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What It Takes to Stay Ahead of the Competition

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

 

Bottom Line: For companies, sustaining a consistently high level of performance requires unique capabilities that may differ sharply from the strategies they used to succeed in the first place.

Leading firms set themselves apart by achieving a high level of performance and meeting or exceeding consumers’ expectations relative to the competition. It’s usually an arduous, years-long process. But sustaining that level of performance is a completely different challenge — one that few companies can overcome in the modern business landscape.

There’s plenty of substantive advice available on how to attain high-quality performance in the first place. Researchers have variously touted the ability of firms to create barriers to entry for competitors, for example, or to draw (pdf) on unique capabilities to differentiate themselves. But rivals learn quickly, once-novel strategies can eventually be duplicated, mistakes can be made, and complacency can set in. What it takes to sustain top-quality performance, therefore, is also deserving of study — but it has received comparatively little attention from researchers. Indeed, most analysts have implicitly assumed that the capabilities required to attain high-quality performance are the same as those needed to sustain it.

A new study aims to shed light on the issue by analyzing which capabilities enable companies to sustain a consistent and high level of performance. It should be noted that for the study, the quality level and consistency of performance are two distinct concepts. Whereas a firm with a high quality level outshines its competitors in the short term, consistency involves maintaining that high level with minimal variance for a five-year period.

The authors analyzed data on 147 business units within large companies in the manufacturing sector that were based in either the U.S. or Taiwan. The reason to zero in on U.S. firms is obvious: They tend to set the tone for the global economy. The researchers chose to study Taiwanese firms as well in order to consider the differences between Eastern and Western cultures in their management approaches and assess any impact on performance. (In the final analysis, no significant differences between them appeared.) Taiwan also has a well-established reputation for advanced manufacturing.

To assemble a sample, the authors reached out to executives whose companies had won awards or earned acknowledgment from associations dedicated to recognizing high-performing businesses. The authors conducted surveys with quality or operations managers at the firms, who could speak to the specific strategies employed, and with general managers, who could field questions about the firm’s overall performance and the nuances of its business environment. For a subset of companies, the authors also obtained financial-performance data from the business unit’s accountant as well as internal audits that gauged the quality of its products and services.

After controlling for firm size, competitive intensity (pdf) of a given industry, and level of uncertainty faced — in the form of rapid technological developments or changing market conditions — the authors found that four particular capabilities emerged as integral to sustaining high-quality performance:

Improvement. This capability was defined as a firm’s ability to make incremental product or service upgrades, or to reduce production costs.

Innovation. Defined as how strong a company was at developing new products and entering new markets.

Sensing of weak signals. Defined as how well a company can focus on potential banana peels in order to improve overall performance, including analyzing mistakes, actively searching out production anomalies, and being aware of potential problems in the surrounding business environment.

Responsiveness. Defined as a business’s ability to solve problems that crop up unexpectedly and to use specialized expertise to counter those complications.

The authors found that certain capabilities emerged as integral to sustaining high-quality performance.

But these capabilities influenced different aspects of sustaining high performance, the authors found. For example, innovation capabilities primarily help firms maintain a certain level of quality, whereas the capacity for improvement affects mostly the consistency component. That’s probably because innovations are typically unique events that meet customers’ immediate needs and establish a certain level of quality, whereas incremental improvements are geared toward ensuring the long-term reliability of products and services, which translates into consistency.

Meanwhile, a firm’s capability for responsiveness had no significant effect on consistency, but had a decided positive impact on its level of quality — presumably because responding to quality-related problems quickly and efficiently is also a way of exceeding customers’ expectations in a one-off way.

Sensing of weak signals had a strong positive effect on consistency, but a moderately negative impact on the level of quality. This suggests a potential trade-off, the authors note, because maintaining both a high quality level and consistency is essential to sustaining performance. The authors speculate that a focus on sensing weak signals mandates that firms spend a lot of time collecting data and analyzing the occasional blip, which could cause them to get mired in minutiae and distract them from the more important tasks associated with sustaining a high level of performance. Although the benefits may pay off over time, a concentration on preventing failures rather than seeking out successes could also lead firms to take a short-term view and be overly conservative, too concerned with simply surviving, and to thus shy away from taking chances.

Intriguingly, the capabilities that increase consistency (improvement and sensing of weaknesses) are unaffected by the level of competitive intensity or uncertainty surrounding a firm, whereas those that affect the level of performance (innovation and responsiveness) depend heavily on the external context, the authors found. Presumably, the value of innovation and responsiveness is higher in the face of unanticipated external shocks, whereas improvement and sensitivity to failure are capabilities that are more internally oriented. As a result, firms may need to invest in certain capabilities more than others, depending on their business environment.

Source:An Empirical Investigation in Sustaining High-Quality Performance,” by Hung-Chung Su (University of Michigan–Dearborn) and Kevin Linderman (University of Minnesota), Decision Sciences, Oct. 2016, vol. 47, no. 5

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What It Takes to Stay Ahead of the Competition