The experience curve and growth-share matrix rapidly became popular because they worked powerfully well — at first. But in practice, these tools had a serious flaw: As retroactive analyses of a company’s past success, they made it irresistible to continue that same behavior into the future, even when circumstances changed (for example, when competitors began to apply the same approach). This led many companies into counterproductive strategies. Some, including Texas Instruments, got caught up in ruthless price wars that contributed to the commoditization of their own products.
More generally, many business leaders became disenchanted with the idea of formal strategic planning. It was expensive, and it didn’t necessarily make companies profitable. For example, Ford and General Motors experienced losses of more than US$500 million in 1979 and 1980 — their first such losses in decades. In the aftermath of these and other sharp reversals, mainstream business leaders began to question the wisdom of the position school, and its claim on the right to win.
Execution Strikes Back
Those most annoyed by the position school tended to be in production and operations. No wonder, then, that the first great contrary reaction came from operations; specifically, from the Harvard Business School’s (HBS) operations management department, which had been gradually losing status to finance. Two members of the faculty found themselves in Vevey, Switzerland, during the summer of 1979: William Abernathy, the HBS expert on auto manufacturing, and Robert Hayes, known for his studies of assembly lines. Researching the differences between European and U.S. multinationals, Hayes visited a small machine tool manufacturer in southern Germany. Sophisticated Americans barely understood computer-aided manufacturing software, but this firm of 40 people was using it on a daily basis, and producing custom-made tools. Other plants in Germany, Switzerland, France, and even eastern Europe were using machine tools in ways that the Americans couldn’t match.
At a seminar that summer, a European businessman asked Hayes why American productivity had declined so much during the past 10 years. Hayes hauled out the standard answers: organized labor, government regulations, the oil crisis, and the attitudes of the younger generation (which, at the time, meant the baby boomers). The attendees looked at him with polite amusement. “We have all those factors here,” one said, “and our productivity is increasing.”
Confused and shaken, Hayes began taking regular hikes and having long conversations with Abernathy, who had just arrived in Vevey and saw similar stagnation in the U.S. auto industry. Only one explanation made sense to them: The reliance on market share and financial growth as strategic objectives was crippling U.S. industry. For example, many companies had cut back any initiative that didn’t seem to guarantee rapid returns, and the entire U.S. economy was suffering as a result.
Abernathy and Hayes wrote up this conclusion in an article for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) called “Managing Our Way to Economic Decline,” published in July/August 1980. It is still one of the magazine’s most requested reprints, and one of the most controversial articles in its history. They had introduced another school of strategic thought, based on the idea that the right to win came from execution and operational excellence: the development and deployment of better practices, processes, technologies, and products.
The execution message was bolstered by companies such as General Electric and Motorola, which provided influential examples of operations-oriented strategies with their reliance on executive training and such practices as Six Sigma.
Operational excellence was also a basic tenet of the quality movement — the continuous improvement practices that were developed at the Toyota Motor Corporation and a few other Japanese companies in the 1950s and ’60s and are now generally known as lean management. Of the many people associated with the quality movement, including Toyota’s influential chief scientist Taiichi Ohno, the most significant for corporate strategy was W. Edwards Deming. Deming was an American statistician born in 1900. He began consulting regularly in Japan just after World War II, helping Japanese companies develop their production systems. Ignored in the West at first, he became prominent in the United States after 1980, and actively taught and consulted with many of the world’s leading companies until his death in 1993. Deming saw his methods as critical for escaping economic malaise (his most prominent book was titled Out of the Crisis [MIT Press, 1986]). In his view, the right to win was held by companies that honed and refined their day-to-day processes and practices, eliminating waste, training people throughout the company to use statistical methods, and cultivating the intrinsic “joy in work” that people feel when they are truly engaged in their jobs.