Pitfalls in Cost Leadership Strategies

Many firms do not  fully understand  the behavior of their costs from a strategic perspective and fail to exploit opportunities to improve their relative cost position.   Some of  the   most  common  errors  made by firms in assessing and acting upon cost position include:

Exclusive Focus on the Cost o f Manufacturing Activities.    When one mentions “ cost,” most managers instinctively think of m anufactur­ ing. However,   a   significant,   if not  overwhelming,  share   of total cost is generated in activities such as marketing, sales, service, technology development, and infrastructure. These often receive too little attention in cost analysis. An  examination of the entire value chain often results in relatively simple steps that  can  significantly   reduce  cost position. For example, recent advances in computers and computer-aided design are having dram atic impacts on the cost of performing research.

Ignoring Procurement.   M any   firms   work   diligently   to   reduce labor costs but  pay   scant  attention  to   purchased  inputs.   They  tend to view purchasing as a secondary staff function and devote few man­ agement  resources to it.   Analysis   within   the   purchasing  department too often centers solely on the purchase  price of key raw materials. Firms  often allow many  items to be purchased  by individuals with little expertise or motivation  to reduce  cost. Linkages between pur­ chased inputs and the costs of other value activities go unrecognized. Modest changes in purchasing practices could yield m ajor cost benefits for many firms.

Overlooking Indirect or Sm all  Activities. Cost  reduction  pro­ grams usually concentrate on large cost activities an d /o r direct activi­ ties such as component  fabrication  and  assembly. Activities that represent a small fraction of total  cost seldom receive sufficient scru­ tiny. Indirect  activities, such as maintenance  and regulatory  costs, often escape attention altogether.

False Perception o f Cost Drivers.     Firms often misdiagnose their cost drivers. For  example, a firm with   the   largest   national  market share and the lowest costs may incorrectly assume that national market share drives cost.   However,  cost leadership  may  actually stem from the firm’s large regional share in the regions in which   it operates. Failing to understand the sources of its cost advantage  may lead the firm   to attempt  to   lower cost by   raising   national  share.   As a result it may worsen its   cost position   by   reducing  regional focus.   It may also concentrate its defensive strategies on national  competitors  and ignore the more significant threat posed by strong  regional com­ petitors.15

Failure to Exploit Linkages.   Firm s rarely recognize all the link­ ages that affect cost, particularly linkages with suppliers and linkages among activities such as   quality   assurance,  inspection,   and   service. The ability to exploit linkages underlies  the success of many Japanese firms. M atsushita and Canon, among others, recognize and exploit linkages despite the fact that their policies contradict traditional manu­ facturing and purchasing practices. Failure  to recognize linkages also leads to such   errors  as   requiring   each   department  to   cut costs by the same amount, even though raising cost in some departments may lower total costs.

Contradictory   Cost Reduction.   Firms  often   attem pt   to   reduce cost in ways that  are contradictory.  They   try   to   gain market  share to reap the benefits of scale economies while at the same time dissipat­ ing scale   economies   through  model  proliferation.   They   locate   close to buyers to save   freight costs   but  emphasize  weight   reduction  in new product development. Cost drivers sometimes work in opposite directions, and a firm must recognize the tradeoffs.

Unwitting Cross Subsidy. Firm s often engage in unwitting cross subsidy when they fail to recognize the existence of segments in which costs behave differently.16 Conventional accounting  systems rarely measure   all   the   cost   differences   among  products,  buyers,   channels, or geographic areas described above. Thus, a firm may charge excessive prices on some items in the line or to some buyers  while subsidizing prices charged on others. For example, white wine requires less costly cooperage than  red   wine because of  its   lower aging   requirements.  If a winery sets equal prices for white  and  red wine based on average costs, then   the   price of lower-cost white   wine will subsidize the price of red wine. Unwitting cross subsidy often provides an opening for competitors that understand costs and use them to undercut a firm’s prices and improve  their market  position. Cross subsidy also exposes the firm to focused competitors that only compete in the overpriced segments.

Thinking Incrementally. Cost reduction efforts often strive for incremental cost improvements in the existing value chain, rather than finding ways to reconfigure the chain. Incremental  improvement can reach the point  of diminishing  returns,  while reconfiguring the chain can lead to a whole new cost plateau.

Undermining Differentiation. Cost reduction can undermine dif­ ferentiation if it eliminates a firm’s sources of uniqueness to the buyer. Though doing so may be strategically desirable, it should be the result of a conscious choice. Cost reduction  efforts should  concentrate most on activities that do not contribute  to a firm’s differentiation. A cost leader will improve performance, moreover, if it differentiates in activi­ ties wherever differentiation is not costly.

Source: Porter Michael E. (1998), Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance, Free Press; Illustrated edition.

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