Working Wider

Lean Competitive Strategy: Winning by Doing Less
…at Trader Joe’s, Southwest, Flip Video, BMW & Apple

alessiGlobalization intensifies competition.  It can seem like every day some competitor is offering a new feature or product that you don’t have.  The natural tendency is to fight back by adding what’s missing to your product or service.  What sets the above companies apart is they win by offering less.

Don’t go into Trader Joe’s if you want to choose between eight brands of anything because they’ll only have their own label and at best two other alternatives.  Don’t fly Southwest if you want them to transfer your bags in Denver to a connecting flight on United because Southwest doesn’t transfer bags.  Don’t buy a Flip Video camera if you want to adjust the lens for a particularly lighting situation because there is no adjustment.  You get the point.

Just as writing a one page essay is much tougher than five, these firms excel at defining and sticking to the “sweet spot” in their target markets.  They will move as the sweet spot shifts but they won’t try to enlarge it.

Increased competition expands the range of buyers’ choices but that’s not always good.  What started out as a reasonably clean value proposition can quickly become cluttered and confusing.  Customers buy products and services as a means to some goal whereas for the company providing them, they are the goal.  FedEx receives and delivers packages.  For the customer, it’s what’s in the package and what they’ll do with it that matters.

Having more choice is overkill when you know what you want.  Look at the success of smartphone applications.  Special purpose apps that find the nearest Starbucks or the gate for your next flight are much quicker than searching on Google.  Like a good literary editor, apps speed you from answers to action by limiting choice.

More choices also increase execution complexity.  Offering an option means designing, testing, stocking, marketing and servicing that option.  While having it might capture an additional customer, the cost of serving all customers increases.   Invariably the so-called 80-20 rule comes into play where 20 percent of your products and services provide 80% of your profits.

That said, a lean strategy is not always be the right answer.  Industrial distributors such as Grainger live and breathe by carrying a broad range of products.  To win at “less is more”, leaders have to blend a rich understanding of customer experience requirements with tasteful execution.

Several, including myself, have described what it takes to understand customer experience.  While by no means easy, the path is well-defined.  What is far less defined are the leadership attributes required to bring a lean strategy to life.

The three keys are courage, confidence and commitment.


It doesn’t take courage to add features and options that others have successfully introduced.  Adding more options just shifts the configuration burden onto the customer.  The problem is that as choices expand, customers’ knowledge to make the right choice declines.  Rather than delivering more value, the confusion offers less.

Flip Video became a splash hit because the number of options in camcorders had grown to the point that it was hard to shoot and edit a simple video.  I’m willing to bet that Panasonic, Sony and others had ongoing discussions about doing a “simple” camcorder but none of them either entertained or ultimately pulled the trigger on a camera that is as simple as the Flip.  Making choices to exclude, before anyone else, takes courage.


Customer satisfaction occurs when customer experience hits or exceeds expectations. Customer expectations are set through consistent messaging backed up by coherent design.  Essential to coherent design is a consistent sense of style that highlights the importance of your choice and differentiates your offering.

Regardless of vehicle class, BMW designs their cars to deliver the ultimate driver experience.  From SUV to sports car, BMW engineers elevate the driving experience over styling, safety or service.  That’s not to say these aren’t important but the “less is more” for BMW depends on driver experience.  Every commercial reflects this so that BMW customers know what to expect.


Executing a lean strategy requires a deep commitment that’s influences every work process and decision made throughout the company.  Southwest Airlines thrives on low fares and high reliability.  To achieve this, Southwest only flies point-to-point using exclusively Boeing 737 planes. Using the same planes minimizes training time, parts inventory and equipment shortages.  By boarding in groups rather than specific seat assignments simplifies boarding, reservation systems and check-in time.

Thinking Lean:  Use an Editors Mindset

For writers, editors are the police of lean.  What joins an author and editor is their mutual concern for the reader, i.e. the customer of their efforts.  It’s a tense relationship for the editor is the first person that touches a writer’s “baby”.   The skills of a good literary editor also apply to building a lean business strategy because editors:

  1. Waste no time getting to the heart of the matter
  2. Make choices that speed readers from knowledge to action quickly
  3. Accentuate style that enriches the readers’ experience
  4. Simplify to drive deeper understanding of intent and facts
  5. Make the editing experience for the writer an integral part of the work process
  6. Wear the readers’ shoes and force authors to slip into them

Consider taking an editors pen to your business strategy.  Go beyond product and service features and ask yourself if you know the experience you’re trying to create for your customers.  Put yourself in their shoes and define what’s truly critical versus nice to have.  Then add style and taste that has it stand out for its elegance rather than completeness.

We all know the power of simple, elegant solutions when we see them.  They’re so manifestly powerful yet simple that we underestimate the courage, consistency and commitment that gives them life.

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