Mini Cooper: Conquering Restraints

The first time I saw a Mini Cooper, other than in photographs, was during my first few weeks into an international posting in London in the 1990s. 
 
It was an incredibly memorable experience. Learning to drive on the "wrong" side of the road was challenging enough but add to the challenge having to daily navigate the infamous Runnymede Roundabout, the busiest roundabout in all of merry old England! 2.9 million vehicles per year entered and exited it's ten spokes at average speeds approaching 50 mph! When approaching the Runnymede Roundabout my grip on the wheel grew tighter, and my heart would pound while I kept whispering to myself, "Circle left, circle left."
 
The morning of the Mini sighting I was taking my three young daughters to school. As we were approaching the roundabout, I saw my gap to shoot into and sped up to achieve the necessarily perfect timing British roundabouts demand. Just as I was entering, my oldest daughter shrieked, "Look at the car!" I almost panicked assuming I was about to hit a car I hadn't noticed. I was about to yell at her, when my second daughter also shrieked, "Dad, look at that car!" Just then a Mini Cooper, colored British Racing Green with a white roof (the quintessential British Mini color scheme) came zipping past me with that distinctive sound a Mini engine makes while accelerating. 
 
As I regained my composer, I said, "Yes girls, that is a Mini Cooper. Aren't they a cool car?" All three said, "Dad, you've got to buy one!" Honestly, I was thinking the same thing! 
 
There have been many iconic cars since the invention of the automobile. But only one car has been more influential, but not nearly as durably loved, like the Mini Cooper. Not my personal opinion, but the view of a panel of 130 international automotive journalists who voted the Mini as the "European Car of the Century." The Ford Model T was the one car to receive enough votes to nose out the Mini for the global title at the close of 1999.

With an impressive accomplishment as one of the most influential cars in the world, one could logically assume that the Mini was developed with few if any constraints. However, it was a product of the except opposite. The genesis of the Mini Cooper in 1957 was the result of embracing significant obstacles that had the British auto industry back on its heels. 


Most executives in operating and process improvement roles are familiar with a different perspective on the "Theory of Constraints." The more commonly used definition introduced in Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt's 1984 best-seller, The Goal. Dr. Goldratt defined The Theory of Constraints as a methodology for identifying the most important limiting factor (i.e., constraint) that stands in the way of achieving a goal and then systematically improving that constraint until it is no longer the limiting factor. In manufacturing, a constraint is a bottleneck.
 
While this definition provides great value for the operating aspects of a business, it is, in our opinion, the wrong meaning to apply to the most critical and fundamental strategic business decisions an executive must make. Far too often senior leaders view the constraints imposed on them from, either within the organization or from the market, as a negative aspect that they must change or eliminate. However, these limitations can be the most valuable components of incredible innovation and long-term competitive advantage including market segment dominance.
 
In the late 1950's the British auto industry was in turmoil as a result of the prolonged and continuing economic recovery of the post-World War II era and the Suez Crisis which caused fuel prices to rise exorbitantly. The British auto industry realized that unlike the US at the time, the average UK citizen could not afford the cost of the current auto line up, nor afford to fuel these large, gas-guzzling vehicles of the day. 


How did most of the British auto industry deal with this? They tried the combination of hoping to wait out the current situation while continuing to go to market the same way with the same cars and hoping for a better result. The "ignore the constraints and hope they go away" strategy did not work very well. How many industries have you seen attempt that same "strategy" again and again, only to ultimately fall prey to an innovator who embraces the constraints?
 
By embracing the constraints, a company gains two powerful guideposts for building and executing a highly successful and durable strategy. First, external constraints are an indicator of what the marketplace needs, even if that means having to reinvent your product or service to meet the need indicated by the constraint. Second, by embracing both internally and externally imposed restrictions they provide a dominant source of focus. Given the limitations of time and money, why waste either on what the constraints are showing will not be sufficient use of these resources.
 

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Sir Leonard Lord of the Morris Company did precisely this and embraced the constraints imposed on the British auto market. He laid out for his chief engineer, Alec Issigonis, the obstacles he had to follow for developing a new automobile:
 
"    Constraint 1 - Extremely fuel-efficient
"    Constraint 2 - Capable of carrying four adults
"    Constraint 3 - Cost efficient to build to yield a selling price within reach of most people.


When companies embrace their constraints as a source of inspiration, what usually follows are unique innovations never before considered. In the case of the development of the Mini, it inspired a few significant changes that have rippled through the global auto industry.
 
For Alec Issigonis and his team to meet Constraint 1, their car had to be small. To also meet Constraint 2, they had to maximize the size of the interior cabin to accommodate four adults into a small car. To accomplish this, they achieved two innovations that are still in use across the global auto industry today.