In most strategic management textbooks 4 generic factors are identified that can be used to build competitive advantage: efficiency, quality, innovation and customer responsiveness. These four factors are highly interrelated, as an improvement in customer responsiveness for instance could result in improved quality and better efficiencies. By addressing these four factors a business can reduce its costs and can create a differentiated position in a market. Let me briefly expand on the four factors.
- Superior efficiency: a manufacturer converts inputs into outputs. Inputs are basic elements such as land, capital, labor,raw materials or knowledge. Firms that manage this conversion by constantly trying to find better ways to reduce costs, improve throughput and reduce wastage tend to be able to be more price competitive.
- Superior quality: means that products are reliable and that they can do the job that they were designed for, meeting the specifications and performance requirements of customers. In most cases it is difficult to ensure consistent and reliable products without a system in place to control quality
- Superior innovation: This is about the novelty of the products, process or services of the firm. It is not just about the great design of the product, but about the total offering and how customers can interact with the firm. Thus it includes how the company thinks about its own structures, internal systems, relations with markets and customers, use of technology and product development.
- Superior responsiveness to customers: A firm that is highly responsive to its customer not only meets their requirements, it strives to anticipate and exceed those requirements. Although this could be about flexibility to respond to customers demand, in most cases it is not. It could simply be to find a way to respond the needs of customers in a creative way.
Enough of the strategy lesson. Back to the real world where we are all trying to use our own limited resources to promote particular industries or regions.
Here are the questions that keeps me awake about this project:
What if the industry that I am working with do not seem very eager to develop any real advantage around any of these four factors?
What must I do to improve the competitiveness of the region if the firms do not seem to even care about their own competitiveness?
For the last few weeks I have been wondering about these questions as I visit a range of manufacturers as part of a process to stimulate a regional innovation system in an industrial area. By visiting many firms in this region I noticed a big gap between those that are are differentiated or excellent and the rest. The gap is so big that I sometimes wonder if it ever would be possible to move or support firms to cross over the empty space between those that can be described as “excellent” versus the “average”. Knowing that I only have a limited time, and the organization that I am supporting (An University) only has limited resources, I started worrying about helping all the firms. But this is not possible nor is it desirable.
All the average firms can offer many arguments for their current state. They lay the blame at policy uncertainty, high costs of borrowing, crime, political interference, expensive employees, low skills and many more. Many would say that they are component manufacturers that depend on the strategies and innovations of their customers (we just make what they want how they want it). Very few firms ever acknowledge that their current state is a reflection of past strategic choices taken deliberately or that played out to the current status because of not making decisions.
Yet, almost each of the excellent firms that we come across in our fieldwork focused on getting some basic principles. Many started monitoring their costs and wastage to try and improve their efficiencies. They focused on equipping their staff to understand the business, the products and the process, resulting in lower failures and higher quality. They spoke to their customers to find out how they can offer better services and products, even when they were just manufacturers of components used in someone else product. They focused on the quality of their products by looking at the quality of their process, their equipment, their systems and their management.
Those that are excellent are not necessarily better educated, better off financially, or better engineers. They just took charge despite being in the same economy, the same reason and even the same sector, with all the same environmental factors that the average firms use as a reason to do nothing. Sometimes the firms that are now excellent where started by disgruntled employees quitting the average firms. Or in other cases, the excellent firms were started by people from outside the sector moving in with a different perspective and approach.
What bothers me is the way the public sector responds to the manufacturing sector with their funding, support interventions and incentives. The strange thing is that most public sector interventions are aimed at the average or below average performers. It is almost as if the logic is that they are weaker and therefore they need protection and special care. Well, if economics is the study of how humans allocate scarce resources, then we should be very worried about directing too much of our scarce resources to firms that cannot use the resources the society endow them with (capital, labour, land and knowledge). Of course there are exceptions, but the problem is finding a fair way of deciding when it is justified to protect a firm and when it is best to let a struggling firm fold in so that the resources can be redeployed to other people that are able to use these same resources in a better way.
So what can we do when we are faced with this situation? Here are some of the ideas that we are working on now.
Lets say, of the 50 manufacturers we want to work with, 5 stand out as trying harder than the others. Perhaps another 5 or so are ambitious but they just don’t seem to know where to start, who to work with or where to go. We argued that we start with the first 5 (already good) and the 2nd five (the almost there). Then we invited any of the willing from the rest of the group (3 more stepped to the front). Now we have a core group to work with. Now we are trying to find ways to better connect them with each other, trying to get them to identify their own and their common competencies and opportunities. We have arranged a few pilots to support some of these firms to try and improve their own performance, and we have arranged some events with experts to discuss common issues.
But we have to remind ourselves that we cannot create competitive firms if they do not at least work on the four generic advantages outlined earlier. We cannot improve the competitiveness of the region without being able to show firms that are excellent. Trying to get these generic factors under their control is a minimum requirement. We should never use public resources to support firms that are not serious about improving their overall performance. Furthermore, everything that we do should become public knowledge in this industry and perhaps in the downstream customers, perhaps one of the other firms or even a customer decides to step up and form part of our initiative.
- Have you also had an experience like this? The firms you are expected to work with just don’t seem bothered by their current status or improving their game?
- Hey, what else should I do?
- How do we use the principles of innovation systems and good development practice to get firms in a region to work together to improve their competitive performance in order to improve the economics of the region?