota, starting with ‘Lean Thinking’ and becoming even more practical, with ‘Lean Solutions’.

The Value Chain

At the heart of Lean Thinking is an understanding of the value chain, which we discussed in an earlier post. Lean thinking starts by defining value from the point of view of the end customer for your products or services. When you do this, you usually find that only a small proportion of your activities directly contribute to that value (from the customer’s perspective). The rest – including some parts of what Michael Porter described as Primary Business Activities are only necessary as supporting this value creation.

Performance improvement comes first from eliminating steps and interactions that are not necessary for value creation and then, redesigning those that are to be as effective and efficient as possible. This means less wastage due to delays, re-work, duplication, scrapping below quality products, and oversupply.

The five principles of Lean Thinking are set out below.

The Five Principles of Lean Thinking

Waste

At various points, Lean Thinking decries wastage. The Toyota production chief set out seven sources of waste that destroy value.

  1. overproduction
  2. excessive inventory
  3. defects
  4. delays
  5. unnecessary transportation of goods
  6. unnecessary movement of materials
  7. unnecessary processing or materials

Where is there waste in your organisation?

Further Reading

In 1997, James Womack founded the Lean Enterprise Institute. Its website is a valuable source of resources for understanding more about Lean thinking.

From the Management Pocketbooks series:

  1. Improving Efficiency Pocketbook
  2. Improving Profitability Pocketbook

The Value Chain

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


The Value Chain is the complete set of processes that link everything an organisation does. Let us say you make widgets. The value chain starts with the process of sourcing raw materials, which you then purchase from a supplier, who then delivers them to you, which you process into finished widgets, that you market and sell, after which you deliver them to your customers, who incorporate your widgets into their value chain.

Most often, the value chain is represented as links in a single chain. I think that this is unrealistic. Instead, it is better to think of it as links in multiple chains, all joined up…

Value Chain

Understanding the value chain is essential for any manager who wants to step beyond their parochial role within it. Understanding and analysing your value chain will allow you to:

  • spot opportunities to create efficiencies within your part of the value chain
  • improve hand-offs with other parts of the value chain
  • appreciate the full strategic scope of the value chain and where you fit into it
  • determine where most and least value  is added and review how to improve the value to cost ratio
  • find where your competitive advantages lie
  • benchmark your performance against industry norms and best practices

Michael Porter distinguished primary business activities (the value generating activities described in the value chain) from secondary business activities, which are necessary in supporting the primary activities. These include:

  • technology and systems infrastructure implementation and maintenance
  • personnel and human resource management, including recruitment, development, appraisal, remuneration, succession, discipline
  • financial planning and management

We can view these as further side links to the value chain.

Porter was clear that a successful business must ensure that all links between elements of this full value chain are strong, if it is to thrive under the pressures of competition.

Further Reading 

Two previous Pocketblogs will add to your understanding of the Value Chain:

  1. On Competition: Internal Forces and the 7-S Model
  2. On Competition – The Far End of the Value Chain

You may also like The Strategy Pocketbook

Listening to your Customer

Steve Jobs famously eschewed focus groups and market research in designing new Apple products.  He did not want to supply what customers wanted.  He wanted customers to want what he created.

Whether Apple will be able to sustain that level of creativity is a question only time will answer.  But Jobs’ attitude did not mean that Apple was deaf to its customers – quite the opposite.  Having created the kind of loyalty that just about any other corporation can only dream of, everything Apple does has been tailored to retaining that crazy loyalty.

Marketing departments typically spend their time and resources looking for ever better ways to ensure that potential customers hear their message.  Customer service departments focus on fixing customer problems.  Who in your business is dedicated to listening to the customers you have, to build loyalty?  It’s cheaper and easier than acquiring new customers, and it’s cheaper and easier than fixing relationships with disappointed customers.

The big question is ‘How?’

How can you really listen to the voice of your customer? 

Surveys are great – especially low cost, easy-to-implement online surveys using tools like Zoomerang or Survey Monkey.  These have the benefit that they take little effort from your customer (and why should they make a big effort?) and can be supported by an appropriate incentive like a small reward or a competition entry.

The gold standard for good feedback on what you do (and don’t do) is follow-up calls or meetings from someone separate from the team that serves your customer.  To make it work for both you and your customer, you must welcome absolutely frank assessments and ask good questions to secure details that make appropriate actions easy to target accurately.

But what if your customers won’t talk to you?  You can always employ a ‘professional customer’ – mystery shoppers.  They are great for thorough, detailed and accurate assessment of what you do.  Unlike real customers, however, they cannot give you information about what else they want, from your product or service lines.

Customer focus groups or ‘customer panels’ can do that.  They are a lot of work to plan and organise and expensive too – often requiring specialist consultants, room hire, and inducements to participate.  This is a form of market research and the Marketing Pocketbook offers eight more variants on what we have above.

The forgotten question is Why?

In case ‘why would you listen to your customer?’ seems like a pointless question with an obvious answer: ‘of course you must’ – stop for a moment.

Of course you must, but unless you know why you are going to do it, you rune the risk of asking the wrong questions, choosing the wrong format, and mis-using the answers.  It is all too easy to feel like you are doing something useful by sending people out to listen to your customers, but before you do so, make sure you have a purpose and design the process accordingly.

A Paradigm Shift

Michael Porter identified two sources of competitive advantage:

  1. Industry Cost Leadership
  2. Product Differentiation

Arguably, Apple has neither, with high prices for products that are being successfully emulated by their main rivals.  So how are they succeeding?  I believe by a third source of competitive advantage: brand loyalty.

As a prevailing business strategy, this is new force in big business, but one we can all exploit, by building an organisation that excites and values its customers so much that we win the kind of fanatical following that Apple has.

If you can do that – with or without one of Porter’s two other sources of competitive advantage – you have the basis for a long-term business.

On Competition, again: Porter’s Five Forces

Back in the summer of 2011, we did a couple of blogs on the work of Michael Porter – one of the most serious-minded academic thinkers in the realm of corporate strategy.

In the first, ‘On Competition: Five Forces’, we surveyed his five forces model from a high vantage point and also introduced his three sources of competitive advantage.  We then, in ‘On Competition: The Far End of the Value Chain’ questioned whether there are not, in fact other sources of competitive advantage.

The Five Forces

I think it’s time to take a closer look at these five forces, and maybe question the adequacy of that model too.  So what are Porter’s Five Forces?

1. The Bargaining Power of Suppliers

If your business is dependent upon the supply of materials, assets, or people, then your suppliers have power over your business – which is increased as the market dominance of your supplier increases.  You need a strategy to keep your suppliers’ interests aligned with yours, by being as important to them as they are to you.  Dependence on a monopoly or near monopoly supplier is a route to doom.  Consider creating alternative supply sources, alternative inputs, or vertical integration to control your own supply source.

2. The Bargaining Power of Customers

It would be great to be a monopoly supplier of a commodity product.  Few are although, if you can differentiate your product sufficiently – for example, as Apple did with the launches of the iPhone and iPad – then you can simulate that position for a while.  Ultimately, the customer is king or queen: without them, you are doomed.

3. Competitive Rivalry

Existing players in your market will be jostling for customers’ attention and preferential deals for suppliers.  For most people, this is where their conception of competition ends.  Porter knew differently . . .

4. The Threat of New Entrants

When Sea and Atari were slugging it out for dominance of the games console market, who would have predicted the arrival of the Sony Playstation?  Answer: anyone familiar with this model.  They would not necessarily have known it would be Sony or that it would be successful, but the threat was there… As it was some years later, when, Atari gone, Microsoft entered the market to challenge Sega and Sony, with the X-Box.

5. The threat of Substitute Products

Somewhere in my stationery cupboard, I have a bottle of Tipp-Ex (probably set solid) and a pack of acetate sheets.  Is there a better supplier of correction fluid or a superior priced transparent paper?  Who knows?  Who cares?  I don’t use either: I print drafts from my PC and re-print when I’ve made corrections, and I project straight from my PC when I need slides.  I doubt many of my clients retain a working overhead projector (OHP).

Are there More Forces?

There you have it in a nutshell: five competitive forces that allow a business to evaluate its competitive strategy.  It is one of the most successful and widely used management models.

The last fifteen years have emphasised the rightful role of regulation as a competitive force or, rather, sometimes the failure of regulation to curb competitive behaviours (Enron, anybody?) I think we would now have to add regulatory forces to any complete analysis.

But I also have to ask, what about internal forces.  How do the social, cultural, political, operational, technological… forces within the business affect strategy.  To me, this is a big gap.

If only someone could plug it . . .

Happily, they can.
But you’ll have to wait until next week’s Pocketblog for that.

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On Competition – The Far End of the Value Chain

Back in August, we met Michael Porter – a professor at Harvard Business School, and an authority on competitive strategy.  In a blog called ‘On Competition – Five Forces’ I described his best known ‘Five Forces Model’ and also his model of three sources of competitive advantage:

Porter's Three Generic Business Strategies

The Whole Picture?

At a recent seminar, I challenged participants to identify any additional business strategy that can deliver competitive advantage.  After all, in my August blog, I did assert that this model is showing its age.

Could a business outcompete rivals with a higher cost product, that does pretty much the same as its competing products, and has no niche focus?  The answer takes us into a fascinating debating point, by way of another powerful model with which Porter is closely associated.

Competitive Advantage

Porter’s 1985 book ‘Competitive Advantage’ gives you a pretty thorough précis of his earlier ‘Competitive Strategy’ in Chapter 1 – focusing on the three strategies – and then takes off.  Competitive advantage, Porter says, comes from understanding the ‘value chain’.  This is the full set of activities that company undertakes, to create value.  It is illustrated below.

Porter's Value Chain

Competitive advantage is about understanding the Five Forces model and the sources of cost advantage and product differentiation in terms of these nine activities.

The Far End of the Value Chain

The five primary activities form a chain of value-adding processes, supported by the four secondary processes that provide the necessary resources to make the value chain work.  Each can be a source of competitive advantage, most obviously through cost differentiation.

I want to focus on Marketing & Sales, and Service.  My argument is that a company can differentiate its product – to give it competitive advantage, through these two, without focusing on a niche, delivering a substantively different product, and with no cost leadership.

Marketing, Sales and Service are about Myth-making

Hello Kitty is a trademark of SanrioIf you can create a compelling narrative about your product, people will want it, to associate themselves with the myth you have created around your brand.  My daughter loves ‘Hello Kitty’ – I don’t know why.  As far as I can tell, the Hello Kitty brand started life as nothing more than a motif, appearing on a range of products.  Now, not just children, but adults too, want goods just because they have the face of a little white cat (with no mouth) on them.

The products are no better, no different (unless you include the motif) and certainly no different functionally, and definitely no cheaper.  There is little niche focus beyond, as far as I can tell, females.  Hello Kitty thrives in most cultures and at many age groups from 2 to forty, at least.

I think the source of Sanrio’s competitive advantage is nothing more than marketing.

Would I fall for such a ruse?

Of course not.  Unlike some grown ups, I would never have Hello Kitty nor any other character on my iPhone case…

‘Hold on Mike, did you say iPhone?’

iPhone certainly has no cost advantage and it now has many competing products that offer the same functionality.  And as a niche, iPhone users are pretty hard to define: old and young, across social and cultural spectra…

So how does marketing create competitive advantage?

It seems implausible that three sources of competitive advantage could be all there is.  Yet I have come to the conclusion that I haven’t yet found an exception.  Despite arguing that marketing is that exception, let me explain.

What does marketing do that creates such loyal followings for Hello Kitty and iPhone (and, indeed, for both – I saw someone with a Hello Kitty iPhone cover, which was the nudge for writing this blog)?

I think the great marketing that Sanrio and Apple create, builds a loyal following for their products.  Many people will identify themselves as iPhone users – in a way that others would not identify themselves as Wildfire or Galaxy users.  What great companies can do is use marketing and service to create a ‘tribe’ of people who are loyal to their brand – or to a part of their brand.

What this relatively new form of marketing is doing is building a niche focus that is defined by the products and services of the company.

So, Porter was right after all.  Now we need to look at this concept of ‘tribes’.  More next week.

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