A value chain is a combination of the systems a company or organization uses to make money. That is, a value chain is made up of various subsystems that are used to create products or services. This includes the process from start to finish. 

Given the importance of the value chain, Michael Porter developed a strategic management tool for analyzing a company’s value chain. Porter, known for Porter’s five forces, laid it his method of analyzing value chains in his 1985 book Competitive Advantage. In the book, Porter sought to define a company’s competitive advantage noting that it stems from a company’s processes, such as marketing and supporting activities.

Porter breaks value chain analysis into five primary activities. Then, he further breaks that down into four supporting activities that help “support” primary activities. The primary activities of Michael Porter's value chain are inbound logistics, operations, outbound logistics, marketing and sales, and service. The goal of the five activities is to create value that exceeds the cost of conducting that activity, therefore generating a higher profit. Here are the five key primary activities.

Michael Porter’s Value Chain Primary Activities


Inbound Logistics

Inbound logistics include the receiving, warehousing and inventory control of a company's raw materials. This also covers all relationships with suppliers. For example, for an ecommerce company, inbound logistics would be the receiving and storing products from a manufacturer that it plans to sell.

Operations

Operations include procedures for converting raw materials into a finished product or service. This includes changing all inputs to ready them as outputs. In the above ecommerce example, this would include adding labels or branding or packaging several products as a bundle to add value to the product.

Outbound Logistics

All activities to distribute a final product to a consumer is considered outbound logistics. This includes delivery of the product but also includes storage and distribution systems and can be external or internal. For the ecommerce company above, this includes storing products for shipping and the actual shipping of said products.

Marketing and Sales

Strategies to enhance visibility and target appropriate customers—such as advertising, promotion, and pricing—are included in marketing and sales. Basically, this is all activities that help convince a consumer to purchase a company’s product or service. Continuing with the above example, an ecommerce company may run ads on Instagram or build an email list for email marketing.

Services

This includes activities to maintain products and enhance consumer experience—customer service, maintenance, repair, refund, and exchange. For an ecommerce company, this could include repairs or replacements, or warranty.

Value Chain Secondary Activities

Now, companies can further improve the primary activities of their value chain with secondary activities. Value chain support activities do just that, they support the primary activities. The support, or secondary, activity generally plays a role in each primary activity. Such as human resource management, which can play a role in operations and marketing and sales. Here are the four supporting activities.

Procurement

Procurement is the acquisition of inputs, or resources, for the firm. This is how a company obtains raw materials, thus, it includes finding and negotiating prices with suppliers and vendors. This relates heavily to the inbound logistics primary activity, where an ecommerce company would look to procure materials or good for resale.

Human Resource Management

Hiring and retaining employees who will fulfill business strategy, as well as help design, market, and sell the product. Overall, managing employees is useful for all primary activities, where employees and effective hiring are needed for marketing, logistics, and operations, among others.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure covers a company's support systems and the functions that allow it to maintain operations. This includes all accounting, legal, and administrative functions. A solid infrastructure is necessary for all primary functions.

Technological Development

Technological development is used during research and development and can include designing and developing manufacturing techniques and automating processes. This includes equipment, hardware, software, procedures, and technical knowledge. Overall, a business working to reduce technology costs, such as shifting from a hardware storage system to the cloud, is technological development.

Bottom Line

The primary activities within Michael Porter's value chain are used to provide a company with a competitive advantage in any one of the five activities so it has an advantage in the industry in which it operates. In general, the analysis was meant for companies that manufacture goods. But almost any company can use the value chain analysis laid out by Porter even if they don’t have all the components.