Tag Archives: Value Chain

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:

 

Alan Sugar: Street Smart

While not quite the classic ‘rags to riches’ story, Alan Sugar is a genuine example of the trope of a smart, hard working street trader, who makes it to the big time. And what a big time it is. The Sunday Times Rich List rates him as a Sterling billionaire. It’s easy to feel we know Alan Sugar, through his successful appearances on the UK version of The Apprentice. I suspect that what we see on screen, however, is a character: part Alan Sugar, and part the creation of the shows directors, producers and editors.

Alan Sugar

Short Biography

Alan Michael Sugar was born in 1947 and grew up in Hackney, in East London. His father worked in the East End garment industry, as did my grandmother. After leaving school at 16, Sugar spent a short time in the Civil Service, before investing £50 of his savings in a van and some electrical goods to sell from it.

Sugar was an adept street trader and gradually moved up the value chain to wholesaling and import, founding his first company, Amstrad (AMS Trading), in 1968. But Sugar realised he would only find the big profit in manufacturing. The business he understood best was consumer electronics, so Amstrad’s first manufacturing venture was record turntables. This was the first of many examples of Sugar finding ways to reduce manufacturing costs substantially, so he could out-compete rivals on price.

The 1980s were great years for Sugar and Amstrad, starting in 1980 with its flotation on the London Stock Exchange. The company grew rapidly and launched its first computer in 1984. Although outcompeted by Apple, Commodore and the BBC Micro, it did sell well domestically, as did the following year’s business-oriented word processor. The 1980s ended with the launch of Amstrad’s first satellite TV receiver dish – a line that was to be extremely profitable, with the growth of satellite broadcasting by Sky, BSB, and later, the merged BSkyB. The 1990s were more troubling for Amstrad, which suffered a number of commercial setbacks.

I cannot help wondering if Sugar ‘took his eye off the ball’ in the 1990s, because this was the time too, that he bought and chaired the Premier League football Club Tottenham Hotspur (1991-2001). He later described this period as a waste of his life, and it was certainly a fractious time at the club.

In 2007, Sugar cleared house, selling off Amstrad to business partners BSkyB and his final stake in Tottenham Hotspur.

In 2000, Sugar was knighted “for services to the Home Computer and Electronics Industry” and became Sir Alan Sugar, and then in 2009, was enobled as Baron Sugar of Clapton, to take up a place in Gordon Brown’s Labour Government, sitting in the House of Lords. In 2015, Sugar resigned the Labour Whip, saying that the party’s policies had drifted too far in a direction away from the needs of British business.

Amstrad is also a serious philanthropist, donating substantial funds and time to care and arts organisations. He has written four books too, of which the most important and best selling is his autobiography, What You See Is What You Get. And, of course, he is best known in the UK for his appearance in every series of BBC TV’s The Apprentice.

Business Lessons from Lord Sugar

Much has been written on this – including by me, in a series of blogs drawing lessons from episodes of The Apprentice over a number of years. So let’s keep it simple. Here are five important lessons for managers and business people to bear in mind.

Lesson 1: Character is Destiny

Whether you like or loathe the image he portrays in public, Sugar cleaves firmly to his own principles and business values. If I had to assess ‘the real Alan Sugar’ – and bear in mind, I have no privileged knowledge here – I would speculate that he is someone who has deep respect for people who can demonstrate their capabilities and expertise at the highest level, and has no time for people who have little ability. Anyone who tries to make up for their shortcomings through ingratiation or deception will incur his wrath.

I suspect trusting his closest allies and advisors profoundly has been important in building his success, but his blunt, no nonsense, and occasionally abrasive style has created detractors. His management style has been criticised, as has his attitude to women at work.

Lesson 2: Spot the Next Big Thing… then move quickly

Computers, word processors, TV satellite dishes, email, PDAs, satellite TV receivers… Sugar was in on the ground floor of all of these. At each stage, he used the knowledge and skills gained in earlier ventures to move quickly and seize market share. He also has a strong insight into customer desires and behaviours, which is critical in commercial decision-making. Not all his ventures have been hugely successful, but in business, it is the cumulative success that matters. Indeed, not all his customer predictions have been sound either: he famously predicted the demise of the iPod within a year. Whoops.

Lesson 3: Out-compete ruthlessly

Sugar’s primary competitive strategy is to out-compete on price. Take early stage technology that has started to stabilise, and find a way to manufacture and ship it at vastly reduced costs. The Amstrad computer was reportedly designed on an airline napkin, on a flight from Japan (where he’d seen early computers on sale) and Hong Kong, where he had business contacts that could help with manufacturing.

Lesson 4: Roll with the Punches

Sugar is a great example of business resilience. Not every venture was a success and he has had difficult times in his commercial life. Maybe a stable family life (40+ years of marriage) helped, but I suspect his personal resilience is also down to his character. Expect set backs, take them on the chin, learn from them, and come back fighting.

Lesson 5: Learn how to Negotiate well

I don’t know what Lord Sugar’s negotiating secrets would be – or even if they are anything more than consistent and ruthless application of sound basic principles. But it is certain that he is able to secure every last ounce out of a deal and is scathing of people who ‘leave money on the table’ in a negotiation.

For more on Negotiation, see:

Eiji Toyoda: Yes we can

Eiji was not a management theorist and neither did he found a business. His genius lies in his absolute determination to take on a huge challenge and do difficult things… and he did it twice.

Eiji Toyoda

Brief Biography

Eiji Toyoda was born in 1913 and grew up near Japan’s third city, Nagoya. There, his father had a textile mill, so Toyoda grew up surrounded by the potent combination of engineering and business that was to define his life. He studied engineering at Tokyo Imperial University and, upon graduating in 1936, he joined his cousin’s Toyoda Automatic Loom Works business, where they set up an automobile works and soon changed the name to Toyota.

Toyoda took on a number of roles in setting up research and production planning, but the steady growth of the business was interrupted in 1941, when Japan entered the war. The General Motors car parts they needed were no longer available, and besides; the country now needed trucks. So Toyota became a truck manufacturer. In the early years after the war, trading was tough and Toyoda was heavily involved in the inevitable lay-offs. But he also decided to diversify the company’s future by establishing Toyota Motor Sales.

But there was still precious little to sell. In 1950, Toyoda visited a Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan. In the time since Toyota had produced their first car in 1936, they had built around 2,500. What Toyoda saw was a plant producing 8,000 every day. He saw immediately that this was the future and determined to revolutionise Toyota’s manufacturing.

Toyoda – like many of his Japanese contemporaries – was often described as under-stated, or taciturn. This was characterised by his outward response to his experience in Michigan. He wrote back to Toyota headquarters that he ‘thought there were some possibilities to improve the production system.’ He brought a manual of Ford’s quality-control methods, which he had translated into Japanese, changing all references to Ford to ‘Toyota’.

This was the start of his first big challenge.

In 1955, Toyoda led the introduction of Toyota’s first mass production car, the Crown. It was a huge success in Japan, but in serving the Japanese market, it was poorly suited to the US Market, where it failed to gain a foothold. That came in 1960, when Toyota launched two new models, the Corona and the Corolla. Both sold massively in the US and, by  1975, Toyota overtook Volkswagen as the largest car importer into the US.

By then, Toyoda had been appointed president of Toyota, serving for longer than anyone to date, from 1967 to 1981, when he stepped into the newly created role of Chairman. It was as Chairman that he really took on and equalled the US, forming a joint venture with General Motors in 1984 to manufacture Toyota cars in the US.

But it was a year earlier, in 1983, that he kicked off his second big challenge: to create a luxury car to challenge the best.

This was to become the Lexus, which later grew into a new brand, to create a clear marketing distinction between the mass-market Toyota cars and the elite Lexus vehicles. His success was complete. Lexus regularly competes with prestige German marques Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

In 1984, Toyoda resigned from the Chairmanship although he continued to go into the office (where all three of his sons are executives) into his nineties. He died, shortly after his 100th birthday, in 2013.

Challenge 1: Become a World Class Manufacturer, to rival the US ‘Big Three’ auto manufacturers

Toyoda set out to take US mass-production ideas and fine tune them to the point where he could out-compete the US auto giants. He worked with a veteran loom engineer, Taiichi Ohno (who deserves, and will doubtless get, his own Pocketblog one day). They created together the ‘Toyota Production System (TPS)’ which is now more generically known as ‘Lean Production’. It rested on three core tenets:

  1. Just in time (JIT) production
    Ohno extended the concept of quality to reduction of waste and asked ‘why stockpile components?’. The result was a revolution
  2. Value Stream – also known as Value Chain
    To make JIT work, you need to see the production process as a part of a longer stream of activities from procurement to production to delivery. Customer demand drives ordering.
  3. Kaizen and Responsibility
    TPS makes everyone responsible for quality. While Toyota did not invent continuous improvement, or Kaizen, it is only when everyone takes responsibility for quality that it can really work.

Challenge 2: Create a World Class Luxury Brand, to rival established German auto manufacturers

From a top secret meeting to a world class luxury marque, Toyoda created a new brand from nothing but determination and around $2 billion of investment. Well, you can do a lot with $2 billion (I think – I’d love to try). But who, in 1983, would have thought that a Japanese car maker would out-engineer the German luxury brands? To do this, Toyoda’s engineers had an eye for detail that today reminds me of Apple. They tested the Lexus on Japanese roads, but knew that Japan would not be their primary market if they were to succeed. So they built new roads in Japan, mimicking roads in the US, UK, and Germany, and tested the Lexus on these. In the process of building the first Lexus, Toyota innovated and experimented like never before.

And what did Toyota get for their 200 patents and 450 prototypes? The Lexus LS400 and the start of a whole new world class business.

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