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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:

 

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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.

In our Management Thinkers series, you may like Taiichi Ohno: Lean Production.

From the Management Pocketbooks series:

  1. Improving Efficiency Pocketbook
  2. Improving Profitability Pocketbook
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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

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