It's time to play hardball, and there's no need to apologize for it. So say a pair of Boston Consulting executives who have written a new book on management practices that comes across, to say the least, as provocative.
In business, you either take winning seriously or you don't, say George Stalk Jr. and Rob Lachenauer, the authors of Hardball Strategy: Are You Playing to Play or Playing to Win? If you don't, you'd best get out of the way. "Hardball" players play to win, they say. "Softball" players simply play to play.
Indeed, "play" may be the wrong word where the hardball leagues are concerned. "Hardball players pursue with a single-minded focus competitive advantage and the benefits it offers—leading market share, great margins, rapid growth, and all the intangibles of being in command," Stalk and Lachenauer wrote in an April Harvard Business Review article on the same topic as their book, which is due out this fall. "They pick their shots, seek out competitive encounters, set the pace of innovation, test the edges of the possible. They play to win. And they do."
Who are these hardball players? The authors cite several high-profile examples. One is Dell Inc., which has cut costs mercilessly and distanced itself from rivals through aggressive price competition. Another is Toyota Motor Corp., which started out making ultra-small compact cars for the U.S. market, moved on to larger sedans, and now has set its sights on Detroit's last stronghold, the light truck and sport utility vehicle market. Then there's Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has undercut competitors like Kmart Holding Corp., striking when they are weakest, and squeezed suppliers like Rubbermaid.
Mindful of the need to tread cautiously in a post-Enron and -Tyco business climate, the authors make a point of differentiating between ruthless and dishonest. They explicitly state that playing hardball doesn't equate to being unethical or corrupt. Playing hardball means playing hard, seeking out your competitors' weaknesses and exploiting them. It means working hard every day to siphon business away from your opponents. It means making no bones about the fact that your objective is to win, and if that means crushing your competitors, so be it. But playing hardball does not mean a retreat from honesty and integrity.
In fact, the authors insist, manipulating accounting reports falls squarely into the category of "softball" tactics, which Stalk and Lachenauer clearly disdain. Unlike hardball players, which look to make their own opportunities and clear their own path to success, softball players are always looking for some external remedies, they write. The guys knocking on doors on Capitol Hill pleading for trade sanctions are softball players. So are the ones out looking for reasons to sue their competitors. Hardball companies not only eschew such tactics, they have a name for it. They call it whining!
Is there a place for logistics professionals in the hardball leagues? Most definitely yes. If you (and your corporate officers) already use your logistics operations as a competitive weapon, you're more than halfway there. If you already understand the importance of aligning logistics objectives with overall company objectives (say, becoming a price leader or providing unmatched customer service), you're almost all the way there.
And if you've already, in classic hardball style, scoped out your key competitors' logistics operations—digging around to find out how they're doing things and figuring out ways to do them better— you're ready to play hardball. Just remember, when you step onto the mound to make that first pitch, make it high and tight. After all, when you're playing hardball, there's nothing wrong with striking a little fear in your competitors' hearts.