The Competitive Edge

What’s your competitive edge? What makes you or your business the “one” to beat?

If you’re like most businesses, you probably say that you’re good at what you do or that you’re better than anyone else in your craft. That’s all well and good, but why should clients care?

Here’s the thing:  Clients don’t actually care about you or your business. They only care about themselves and what you or your business can do for them. This makes sense, since clients want as much value as they can get, but they don’t typically care where they get it.  

What can you or your organization do to position yourselves to be the best? Here are four considerations: 

  1. Cost. Reducing operating costs will provide you with a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Relentlessly pursue the removal of all waste in your organization to reduce operating costs. Look at the entire cost structure of your organization for all potential cost-reduction areas. And don’t forget to pursue Lean production in all you do.
  2. Speed. Make sure you are able to deliver on your promises quickly and by no later than promised due dates. You can improve speed of delivery by improving your organization’s communications capabilities (think:  Technology) and using equipment that is reliable and right for the job. Ensure you have knowledgeable workers to assist with your projects. Also, use just-in-time production to reduce inventories and reduce risk.
  3. Quality. While some companies employ quality as a reaction to the marketplace, to compete on quality means that you and your organization use it to please the customer and not just a way to avoid problems. Since quality is different for each customer, you and your organization need to understand your customers’ needs, wants and requirements, so that you can translate them into exact specifications for the customers’ desired goods and services.
  4. Flexibility. Competing on flexibility means that your organization is able to adjust to changes in the marketplace relating to its product mix, volume or design. This means being able to produce a variety of goods or services within the same facility to meet customized requests. Multi-skilled workers and excess capacity in the business can help an organization compete on flexibility. 

Most organizations should start positioning themselves in the market by focusing first on quality. Once quality is perfected, then focus on speed of delivery, then cost-cutting in operations and, finally on flexibility. 

If your organization is not as competitive as you believe it should be, improving on all of the above competitive advantages may be in order. You will find that as you become more competitive, you will reach a point where a trade-off will be required between being better in one or another area. This will ultimately set you apart from your competition.

The Productivity Mindset

When I first visited Croatia in the 1970s, I was struck by the negative attitudes of retail workers and their reluctance to provide assistance to customers. I remember entering one shop where I felt I wasn’t allowed to touch the merchandise, let alone ask for assistance. I quickly exited.

Years later, I am reflecting on this earlier experience and comparing it to my recent visits. What a difference a government makes! In the 1970s, Croatia was ruled by a communist regime, but today its government is learning and applying democratic principles. The change in worker attitudes is unmistakably positive. This trickle-down effect can be applied at any level, macro or micro, such as at the corporate level; literally anywhere there are leaders and followers.

Imagine working in an environment that does not encourage innovation, is change averse, and does nothing to reward employees for extra effort. If you are an employee in this environment, what is your attitude? It may very well be negative and perhaps, obstructionist. Because you are not given the tools and experiences with which to flourish, your organization’s operations may even be compared to those of a Third World country.

While it is true that we, as individuals, can choose to have a positive or negative attitude, employers have a responsibility to provide an environment that encourages positive attitudes. However, this does not admonish the individual. It is simple to blame our employer for our negative attitudes, but we also need to consider that we do have a choice. We can choose to be positive or negative, no matter what our circumstances.

Some psychological studies suggest that negative attitudes may prevail when one is dissatisfied with one’s lot in life and this leads to resentment of anyone else getting ahead. A resentful person in the workplace may exhibit behaviours such as not getting things done on time, not being helpful to others, not freely offering information that they know can save time, etc. There can also be a general reluctance to behave in a businesslike or professional manner.

What does this negative behaviour contribute? It contributes obstacles to increased productivity, obstacles to higher salaries, obstacles to more jobs, obstacles to advancement, and other work-related concerns. Effectively, growth and development is stifled; not only for the individual, but also for the organization (or the country, as the case may be).

A lesson can be learned from citizens from underdeveloped countries who immigrate to developed nations. These same individuals who held negative and obstructionist attitudes in their homelands hold markedly different attitudes in their new homes. The opportunities provided by governments of developed countries help these individuals acquire positive attitudes (or, perhaps, shed the negativity that they learned in their native land). These citizens work hard to be successful because their positive attitudes propel them to succeed.

If your organization is struggling, start the evaluation at the top of the hierarchy to determine what leaders are doing to help their employees have a positive and productive mindset. Like opportunities in developed countries, positive attitudes and strong work ethics trickle down from the top.

Almighty Surveys

If you’re like most executives (more than 80 percent), you rely on surveys to collect data about and from your customers. And there is a good chance that you use at least three to five data sources (including surveys) to get this information.

Because of their coverage and independence of observations, surveys out rank other methods of data collection. If worded correctly, surveys can deliver precise answers to specific questions and the data can be analyzed and tracked over time. Who doesn’t want to know how their customers behave and how their behavior affects (or will affect) the organization? While the almighty survey is still Number One, it can be very expensive and time consuming, and the responses do not provide the detail needed for action planning and implementation. For this, the organization would need to undergo further information gathering (e.g., focus groups and/ in-depth interviews) and
typically, outsourcing to consultants to build appropriate go-forward plans.

But if you are using surveys, here are some things to consider to maximize value from the responses (source: Joel Pecoraro, Business Management Services):

  1. Provide an incentive. One company included a letter with the survey stating that any person who completed the survey will have a $25 contribution sent to the “Children’s Make a Wish” fund in their name. Their response rate was close to 90 percent and a tremendous amount of goodwill was generated.
  2. Think: What’s in it for them? Don’t waste participants’ time with unnecessary questions. Keep them in mind and ask “what do they care about?” More companies are moving to a market research-driven survey in which customers’
    future expectations and needs are more fully explored rather than past performance. Participants will be more apt to participate if they feel they have some impact on the direction of an organization’s products or services.
  3. Tailor the questions to the specific department or manager receiving the survey. If you want to improve response rates, develop specific surveys. Don’t ask the purchasing department about the quality of your products or the quality department about your delivery performance.
  4. Include a short, personalized introduction letter, hand-signed from someone at the organization. While we all love email, a handwritten note is still the acceptable way to thank someone. This brief introductory letter signed by a senior company representative will improve the response rate.
  5. Remember: Less is more. Asking someone to spend 20-30 minutes on the phone or complete a 10-page survey doesn’t work. It’s better to get a large response to a handful of questions than a small response to a large amount of questions. One company sent out a survey with one question: “What could we do better?” They received a 50 percent response rate.

Surveys can’t (or shouldn’t) be used for everything. Depending on what questions you need answered, other methods of data collection may be better. For instance, if your organization is wondering how well its implemented standards and specifications are addressing key customer expectations, observations may be better than surveys. In fact, using quality function deployment (a Lean Six Sigma tool) would deliver the best results in this instance.

Whatever method you choose, remember that surveys, if done right, can give you the right information needed to drive improvement and your bottom line.

Secret to Enabling a Paradigm Shift

Do you have a paradigm? Yes, of course; we all do. Paradigms are what we use as a frame of reference for whatever we do. Paradigms are our boundaries that tell us what to do in order to be successful within those boundaries. Here are some examples of how paradigms can limit success:

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” – Harry M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.” – Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

As you can see, paradigms can be huge inhibitors to success. To enable continuous improvement in our organizations, we need people to shift their paradigms. This can be done by engaging people to work together to see/feel the impact of improvements. Let me show you what I mean.

Let’s say you want your organization to decrease waste. First, put together a team that will lead the change on your behalf. Then invite the team to a Kaizen event and set the stage for the paradigm shift by encouraging people to get to know each other; really get to know each other. By building mutual respect among team members, you are enabling people to shift their paradigms (i.e., those with mutual respect for each other are more open to listening to and accepting new ideas from others).

Another important aspect to enabling paradigm shifts is to engage people to see and feel where improvements are needed. For example, during Kaizen events, people are asked to go out into the workplace to find examples of waste in each of the eight waste categories (defects, overproduction, waiting, non-utilized talent, transportation, inventory, motion, and extra-processing). This exercise alone is an eye-opener for many and their excitement in seeing the wastes firsthand ignites their enthusiasm for  eliminating the wastes. In addition, having groups “see” the wastes by developing value stream maps of the processes solidifies their resolve to improve the situation.

Do you see how we got people to change their paradigm? By teaching about wastes and Lean (in this instance) and allowing people to apply their knowledge by physically searching for each of the eight wastes in their workplace, they experience the waste. Then they look at the wastes in the overall process using value stream maps, all the while interacting and building mutual respect for other team members. There is no better feeling than seeing the shift in thinking from “We’ve always done it this way and it can’t be done differently” to “Wow, look at all the things we can improve to make the process even better.”

With the biggest hurdle now overcome (paradigm shift), all you need to do is maintain the momentum for continuous improvement in your organization.

Getting Started and Sustaining Lean Concepts

Mary explains how an organization can get started eliminating waste in their company. Four steps include conducting a readiness assessment, creating pull/engagement, mobilizing the team, and executing the project. She also emphasizes “WII-FM” and “common sense.” Listen in to hear how you can start getting rid of waste from your organization today.


Ever try to get someone to volunteer to help you out with a project? Or what about getting employees to work collaboratively on a new organization-wide project?

Were you successful in recruiting your volunteers or employees? If you were, then you most likely tuned into their “WII-FM” (“what’s in it for me”) station.

I find that people (and organizations) sometimes take for granted that others will simply jump onboard to assist with a cause or a project just because they are asked to do so. If this were the case, it would certainly make it easier for those of us who ask, but you probably know how difficult this can be.

In order to recruit individuals (paid or unpaid) for anything, it is always easier if you know their WII-FM.

To give you an example, I recently worked on a project with a team of intelligent managers who were assigned to the project by their employer. Initially, the team was excited to be there, but trepidation soon set in. What they thought they were getting by participating in the project was not what they expected.

For one, more work and responsibility was added to their already overburdened schedules and they were being told that they would be taking on a role after the project for which most of them felt unqualified and ultimately afraid of failure. As the project progressed, the team members turned over frequently. Why? Because the original team’s needs were not met – not by a long shot! Their bosses were out of touch with their WII-FM needs.

As a leader in your organization, you know that in order to recruit employees (and volunteers) for projects or events, you need to inspire them and build cohesion among them such that they will want to be on your team. You need to sell the experience, not the product (after all, how exciting is it to work on a records management program? really?).

It’s the experience of working together with a dynamic group of individuals and being given the power to make decisions about the organization’s future that will inspire your employees. That’s what you need to sell! No one will jump at the chance to work on the “records management program,” but most will jump at an opportunity to be involved in decision-making.

One of the best ways that I know how to tune into employees’ WII-FM is for leaders to treat their employees as their peers. When you treat your employees as your peers, using empathy to recognize and understand their point of view, you will inspire your employees to produce great outcomes for your organization.

It’s leaders and employees working shoulder-to-shoulder that make the organization efficient, productive and profitable. If you’re not shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s time to get up from behind the executive desk and walk the shop floor. That’s the best way to hear your employees’ WII-FM station.