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Competitive Advantage and Quality June 11, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, strategy.
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I learned a lot when I got my MBA, and it was well-worth the time and money spent, but when I think about it now there are only a few concepts and themes that have really stuck with me. One is Michael Porter’s writings about the two primary sources of competitive advantage: cost and technology.

If you compete on cost, you’re supposed to be constantly looking for ways to reduce your internal expenses and cost of sales, eliminating waste, and improving productivity and throughput so you can offer customers a market-leading price for your product or service. If you compete on technology, you’re supposed to be constantly innovating, identifying un-met or un-expressed customer needs, and developing and delivering market-leading solutions that meet those needs before your competitors do, which usually allows you to command a price premium. Some companies try to do both at the same time, applying their cost management efforts on operations and market fulfillment, however companies that fail to focus their strategies will fail to compete.

This is pretty simple view of competitive advantage, which is probably part of the reason why it’s so well-known and memorable, but it makes intuitive sense, at least to me. I see examples everywhere. Some retailers and consumer electronics companies aggressively drive out cost in order to be able to offer low prices (Walmart); others use technology to create an experience that encourages customers to pay more (Starbucks, Apple). I believe that Walmart and Apple are equally innovative, the difference is what advantage the innovation is supposed to serve.

Where does quality fit in? Can a company compete on quality, and what does that look like? Attention to quality can support either the cost or technology strategy. The cost benefits of improved quality should be fairly obvious, including reduced expenses due to scrap or rework, internal testing and inspection, and post-sales support and warranty. These costs are not always measured and tracked, but they’re real. The hard part is understanding the relationship between actions that save money today and the risk that those actions will lead to additional cost in the future, such as buying cheap parts that fail in the field.

Quality supports the technology strategy in two possible ways. First, there’s a timeliness issue when you compete on technology; you have to get there before your competitor does. A focus on quality during product development will mean faster time-to-market. It’s important to note that product quality should match customer expectations. It doesn’t have to be perfect; customers can be pretty forgiving when your offering is technically superior, and especially so when the market is still new.

Second, a reputation for high quality (whether deserved or not) enhances the technology strategy and helps sustain a premium market price. We tend to think of technology in terms of advanced features and performance, but quality should be considered one of those dimensions as well.

Companies may not deliberately set out to compete on the basis of quality, but quality should definitely be considered an element of either the cost or technology strategy.

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