Five Things Sales and Marketing Can Learn From Lean Production

Some companies already know a lot about the transition from traditional to lean production operations. As it turns out, there are remarkable parallels between the lean journey in manufacturing and the lean journey in sales and marketing (sales kaizen).

When implemented effectively, both the benefits and the challenges are remarkably similar:

Prerequisites to Lean in Sales and Marketing

Two key prerequisites are top-down leadership and employee empowerment. They are not mutually exclusive! They are both necessary.


Because, if everyone agreed what new ways would actually work better, they would be doing it already! It follows that the most important improvements usually involve things some people actively think will not work.

Leadership alone can break through that log-jam by saying, “there is value in learning to manage according to these principles and policies, so go do it.”

Good leaders create the environment where healthy, vigorous debates enable employees to try out their ideas while ensuring the organization learns from them.

This is especially true in sales and marketing. Unlike other production environments, where value-add is visible, in sales and marketing value-add is invisible. Sales and marketing has not benefitted from years of measurement and study around how to produce efficiently and effectively.

That’s why sales and marketing VPs are generally unable to accomplish much of any process improvement or lean without assistance from outside the company.

Aside from joking about how sales are especially lean these days, corporate managers may be unaware of the mechanisms required for measuring value-add. They need senior management to provide air cover while the pipe is being laid to measure, reduce risks, and create the possibility for real improvement.

Best Practices for Lean in Sales and Marketing

In the lean manufacturing journey, that groundwork and pipe laying involves well-known best practices such as 5S, Value Stream Mapping, Setup Reduction, etc. Remarkably, there are equivalent best practices in sales and marketing, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Best Practices in Selling and Lean

Of course, a journey like this requires “soft training,” so people understand why the lean journey is required, what concepts are involved, and what their roles will be. It also requires “hard training,” about new ways of doing their jobs, and measuring things.

Here is a brief rundown of the primary kinds of best-practice projects required for implementing the lean journey in sales and marketing:

  • Sales value stream mapping (alignment)

    This is the primary vehicle for enabling the organization to identify how value is created in sales and marketing “production.” This enables the team to understand sales production as a system (usually for the first time), so they can prioritize the major elements for improvement.

  • 5S (sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain)

    5S is more than salespeople cleaning their desks and organizing file cabinets. Sales and process savvy must identify what it takes to do the job, and organize it: examples might include customer value maps, qualification criteria, value propositions, ROI models, and more.

  • Qualification criteria

    The first two best-practices enable measuring the quantity of deals flowing through the sales funnel. Qualification criteria enable measuring their quality. A little scientific research in this area explodes myths and tribal knowledge, and shows salespeople how to identify waste and value they can’t see on their own.

  • Lead nurturing and lead generation

    When salespeople are responsible for doing everything, they inevitably skip some steps, or do them inconsistently. Nothing is more effective for increasing sales flow (pull) than separating lead generation and nurturing from selling itself.

  • Sales Kaizen (PDCA)

    Kaizen enabled the Japanese automotive manufacturers to win the automobile wars. Its focus on simple measures and communication is just what the doctor ordered in field sales, where people by nature think independently (and are often geographically dispersed). It also helps management locate the causes of problems so they can improve the system.

Implementing a lean journey in sales and marketing is an immensely profitable journey, once started. It contains all the benefits (and probably more) of its manufacturing counterpart, and the same kinds of challenges as well.

How would you compare the lean journey in manufacturing to the lean journey in sales and marketing? I’d appreciate knowing what you’ve seen in your company.

Michael Webb
July 21, 2009


If you’d like to know more about this approach, be sure to opt-in to the B2B Sales Performance Improvement Kit, available at

Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Lean Manufacturing Techniques - January 11, 2011 Reply

In assembly, it’s much easier to see how material and information flows, the steps for doing the operation, and how steps relate..Thanks

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