LEARNING FROM HONDA*
Birkbeck College, University of London
ABSTRACT The case of the Honda Motor Company has been cited frequently in the strategic management literature. A review reveals that Honda's strategy has been used to iDustrate and support apparently contradictory positions on a series of conceptual dichotomies, namely analytica] p]anning versus leaming, market positioning versus resource-based and, within the last of these, core competencies versus core capabilities. A critical analysis of this literature reveals empirical inaccuracies and a focus on Honda's strategic successes to the neglect of its failures. More significandy, explanations and general strategy implications are couched in terms of reductionist one-sided theories, a tendency which is only deepened when strategy thinkers debate 'the meaning of Honda'. This theoretical approach is particularly ill suited to Honda, an important strategic capability of which apjiears to be precisely the reconciliation of dichotomous management concepts. VVestem strategy thinkers have therefore missed the opportunity to develop a more appropriate and productive paradigm for leaming from Honda.
INTHODUCTION The frequent citation of the Honda Motor Company in the academic and popular management ]iterature over the past two decades has led many academics, students, and practising managers alike to feel a certain familiarity with Honda, just as they might with General Motors, 3M or Genera] EUectric. Some years ago a professor of strategy at a weU-known business schoo] to]d the author that he rea]]y ]iked Honda - 'a ]ovely ]itt]e company', ais he put it - which made an exce]]ent case study for MBA students. Sinii]ar opinions are widely shared by management educators. A closer reading of the strategic management literature revea]s that Honda has been marshalled to support a variety of often opposing positions in some of the discipline's central theoretical debates. These include the debate on strategyprocess paradigms between the ana]ytica] planning school and the learningadaptation school, the debate on strategy content paradigms between supporters of industry analysis/market positioning and resource-based approaches, and the debate within the last of these between proponents of 'core comf>etencies' and 'core capabilities' (the debating positions have been set out c]early by de Wit and Address for reprints: .Andrew Mair, Department of Management. Clore Management Centre, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street. London WCIE 7HX, UK. © BlackweU Publishere Ud 1999. Published by BlackweU Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 lJF, UK and 330 Main Street, Maiden, MA 02148, USA.
Meyer, 1998). Honda's implication in these theoretical issues was underlined in a special section of the Summer 1996 issue of the journal Califomia Management Review, where strategy analysts fiercely debated the 'true meaning' of Honda. As on previous occasions they failed to agree. This paper addresses two related questions. WTiat have strategic management thinkers leamed about Honda? What broader lessons have they drawn from their study of the company? .Analysis of the role played by Honda in strategic management debates, it will be argued, suggests that less has been leamed about Honda strategy than about the functioning of the strategy' industry (consultants and academics) itself. T h e paper proposes a new, more appropriate, and potentially more fruitfu] paradigm for leaming from Honda. The paper is oi^anized in two parts. T h e first part examines how Honda has been drafted in to support a series of different theoretical positions in the strategic management literature: the 'ansilytical' view advanced by Boston Consulting Group (1975). Goold (]992, ]996), Abbeglen and Stalk (1985) and Stalk and Hout (]990); the 'behavioura]' view advanced by Pasca]e (]984), Quinn (1991,...