To hell with your competitors, compete against perfection

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 05-10-12


This is a quote from the book Lean Thinking by Jim Womack and Daniel Jones, and I think one of the most useful phrases brought out from this book. What does it mean?

So many companies spend considerable amount of time focusing on their competitors: what are they doing? What’s their next product? What’s their pricing? Which markets are they going after?

If you take this line of thought far enough, you are not looking for competitiveness. You are looking to find whatever niche is leftover after everyone else has made their moves for you to still make a bit of money. That’s no way to win.

Instead, focus on perfection. Focus on new ways to deliver value to customer, or new customers to deliver value to. When you do that, you end up creating new markets and forcing your competition to follow you.

We (the Lean Learning Center) get asked all the time to compare ourselves against our competition. It’s quite difficult, because that’s never been our focus. We don’t know what they’re doing. We haven’t hired people from them. In fact, everyone on our team has never done consulting before they were with us, they’ve only been applying lean as leaders inside companies. What does this gain us? We have many unique offerings that are unlike anything found in our field. Our Lean Learning Laboratory, our Lean Experience, some of our simulations, our Single Point Lessons – these are very unique offerings and products. I’m not arguing whether they are better or not – that’s a matter of opinion. But what’s fact is that they are unique.

Our focus has always been on helping clients solve their most difficult problems on a lean journey. That has lead to these unique solutions. And sometimes, because of this, when our solution fits someone’s needs exactly, we have no competition.

I believe Womack and Jones got this premise right. Focus, as a concept, is the point that you can only pay attention to so many things at once. All the time you spend looking at, analyzing, and copying your competitors is time and energy that you could have used to focus on pursuing perfection.

Reflection question: How do you or your company view your competition? How does it affect your decisions and actions?


  • I could not agree with you more, Jamie. I see countless hours spent on Benchmarking, SWOT analysis, etc. Concentrate on what you do well and if you want to do analysis look towards your customers for reflection not at your competitors.

    Joe Dager May 10, 2012 at 10:04 am
  • While I’m not a fan of spending large amounts of money to benchmark the competition, I think it’s important to keep an eye on your competitors and what they’re doing. Blindly copying a competitor’s innovation is the wrong strategy, but looking at a competitor’s innovations may lead a company to think in new ways and provide the catalyst to developing their own in-house innovations. And don’t just limit yourself to your own industry…what are some of the unique innovations and concepts used in other industries that could have application to your business?

    JM May 10, 2012 at 11:14 am
  • Makes complete sense, although I think it’s sometimes beneficial to glance around at the competition to see if anything can be learned. Not in a cut and paste mode, though. I’m a big believer in eclectic learning and customized application, especially with lean.

    If anyone is interested, there is a book called Tribal Leadership by Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright that emphasizes just the point you made, Jamie. It’s kind of a social/psychological take on organizational development. They describe organizations that reach level 5 (the top level) as those that are no longer concerned with competition. They pursue perfection on their own without looking over their shoulders. An intresting read, for me anyway.

    Mark Welch May 10, 2012 at 11:15 am
  • I couldn’t agree more. If you focus on your customers then there is no need to focus on your competitors. I think those that do are struggling to figure out what their customers want. That only leads to being second best in your customers eyes. Keep you eye on the prize. Customer Focus before Competitor Focus.

    Tim McMahon May 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm